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The History and Evolution of the Postal Service

Updated: Apr 11, 2022

“A letter is an unannounced visit, the postman the agent of rude surprises. One ought to reserve an hour a week for receiving letters and afterwards take a bath.” - Friedrich Nietzsche

Remember the good old days when writing and receiving letters was one of life’s most treasured pleasures? Awaiting correspondence from a loved one, family member or pen pal, it didn’t really matter as the joy of receiving a personally addressed envelope from a far-afield location and an update on the sender’s world via the hand-written letter within was unique and, often, unbounded.

Vatican post box - Veronica
Vatican post box

Likewise receiving a parcel through the post. I recall as a child saving up coupons from a popular breakfast cereal which were collated and sent off in exchange for an exclusive Star Wars figurine. I sat eagerly looking out the window for days on end awaiting the postman’s arrival until that gift finally arrived. Once it did, I was the envy of many in the school playground, gleefully showing off the new addition to my toy collection!

What made memories like these so special was, of course, the postal service. Billions upon billions of letters, parcels and postcards have been sent, received and returned globally since the legalisation of private mail services in England in 1635.

The postal service has a long history that was vital in keeping many people in many parts of the world abreast of news and events prior to the advent of wire services that could transmit information more rapidly. However, with ongoing technological innovations, the postal service has changed and will continue to do so as the impact of digitalisation continues at an unabated pace.

Note: Left photo, Saigon Post Office. Right photo, The Fullerton Hotel used to be the Singapore General Post Office

A history lesson...

Like so many successful innovations, the first semblence of a postal service was originally conceived by the Romans when, in the first Century A.D., Emperor Augustus established Cursus publicus, the state-run courier and transportation service of the Roman Empire.

In the UK the postal service was first created in 1516 when Henry VIII knighted the first Master of the Posts, Sir Brian Tuke. Just over 100 years later in 1635, Charles I made the Royal Mail service available to the public with the passage of the Post Office Act in 1660 which saw postage being paid by the recipient for the first time.

Four years later over in the New World of the United States, the first official postal establishment in the then 13 colonies, was founded by the General Court of Massachusetts when it designated the tavern of Richard Fairbanks in Boston as the official repository of overseas mail. In 1775 the Continental Congress appointed Benjamin Franklin to be the first United States Postmaster General and the US Postal Service Act of 1792 established the United States Post Office Department.

Significant developments for the postal service were introduced by Sir Rowland Hill when, in 1840, he established the world’s first postage stamp, meaning that postal rates would be determined by the weight of the letter or parcel.

He brought us the 1d Penny Black stamp, featuring the image of Queen Victoria, and the Two Pence Blue stamp, which would denote the package or letter had been officially paid for by legal tender.

The innovation of the Penny Black stamp in particular made it much more affordable for people to send post, witnessed by the increase in the amount of mail being sent which jumped from 67 million in 1839 to 242 million by 1844.

The much beloved and instantly recognisable post box first appeared in Barnes Cross, Dorset in 1853 and there are now an estimated 115,000 of various shapes and sizes across the UK alone, each carrying the insignia, or cipher, of the monarch reigning at the time of placement.

Jannali postwoman Daisy Larkin delivering mail by horse, 1950.
NSW Jannali postwoman Daisy Larkin delivering mail by horse, 1950

The manner in which post has been delivered has changed greatly over the years.

Initially via horseback in the UK during the 1500s, to horse-drawn coaches 200 years later, before the Industrial Revolution made it possible for steam trains to transport the load with the creation of the Liverpool to Manchester route in 1830. Mail was transported via air for the first time in 1911 to celebrate the coronation of King George V, when the first scheduled airmail service flew from Hendon to Windsor. And, of course, there is the much-beloved postman who has been delivering post to households and offices worldwide for centuries.

The post Down Under

The history of the postal service in Australia can officially be traced back to the turn of the 19th century when, in 1809, former convict Isaac Nichols was appointed as the nation’s first

postmaster. Initially responsible for collecting and sorting all new mail that arrived via ship, Nichols opened the country’s first post office at his house in George Street, Sydney.

The six self-governing Australian colonies that formed the Commonwealth of Australia operated their own postal service and issued their own stamps, with NSW the first to introduce on January 1, 1850, closely followed by Victoria two days later. Tasmania issued its first stamps in November of 1853, Western Australia a year later and South Australia a year after that. It wasn’t until November of 1860 that Queenslanders saw their first state stamp.

The 1825 Postal Act had previously seen fixed postage rates established and the 1902 Commonwealth Post and Telegraph Act saw the creation of the national Postmaster General’s Department, which held responsibility for the nation’s mail and telephone services. One penny became the uniform domestic postage rate when in 1911 the UK’s domestic postal rate of 1d per half ounce extended to Australia as a member of the British Empire.

Today, Australia Post owns a diverse and heritage-rich range of over 1,200 properties across the nation comprising of historic buildings from the Colonial era, through to post-Federation and more recent, post-World War II structures. All serve as destinations offering postal and related services to the many communities throughout the country.

Back to the future

The postal service as we once knew it has changed, of that there is no doubt. The number of letters that are hand-written and sent nowadays pales in significance with years gone by, usurped by the advent of email, text and social media platforms. Ask a random Generation Y-er or Millennial and they may not even know what written letters are! Likewise, any requests to send a postcard will likely be met with “I’ll send you a text or we can Facetime” instead!

That being said, the world’s postal services have been kept busy due to a booming e-commerce industry witnessing record numbers of parcels and goods being sent and received. The Pitney Bowes Parcel Shipping Index revealed that more than 131 billion parcels were shipped across the 13 markets tracked in its Index during 2020 (the markets were Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, Norway, Sweden, the UK and the USA). This equated to more than 4,000 parcels every second based on the parcel shipping activity of 3.8bn people

across these markets, a 27% increase on 2019.

Similarly, the UK’s Royal Mail stated in a Guardian report that it delivered 496 million parcels during the last three months of 2020, 30% higher than the same period in 2019 although the volume of letters was down by 14%.

The impact of COVID-19 is undoubtedly the biggest factor in these statistics as lockdowns meant many people turned online to purchase goods and send gifts. However, this is a trend that was occurring pre-COVID and that will likely continue, irrespective of the state of affairs in relation to the pandemic, as the boom in e-commerce continues unabated; leading e-commerce delivery experience platform ParcelPeform states that global e-commerce sales are projected to reach over US$5 trillion in 2022 as consumers bypass peak shopping periods and events.

It leaves e-commerce behemoths like Amazon no doubt rubbing their hands in anticipation and means the world’s postal service will maintain relevance as it continues to serve customers and communities all around the globe.

However, it doesn’t necessarily bode as well for the traditional post office. Gen Y-ers and Millennials are almost completely reliant on their smartphones for nearly every facet of their lives and are not likely to want to stand in line at a post office to send an item.

Now they can identify, order and track their items in a manner of clicks without even having to leave the house. They may have to visit the post office to collect their item, identificable via a QR code that was sent via electronic message, but that is probably as far as they will get.

As Deloitte said in a report as far back as 2015 called Creating a Smart Post Office appealing to Millennials, “Stepping into the digital sphere does not necessarily mean that everything needs to be digitalised. It is about creating new opportunities and diversifying through digital transformation. The main challenge for posts in the coming years will therefore be to maintain their strong

identity and visibility among citizens while continuing their successful diversification.”


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