The History of Parcel Delivery

  • Steve Franks

Many hundreds and thousands work in the courier and logistics industry, handling millions of parcels and producing billions of dollars, unknowingly becoming the quiet heroes behind the scenes of globalisation. Without it, consumer culture and online commerce would have never reached the level of ubiquity it does today, with anyone able to send and receive packages. The pace of technology, development, and innovation continues to match the demand.

The message-relay systems of ancient empires needed to be good enough so that they were able to rule and govern their areas. Th earliest references to postal systems are from Egypt in 2000 BC and China 1,000 years later. The 6th century saw the Persian Empire of Cyrus utilizing mounted messengers relayed to one another through posthouses; the Greek historians Herodotus and Xenophon admired this as their own political divides could not maintain a proper postal system, even though there were corps of messengers for each city-state.

The Roman Empire

Through its lifetime, Rome needed a way to communicate to distant governors that was safe and quick. The answer to this was the cursus publicus, a comprehensive operation of relay stages, messengers, maintenance, and an inspectorial system to make sure there was no corruption. These factors are what made it the most developed postal system in the ancient world; there are claims of more than 270 kilometres being traversed in a single day and night.

While the Roman Empire fell some of its facilities were kept somewhat-intact by the new barbarian rulers. The benefits of the cursus publicus came to those including the King of the Ostrogoths, Theodoric, when he ruled Italy from AD 493 to 526, and the Carolingian Empire in the 9th century. But the discontinued maintenance of the roads from rulers and communities alike had spelled the end of the Roman postal system.

A different fate played out in the Byzantine Empire as the Islamic Empire absorbed its dominion. This meant the cursus publicus was given another life as it could become part of an Arabian postal system in Baghdad.

987 saw the last Carolingian King's reign end, making it nigh-impossible to find any evidence of a postal system. As centuries of confusion took over Europe the political situation could never support a proper postal system as kings fought with their vassals for control constantly. Over time communication was needed to stabilise the situation - to this end kings, vassals, great princes, religious orders, and universities had corps of messengers for themselves.

The Champagne Fairs

In Italy merchant guilds within commercial hotspots including Florence, Genoa, and Siena maintained their connections to provide the most comprehensive and frequent postal system of this time period. Also of note were six fairs where the system could be seen at work: two dispatches were made with one for carrying orders and commissions, and the second to effect settlements. Known as the Champagne fairs European merchants from all over had provided an important international link.

Between Venice and Constantinople, the impact of Italian business communications was so important so as to cause the King of Persia to give its couriers the right of free passage throughout his areas. While the later Middle Ages had institutional postal system handling letters for a significant fee, there weren't that many as many who were literate weren't interested outside of their own neighborhoods.

The Printing Press

Gutenberg's printing press in the late 15th century expanded education and the postal service. Growing demands meant a profitable business could be undertaken by private interests, as some catered to the locals while others went national. A notable example were the Thurn and Taxis family in the 16th century who, with the support of the Habsburg emperors, had a large system of postal routes with 20,000 couriers servicing most of Europe.

The late 1400s and early 1500s saw France and England establishing their own postal service that did not serve the public up until 1627, with fees, timetables, and post office in larger cities. These developed into monopolies as they secured revenue and the security of the state. Private and municipal posts were suppressed with the introduction of state posts along principal roads in Britain. The postal services were to be state monopoly in France 1672 where private systems could not compete or were merged; the last of these was the University of Paris in 1719.

The very first mail delivered in the UK was by the Royal Mail in 1516. A route between the King and the Scottish Privy Council was established with messengers riding on horseback. This 701km route became known as the Great North Ride after Sir Robert Carey rode to James VI to inform him of the death of Queen Elizabeth I, of which he was heir of, and is celebrated annually by horse riding enthusiasts.

The roads in Europe where not of cement and of clean paths, but rather tracks that were often muddy. It wasn't until the 1600's where horse drawn carriages were able to be hired necessitated the development of roads for both carriages and horses. This movement was the building blocks of effective transport routes and a national courier network.

The Small Players

William Dockwra's Penny Post in London 1680 had pre-paid letters and were stamped with location of posting and time of sending. So successful was it that he had been prosecuted under infringing on the state monopoly, and his service closed until the government themselves opened it back up. France saw a similar situation as Claude-Humbert Piarron de Chamousset's in Paris own service merged with the state's postal system. These allowed a much more better system to and for the public.

Greater commercial and manufacturing centres required a more robust mail service in 18th century England. This came about with major road construction in 1765; this combined with vehicles managing 16 kilometres an hour and stagecoaches meant an overhaul of the mail circulation system. The result was that you could post a letter, and the day after it could travel 190 kilometres away from London. This was the fastest, most frequent, and secure postal service for its time.

Sir Rowland Hill

A publication by Rowland Hill (later Sir Rowland Hill) titled "Post Office Reform: Its Importance and Practicability" in 1837 showed irrefutably that conveyance charges, charging scales, and money payment collections on delivery added more hassle than their benefits and were not needed. The solutions he came up with were a uniform rate of postage no matter the distance, and adhesive stamps that were equivalent to postage. Initial political disinterest and questioning of his originality of the adhesive stamp idea soon disappeared under the massive effect these had on the postal system. The simplification brought the post to the public as well as increasing the ability of which the postal service were able to process and handle the increasing demand; this is how many countries in the modern world handle their mail.

Lower tariffs for certain kinds of media like the newspaper were maybe introduced in the hopes of spreading education, but vested interests had pushed them for other commercial documents advertising material, and magazines. Austria in 1869 introduced the postcard as an inexpensive form of correspondence that was later picked up by most other countries.

The Steam Age

The industrial age and the steamship and railway saw great benefits from the mid-19th century postal reforms resulting in more mail being sent and received more frequently with more speed. Railways were such a boon that specialised railway cars were able to handle the business of sorting mail. Britain, many continental European countries, the United States, and India had their own comprehensive systems come the end of the century, allowing mail to be sent 640+ kilometres in some cases.

While international postal services grew a significant obstacle was the postal relations between countries. This resulted in bilateral treaties (of which a country could easily have a dozen or so) that meant the accounts needed to be carefully checked due to the amount of currencies, units of weight, and measurements in use. The end user would see this as high international postage rates.

A Global Meeting

Resolution of this came about with 15 European and American postal administrations' delegates meeting at the Paris Postal Conference as a suggestion of the U.S. postmaster general in May 1863. Simplified procedures that were also used for subsequent bilateral treaties, and the creation of a formal international treaty and an organization to administer them. The International Telegraph Union came about 2 years later.

In 1868 the director of posts of the North German Confederation planned for a general postal union, with an international postal congress attended by representatives of 22 states on September 15, 1874, in Bern. A "Treaty concerning the Establishment of a General Postal Union" was signed on October 9, and implemented on July 1, 1875. With it came the General Post Union, which changed its name to the Universal Post Union in 1878, and the treaty becoming the "Universal Postal Convention".

With uniform guidelines of international mail rules and procedures it had included almost every independent country by 1914, and continued to include other services like money orders, parcel post, postal checks, cash on delivery, and savings banks. Since 1948 it has been a specialized agency of the United Nations.


The beginnings of airmail were of balloon posts that only carried souvenir mail as they could not be controlled. Even the airships that came later on were not dedicated mail transportation. Experimental flights before World War I include an airmail service between Hendon London and Windsor, and a route for Paris and Bordeaux in 1913. Within the early decades of the 20th century came aircraft, and the true start of airmail. London and Paris was the first regular international service in 1918 as aircrafts became more stable, overtaking land-based means of transportation by considerable margins. One route between Egypt and Karachi in 1926 had grown to link London, Singapore, and Australia in 1934.

The UPU in the mid-1960s allowed mail to better use air conveyance through policy as aircraft began to increase in how much they could hold. Surface air-lifted (SAL) mails came to be in the mid-1970s in collaboration with the International Air Transport Association (IATA) that let some mails be processed quicker.

The constant development and innovation within the late 20th century has impacted the postal industry more than any other historical advancement. While reformation and upgrading systems took place the technology is now able to offer reliable, lightning-quick, and secure electronic messaging platforms and algorithms to further enhance administrative operations.

As more commercial enterprises advanced their operations development in the urban sphere had to account for more shops and services being connected to people. City hubs, large sorting centres, and larger and faster aircraft have all enabled parcels to any address across continents and overseas.


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