By Ted O'Callahan
When you check on the minute-to-minute activities of friends on another continent through a social networking website or read a newspaper report from a distant city, the data travels on fiber optic cables. Those cables run under the oceans on essentially the same routes as the telegraph lines of an earlier century and the steamship routes that preceded them. The power of feeling connected to people who are far away also follows existing patterns. A writer in the 1830s marveled at the impact of a letter: “Time and distance are annihilated. We are there.” Another was astonished by the speed of the postal system: “The ink is scarcely dry...before we find in our hands...a transcript of our dearest friend’s mind.”
The extent of the globalization that occurred in the 19th and early 20th centuries, ending with World War I, has only been matched in recent years. As the impacts of the Industrial Revolution spread across the world, communication over significant distance took on new importance. Steamships and railroads had exploded the number of goods being traded around the world and facilitated personal mobility. The telegraph was a transforming technology, but it was too expensive for the bulk of correspondence. The postal system provided an affordable means of communication for businesses and for millions of immigrants, while lucrative postal contracts helped underwrite the unprecedented capital cost of creating new transportation systems. However, the process wasn’t seamless; creating an efficient system for global mass communication was a new challenge requiring innovative solutions.
Thousands of years earlier, the Chinese, Egyptians, Persians, and Romans had figured out how to communicate efficiently across the breadth of their territories through relays of couriers, but these systems were reserved for the state. In the Middle Ages, universities created their own private mail systems, which eventually crossed much of Europe, in part to ensure that students had a way to request tuition money from home. But the free flow of information was troubling to governments. “In Europe the origins of the modern post office paralleled the rise of the nation state,” writes postal historian Richard R. John. “Just as the central government gradually acquired a monopoly over the legitimate use of force, so it sought to monopolize the means of communication.” At times, private enterprises were encouraged, but the most successful were generally absorbed or quashed by government postal systems. Some were seen as threats to revenue. Others were feared as means of conveying secrets to enemies. By the mid 1800s, the system for international mail was based on a tangle of bilateral agreements between nations.
Meanwhile, the idea of the postal system as a public good, affordable to all, advanced in Britain in the 1840s, when Rowland Hill, a social reformer, examined the domestic mail system and proposed a series of changes that made it more efficient and accessible. Letters had previously been paid for by the recipient, necessitating a carrier to find that person and collect money; Hill introduced adhesive stamps, which allowed the cost to be paid up front, with rates that started at a penny. At Hill’s urging, the postal service began to charge by weight rather than the number of sheets of paper and to move away from variable charges based on the distance that a letter traveled — almost all costs, Hill realized, are incurred at the beginning and end of a letter’s journey. Many of these changes were quickly copied in countries around the world.
The postal system’s value to everyday people was enormous. Nancy Pope, the historian at the Smithsonian’s postal museum, describes a letter from a Norwegian woman who immigrated to the U.S.: “She uses phrases like ‘I know I will never see you again in this life.’ Families have, through immigration, split, never to see each other again. And the mail is the link. It’s the one thing that keeps you knowing that that other person is still here on this planet.” People cherished letters but sending mail internationally remained expensive and complicated, so many countries faced significant pressure from the public to improve.
To send a letter abroad in the early 19th century required that a postal clerk calculate its weight in ounces, grams, and in some cases zolloths, then look up the fee for each leg along the route. Because there were often numerous possible routes, and each leg of each route had a separately negotiated tariff, the cost of the letter and the time of delivery varied dramatically depending on which combination the clerk happened to put together. Rates from the U.S. to Australia along the six possible routes were $.05, $.33, $.45, $.55, $.60, or $1.02 per half ounce, according to a report by the U.S. Postmaster General.
When an international congress convened in Paris to resolve the mess in 1863, the only existing example of an international governmental organization was a commission that had been established in 1815, at the end of the Napoleonic Wars, to ensure safe navigation on the Rhine. The Universal Postal Union was formed in 1874.
The UPU standardized the process for sending mail internationally by simplifying accounting and administrative procedures. It required that international mail be sent along the fastest route possible. The unique fees for each leg of the route, negotiated by the bilateral agreements, were eliminated; transit fees were regularized and countries were compensated based on the volume of mail they moved. Many of the benefits of the organization only manifested with time, the result of ongoing interaction and incremental changes. The UPU began with 21 initial signatories and grew to include nearly all independent countries by 1914.
For all the change the UPU facilitated, a key distinction between the globalization of recent decades and that of the 19th century was reflected in the limits of the organization. The UPU oversaw what was effectively an inter-imperial world. The organization replaced many bilateral agreements with a single multilateral framework, but it only improved the connections among the existing domestic hub-and-spoke systems. Into the 20th century, mail between British West Africa and French West Africa had to pass through Paris and London.
The international cooperation inherent in the UPU created a blueprint for some of the institutions that form the bulwark of the global system today. Craig Murphy, a political scientist at Wellesley College, says, “These first intergovernmental organizations were a place where ideas about how to govern the world find many of their first seeds.” Many civil servants, particularly in Europe, saw postal, telegraph, rail, and sanitation systems as keys to a future of health, prosperity, and peace, not just for their own countries but for all. They believed in the idea of efficient systems managed for public good. For a time there was talk of turning the postal banks found in many countries into a currency exchange system that would facilitate international finance. “When Keynes was sitting at Breton Woods [in 1944] coming up with the IMF, the first vision of that had come from within the UPU. There were a lot of people who had highly visionary ideas about how the world economy was going to develop and become interconnected,” says Murphy.
Soon after the UN formed, the UPU was folded into it as a specialized agency. Today, it continues to coordinate the bodies responsible for delivering more than 430 billion pieces of mail annually.