For other uses, see Mail (disambiguation).

The postal system is a system by which written documents typically enclosed in envelopes, and also small packages containing other matter, are delivered to destinations around the world. Anything sent through the postal system is called mail or post.

In principle, a postal service can be private or official. Restrictions are generally placed on private systems by governments. Since the 19th century, national postal systems have generally been established as government monopolies with a fee on the article prepaid, often in the form of adhesive stamps. Government monopolies generally do not extend to delivery of parcels or to courier services which provide express delivery.

Postal systems often have functions other than sending letters. In some countries, the postal system also has some authority over telephone and telegraph systems. In others, postal systems allow for savings accounts and handling applications for passports.


Early postal systems

Japanese Post
Japanese Post

Communication via written documents which an intermediary carries from one person or place to another almost certainly dates back nearly to the invention of writing. The development of a formal postal system occurred much later, however. The first documented use of an organized courier service for the diffusion of written documents is in Egypt, where Pharaohs used couriers for the diffusion of their decrees in the territory of the State (2400 BC). This practice almost certainly has roots in the much older practice of oral messaging and may have been built on a pre-existing infrastructure.


The first credible claim for the development of a real postal system comes from Assyria, but the point of invention remains in question. The best documented claim (Xenophon) attributes the invention to Cyrus the Great (550 BC), while other writers credit his successor Darius I of Persia (521 BC) Other sources claim much earlier dates for an Assyrian postal system, with credit given to Hammurabi (1700 BC) and Sargon II (722 BC). Mail may not have been the primary mission of this postal service, however. The role of the system as an intelligence gathering apparatus is well documented, and the service was (later) called angariae, a term that in time turned to indicate a tax system. The Old Testament (Esther, VIII) makes mention of this system: Ahasuerus, king of Medes, used couriers for communicating his decisions.


The next credible claimant to the title of first postal system is China. Claims concerning the origins of this mail system also conflict somewhat, but it is clear that an organized postal infrastructure is put in place during Qin Dynasty (221 BC207 BC) and that was substantially expanded during the subsequent Han Dynasty. The origins of a Chinese mail system may go back to the Zhou Dynasty (1122 BC–256 BC), when Confucius (551 BC479 BC) says "news of deeds travels faster than the mail." It may also build on a pre-existing messaging infrastructure started by the Shang Dynasty. Whatever its point of origin, the Chinese Postal Service has clear title to the world's oldest continuously operating mail system. Today's Chinese mail system is continuous with one that was probably formalized under the Qin Dynasty.


The first well documented postal service is that of Rome. Organised at the time of Augustus Caesar (62 BCAD 14), it may also be the first true mail service. The service was called cursus publicus, and was provided with light carriages called rhed with fast horses; additionally there was another, slower, service equipped with two-wheels carts (birol) pulled by oxen. This service was reserved to the government's correspondence; another service for citizens was later added.

By the name of the stations in which mail was distributed and messengers' routes crossed, derives the Latin name of mail, Posta (originally posata or pausata = place of rest) because in these stations messengers used to rest during their voyages. The English term "mail" is instead supposed coming from the Teutonic name for the bag used by messengers.

Other systems

Another important postal service was created in the Islamic world by the caliph Movia; the service was called berid, by the name of the towers that were built in order to protect the roads by which couriers travelled.

Well before the Middle Ages and during them, homing pigeons were used, taking advantage of a singular quality of this bird, which when taken far from its nest is able to find his way home due to a particularly developed sense of orientation. Messages were then tied around the legs of the pigeon, which was freed and could reach his original nest.

Mail has been transported by quite a few other methods throughout history, including dogsled, balloon, rocket, mule, pneumatic tubes and even submarine.

Charlemagne extended to the whole territory of his empire the system used by Franks in northern Gaul, and connected this service with the service of missi dominici.

Many religious orders had a private mail service, notably Cistercians' one connected more than 6,000 abbeys, monasteries and churches. The best organisation however was created by Teutonic Knights. The newly instituted universities too had their private services, starting from Bologna (1158).

Popular illiteracy was accommodated through the service of scribes. Illiterates who needed to communicate dictated their messages to a scribe, another profession now quite generally disappeared.

In 1505, Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I established a postal system in the Empire, appointing Franz von Thurn und Taxis to run it. Von Thurn und Taxis's family, then known as Tassis, had operated postal services between Italian city states from 1290 onwards. Following the abolition of the Empire in 1806 the Thurn und Taxis postal system continued as a private organisation, continuing to exist into the postage stamp era before finally being absorbed into the postal system of the new German Empire after 1871.

Modern mail

Modern mail is usually organised by national services (that in recent times are increasingly being replaced by privately-owned companies), reciprocally interconnected by international regulations (some of which still in their original 18th century form, many others of which are set out by the Universal Postal Union), organisations and agreements.


In the , private companies such as  and  compete with the , particularly in . Different mailboxes are also provided for local and express service.
In the United States, private companies such as FedEx and UPS compete with the United States Postal Service, particularly in Package delivery. Different mailboxes are also provided for local and express service.

The world-wide postal system comprising the individual national postal systems of the world's self-governing states is co-ordinated by the Universal Postal Union, which among other things sets international postage rates, defines standards for postage stamps and operates the system of International Reply Coupons.

In many countries a system of codes has been created (they are called ZIP Codes in the United States and postal codes in most other countries), in order to facilitate the automation of operations. This also includes placing additional marks on the address portion of the letter or mailed object, called "bar coding." Bar coding of mail for delivery is usually expressed either by a series of vertical bars, usually called POSTNET coding, or a block of dots as a two-dimensional barcode. The "block of dots" method allows for the encoding of proof of payment of postage, exact routing for delivery, and other features.

The ordinary mail service was improved in the 20th century with the use of planes for a quicker delivery (air mail). The first scheduled airmail service took place between the London suburbs of Hendon and Windsor on 9 September 1911. Some methods of airmail proved ineffective, however, including the United States Postal Service's experiment with guided missiles for international mail transport ( (external link).

Receipts services were made available in order to grant the sender a confirmation of effective delivery.

Mail going to naval vessels is known as the Fleet Post Office.


Worldwide the most common method of prepaying postage is by buying an adhesive postage stamp to be stuck to the envelope before mailing; a much less common method is to use a postage-prepaid envelope. Franking is a method of creating postage-prepaid envelopes under licence using a special machine. They are used by companies with large mail programs such as banks and direct mail companies.

In 1998, the U.S. Postal Service authorised the first tests of a secure system of sending digital franks via the Internet to be printed out on a PC printer, obviating the necessity to license a dedicated franking machine and allowing companies with smaller mail programs to make use of the option. The service provided by the U.S. Postal Service in 2003 allows the franks to be printed out on special adhesive-backed labels. In 2004 the Royal Mail in the United Kingdom introduced its SmartStamp Internet-based system, allowing printing on ordinary adhesive labels or envelopes. Similar systems are being considered by postal administrations right around the world.

When the pre-paid envelope or package is accepted into the mail by an agent of the postal service, the agent usually indicates by means of a cancellation that it is no longer valid for pre-payment of postage. The exceptions are when the agent forgets or neglects to cancel the mailpiece, or for stamps that are pre-cancelled and thus do not require cancellation.

Rules and etiquette

Mail is quite generally protected by the secret of correspondence (secretus epistulae), meaning that no letter or other document can be read by other than the receiver (under U.S. law, this only applies to First Class Mail). This right is usually guaranteed by most national constitutions, such as the Mexican Constitution, and is alluded to in the European Convention of Human Rights.[1] ( Usually, special procedures are required in case correspondence has to be, openly or discreetly, controlled by police. The operations of control of private citizens' mail is called censorship and concerns social, political and legal aspects of civil rights. While in most cases this censorship is exceptional, military censorship of mail, particularly of soldiers at the front, is routine and almost universally applied.

The use of mail is subject to common rules and a particular etiquette. After the discovery of new communicating systems and vehicles, mail lost most of its special charm in favour of more quickly connecting systems such as the telephone, and remained as a vehicle for commercial or formal documents. It is however still widely in use in more cultivated classes for personal communication; in particular, wedding invitations are customarily sent by mail.

Rise of electronic correspondence

Since the advent of e-mail, which is usually faster, the postal system has come to be referred to in Internet slang by the retronym "snail mail". Occasionally, the term "white mail" has also been used as a neutral term for postal mail.

In modern times, mainly in the 20th century, mail has found an evolution in vehicles using newer technologies to deliver the documents, especially through the telephone network; these new vehicles include telegram, telex, facsimile (fax), e-mail, short message service (SMS). There have been methods which have combined mail and some of these newer methods, such as INTELPOST, which combined facsimile transmission with overnight delivery. These vehicles commonly use a mechanical or electro-mechanical standardised writing (typing), that on the one hand makes for more efficient communication, while on the other hand makes impossible characteristics and practices that traditionally were in conventional mail, such as calligraphy.

This epoch is undoubtedly mainly dominated by mechanical writing, with a general use of no more of half a dozen standard typographic fonts from standard keyboards. However, the increased use of typewritten or computer-printed letters for personal communication and the advent of e-mail, has sparked renewed interest in calligraphy, as a letter has become more of a "special event." Long before e-mail and computer-printed letters, however, decorated envelopes, rubber stamps and artistamps formed part of the medium of mail art.


Postage stamps are also object of a particular form of collecting, and in some cases, when demand greatly exceeds supply, their commercial value on this specific market may become enormously greater than face value, even after use. For some postal services the sale of stamps to collectors who will never use them is a significant source of revenue for example postage stamps from Tokelau, South Georgia & South Sandwich Islands, Tristan da Cunha, Niuafoou and many others. Stamp collecting is commonly known as philately, although strictly the latter term refers to the study of stamps.

Another form of collecting regards postcards, a document written on a single robust sheet of paper, usually decorated with photographic pictures or artistic drawings on one of the sides, and short messages on a small part of the other side, that also contained the space for the address. In strict philatelic usage, the postcard is to be distinguished from the postal card, which has a pre-printed postage on the card. The fact that this communication is visible by other than the receiver often causes the messages to be written in jargon.

Letters are often studied as an example of literature, and also in biography in the case of a famous person. A portion of the New Testament of the Bible is composed of the Apostle Paul's epistles to Christian congregations in various parts of the Roman Empire. See below for a list of famous letters.

A style of writing, called epistolary, tells a fictional story in the form of the correspondence between two or more characters.

A make-shift mail method after stranding on a deserted island is a message in a bottle.


Several countries, including Sweden (in 1991), New Zealand (1998 and 2003) and Argentina have opened up the postal services market to new entrants. In the case of New Zealand Post Limited, this included (from 2003) its right to be the sole New Zealand postal administration member of the Universal Postal Union, thus the ending of its monopoly on stamps bearing the name New Zealand.

Types of mail

Missing image
Woman putting letter in a mailbox, United States, 1909


Letter-sized mail comprises the bulk of the contents sent through most postal services. These are usually documents printed on A4 (210×297 mm), Letter-sized (8.5×11 inches), or smaller paper and placed in envelopes.

While many things are sent through the mail, interpersonal letters are often thought of first in reference to postal systems. Handwritten correspondence, while once a major means of communications between distant people, is now used less frequently due to the advent of more immediate means of communication, such as the telephone or e-mail. Traditional letters, however, are often considered to harken back to a "simpler time" and are still used when someone wishes to be deliberate and thoughtful about their communication.

Bills and invoices are often sent through the mail, like regular billing correspondence from utility companies and other service providers. These letters often contain a self-addressed, envelope that allows the receiver to remit payment back to the company easily. While still very common, many people now opt to use online bill payment services, which eliminate the need to receive bills through the mail.

Bulk mail, often called junk mail, are commercial solicitations sent by advertisers. The senders of these messages sometimes purchase lists of addresses (which are sometimes targeted towards certain demographics) and then send letters advertising their product or service to all recipients. Other times, commercial solicitations are sent by local companies advertising local products, like a restaurant delivery service advertising to their delivery area or a retail store sending their weekly advertising circular to a general area. Bulk mail is also often sent to companies' existing subscriber bases, advertising new products or services.

Many other things are also sent as letters through postal services, like wedding invitations and bank statements.

Repositionable Notes

The United States Postal Service has recently permitted "repositionable notes" to be attached to the outside of envelopes.[2] (

Postal cards and postcards

Postal cards and postcards are small message cards which are sent by mail unenveloped; the distinction often, though not invariably and reliably, drawn between them is that "postal cards" are issued by the postal authority or entity with the "postal indica" (or "stamp") preprinted on them, while postcards are privately issued and require affixing an adhesive stamp (though there have been some cases of a postal authority's issuing non-stamped postcards). Postcards are often printed today to promote tourism, with pictures of resorts, tourist attractions or humorous messages on the front and allowing for a short message from the sender to be written on the back. The postage required for postcards is generally less than postage required for standard letters, although the United States Postal Service has imposed a surcharge for the purchase of postal cards, over and above the required postage.

Postcards are also used by magazines for new subscriptions. Inside many magazines are postage-paid subscription cards that a reader can fill out and mail back to the publishing company to be billed for a subscription to the magazine. In this fashion, magazines also use postcards for other purposes, including reader surveys, contests or information requests.

Postcards are sometimes sent by charities to their members with a message to be signed and sent to a politician (e.g. to promote fair trade or third world debt cancellation).


Larger envelopes are also sent through the mail. These are often made of sturdier material than standard envelopes and are often used by businesses to transport documents that are not to be folded or damaged, such as legal documents and contracts. Due to their size, larger envelopes are sometimes charged additional postage.

Packages are often sent through some postal services, usually requiring additional postage than an average letter or postcard. Many postal services have limits on what can and cannot be sent inside packages, usually placing limits or bans on perishable, hazardous or flammable materials. Additionally, because of terrorism concerns, the U.S. Postal Service subjects their packages to various security tests, often scanning or x-raying packages for materials that might be found in mail bombs.

Magazine subscriptions are also sent through postal services. Many magazines are simply placed in the mail normally (but in the U.S., they are printed with a special bar code that acts as pre-paid postage - see POSTNET) but many are now shipped in shrinkwrap to protect the loose contents of the magazine.

See also

Famous letters

List of national postal services

External links

  • Potts, Albert, "US19578 ( (First U.S. street mailbox patent)". US patent office. 1858ar:بريد

ca:Correu da:Post de:Post es:Correo eo:Poŝto fr:Poste ko:편지 it:Posta nl:Post ja:郵便 pl:Poczta pt:Correio ro:Poştă sl:Pošta fi:Posti sv:Posten


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