The first known postal document, found in Egypt, dates from 255 BC. But even before that time postal services existed on nearly every continent in the form of messengers serving kings and emperors. Over time, religious orders and universities added their own message delivery systems to exchange news and information. Relay stations were set up along the messengers’ routes to speed delivery over long distances. Eventually, private individuals were allowed to use the messengers to communicate with one another.
During the 17th and 18th centuries, the exchange of mail between countries was largely governed by bilateral postal agreements. But by the 19th century, the web of bilateral agreements had become so complex that it began to impede the rapidly developing trade and commercial sectors. Order and simplification were needed in the international postal services.
Sir Rowland Hill
The process was started by national postal reforms. The most noteworthy reform occurred in England in 1840, when Sir Rowland Hill introduced a system whereby postage on letters had to be prepaid. Furthermore, uniform rates were charged for all letters of a certain weight in the domestic service, regardless of the distance travelled. Sir Rowland Hill was also credited with introducing the world’s first postage stamp.
In 1863, United States Postmaster General Montgomery Blair called a conference in Paris. Delegates from 15 European and American countries met and succeeded in laying down a number of general principles for mutual agreements. But the scope of their decisions was limited and they were not able to settle on an international postal agreement.
Heinrich von Stephan
This task was left to Heinrich von Stephan, a senior postal official from the North German Confederation. He drew up a plan for an international postal union, and at his suggestion, the Swiss Government convened an international conference in Bern on 15 September 1874. The conference was attended by representatives from 22 nations.
On 9 October of the same year – a day now celebrated throughout the world as World Post Day – the Treaty of Bern, establishing the General Postal Union, was signed. Membership in the Union grew so quickly during the following three years that its name was changed to the Universal Postal Union in 1878.
The 1874 Treaty of Bern succeeded in unifying a confusing international maze of postal services and regulations into a single postal territory for the reciprocal exchange of letters. The barriers and frontiers that had impeded the free flow and growth of international mail had finally been pulled down.