From Ancient Papyrus To E-Mails, The Chaotic History of Mail Delivery

Ancient Egyptians had couriers delivering official papyrus, sultans favored pigeon messaging, while the U.S. pioneered the fearless riders of the Pony Express… The bumpy history of mail delivery is mingled with astute inventions and gripping adventures.

Postal systems have long remained quite rudimentary. Ancient Egyptians, Persians and Romans used horse-, mule- or camel-riding couriers to deliver important messages at the faraway corners of their empires; their speed and skill would not be matched again in about 2,000 years. At the time, one messenger could eat up between 50 and 100 miles (75-150 kms) per day.

Medieval snail mail

To complete the ‘horse post’ network, other authorities used pigeon messaging — that was the case of many Middle-Eastern sultanates in the early Middle-Ages — but also smoke signals and fire beacons. Needless to say that those systems were not available to the general public, but used by decision-makers and the nobility. No central authority had yet emerged to manage the network (only in 1538 did King Henry VIII introduced a ‘Master of the Posts’ at his court).

Throughout medieval times, monks and priests were in charge of ecclesiastic correspondence. Here, Jean Miélot (1420-1472), a French priest, translator and writer. (Source: Wikipedia/Public Domain)

What about the general public? What if they wanted to send letters, too? Until the Renaissance era, it was not uncommon for somebody to handle his missive to a complete stranger — perhaps a seaman, or just a traveler passing by — for the sole reason that he was headed in the general direction of the letter’s recipient. Sure, a huge number of messages never reached their destination… The best way to send a letter, back in the days, was to get there in person and read it out loud to the intended person.

Return to the sender

Not before the 19th century did the postal age really take off. In England, first: the country pioneered the first postal train (1838) closley followed by the first stamp (1840) — the notorious black penny depicting Queen Victoria. With the introduction of the stamp, it is no longer the recipient who pays for the delivery, but the sender: an ingenious making-money business!


Before that, penniless people would send one another empty envelopes (with no message attached) upon which the address concealed secret messages, in accordance with a code designed in advance. (Three lines of address could mean “I’m doing good”, for instance.) The recipient could just decipher the message handed by the postman and refuse to pay for it, legitimately claiming the envelope was empty…

Although delivery delays haven’t shortened since Ancient times — on average, a missive travels 120 miles (200 kms) per day in 1820s England — the postal system somewhat intitutionalized across the Old Continent. North America, however, did neither feature its extended urban network nor its relatively-small territories.

American rides

On the other side of the Atlantic, the postal network rapidly evolved thanks to the California Gold Rush, which (despite its gloomy episodes and Native Americans’ daily massacres) swept over the Wild West at the turn of the 1840s. Three ambitious entrepreneurs — William Russell, William B. Waddell and Alexander Majors — decided to establish a much faster postal network than the existing one: the Pony Express was born.

Pony Express ad, 1861. (Source: Smithsonian National Postal Museum via Wikipedia/Public Domain)

Farewell, slow-driving stagecoaches and heavy bags of mail; the Pony Express hired lightweight riders (up to 125 pounds, ‘orphans preferred’ read one job offer) who would go all the way from Missouri to California (1,900 miles) in just ten days. Messengers carried nothing more than 25 pounds of mail, a gun and a water goatskin! The obvious aim was speed, with 200 stations along the way for switching horses or riders.

Although the original promise of a ten-day journey was rapidly met, Robert ‘Pony Bob’ Haslam, the record holder, is said to have eaten it up in just 7 days and 17 hours (he was carrying the inaugural address of President-elect Abraham Lincoln). It would take approximately 25 days to deliver mail over the same distance with basic stagecoaches…

Pony Express riders had well-paying but risky jobs, as they were exposed to ambushes. “Recovered from a mail stolen by the Indians in 1860” read this envelope. (Photo: Smithsonian National Postal Museum via Wikipedia/Public Domain)

Despite its hair-rising performances, the Pony Express was a real money pit. Sixteen months following its launch, the money-losing company closed its doors in October 1861, unable to secure government funding and fiercely competed against by newly-introduced transcontinental telegraph.

You’ve got m@il

By the end of the 19th century, riders’ velocity had become obsolete, for the industrialized world pioneered aviation, train and car-related technology. Muscle turned mechanical. Technical progress and labor specialization enabled for faster mail delivery, and airmail took off in the early-20th century. (There is even one instance of hot-air balloon mail delivery in history: during the 1871 Siege of Paris, since all roads were cut by Prussian occupiers.)

During the Siege of Paris, three million letters were sent using 64 hot-air balloons (or ‘montgolfières’). Painting by Jules Didier and Jacques Guiaud, 1872, MusĂ©e Carnavalet, Paris.

Postal networks are now harmonized on both national and international levels, and most are governmental monopolies. However, they face the fierce competition of the Internet which dramatically reduced the number of letters delivered daily by post agents. Sure, the promptness, easiness of an email is a good thing; but it is definitely less romantic than those old-time missives carried by horse-riding couriers, hot-air balloons or submarines, adventurously headed to an unknown fate.




Author: Nicolas

Ingrédients : 33% d'anecdotes insolites, 19% de livres poussiéreux, le reste de curiosité névrosée. Auteur du Petit dictionnaire des sales boulots (Vendémiaire, 2022). Chroniqueur chez Slate et RetroNews.

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