The World of Stamps & Stamp Collecting - Chapter One

1. Before Stamps, the Post

The post was the major medium of communication from the advent of paper until the invention of the telephone. and even today, when there are probably more modes of communication than there is information worth relating, the post remains our chief method. Billions of letters, packages, and magazines are carried annually. The ease with which the post is used belies the tremendous complexity in sending mail: the world’s postal service employs hundreds of thousands of people, and it is the result of thousands of years of progress. Indeed, our chagrin over the apparent ineptitude of our postal service is a measure of how much we take mail delivery for granted and how important it is in our daily lives.

There is little record of how information was relayed in ancient days. We do know that Babylonian and Egyptian scribes often personally carried messages for their masters, and the Romans had a highly developed system of message carriers. In the Americas, the Incas, Mayas, and Aztecs employed runners to carry messages. But, in general, before 1550 during the Renaissance in Europe, the transport of messages was an individual, contractual affair. A person desiring to send a letter would ask someone who was traveling that way to take it with him. Payment was by negotiation.

The main reason for the rise of an organized postal service was the emergence of commerce. A banking house with far-flung branches or a merchant with several shops required means of communicating with distant associates. Before the establishment of commerce there had been a need for communication, too, but that need was not great enough to support the extensive bureaucracy of a postal service.

One of the first postal systems that postal historians have sufficient documentation to understand adequately was the system operated by the University of Paris, about the year 1300. The university attracted students from all over the European continent, and the students needed a way of keeping in touch with family and friends back home. Added to this was the need for the academicians at this prestigious university to communicate with their peers at other scholastic centers. A postal system with regular routes was set up, with postal carriage stretching as far away as Sicily, Ireland, Scandinavia, and Hungary. After a time, the University of Paris postal service expanded to include the public at large and was actively used for general communication between Paris and the rest of Europe. The post lasted until nearly 1600, or about 300 years, and in its maturity the University of Paris Post was a business, not a public service. It generated income for the university, and lasted only as long as it could provide competitive service at profitable rates.

Postal service (as in the term “United States Postal Service”) was totally alien to the early commercial postal systems. Only in very recent times do we conceive of the post as a state service; previously, especially in the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance, it was a privilege for which, if royalty permitted, the user paid handsomely.

One of the main carriers of mail in this period was the Church. Monks were constantly traveling between their monasteries (the Benedictines alone had 3,600 monasteries), and in addition to bearing their own church-related communications, they also would carry private correspondence. Unfortunately, the Church kept practically no records of its messenger service. Was it organized, with rates for letters in the form of a religious contribution? Were there set schedules that the carriers followed? Or was it more informal, with a letter sender negotiating carriage with the individual monk for a bit of cheese, a warm bed, and a glass of wine? All postal historians can do is speculate. Probably the church carriage of letters was informally done. Otherwise it seems likely that as other carriage services developed in the early Renaissance, the Church would have made a vigorous effort, as it did in other areas, to protect its prerogative.

From about 1350 onward, a relatively sophisticated postal service was developed between the Italian principalities. Italy at this time was made up of a number of tiny city states, dukedoms, and large kingdoms— the country did not achieve unification until the end of the nineteenth century. In the earlier period, though, Italy was the pride of civilization, leading the world in art, commerce, literature, and learning. Many of the postal letters during this period bear evidence of being carried by an organized postal system. The evidence is a series of what are called seccos (or in English, “dry stamps”), These are embossed stampings that show a mail system existed under royal protection. About a dozen Italian city states are known through secco marks to have had an organized postal system.



What do these dry stamps prove? If you lived in that time and you wished to send a message, you had two choices: you could ask a friend who was traveling in that direction to deliver the note as a favor, or you could give the letter to someone who, for a fee, carried letters at regular intervals to the place where you had written. This was a postal system. Under the first system— your friend— no form of accounting was needed; the friend would simply carry and deliver the letter. But under the second system, the postal system, some form of official mark on the letter was required so that the different handlers of the letter knew the postage or carriage fee had been paid. Patrons could elect to send letters by foot or by mounted letter carriers— a service that was much faster and probably was offered for a higher fee.

Most Italian states apparently had their own post system, and letters were routinely transferred when jurisdictions changed. Sometimes, however, another state’s postal service was allowed limited delivery rights within a postal district. Brilliantly organized, this postal service represents one of the great achievements bequeathed to us from the Renaissance. Postal historians discovered about the Italian Postal Service comparatively recently by searching through old documents. Its existence was surmised, though, as it explains the sudden emergence of the Thurn and Taxis Pan European postal system in about 1550 (which we take up in the following pages).



Pre-Renaissance Postal History

Keep in mind that the public posts first developed in the Renaissance were not the first posts in history. Many empires existed before 1300, and whenever an empire arose, the communication system to administer that empire had to be created along with it. The provincial governor of a colony needed to know what taxes were to be collected (as well as having some method of sending them back home), and he had to be informed on new laws and ordinances. In nearly every part of the pre-Renaissance world, empires and governments established similar lines of postal communication. But a walking carrier, running messenger, or even a man on horseback can only cover a small distance before he or his mount tires and must rest. For governmental communication, speed is vital. Hence, a system of relay stations was organized in virtually every empire, so that the message might be carried at top speed all day— and all night, if need be.

So standard was this type of military and governmental communication (the two are usually indistinguishable in pre-modern governments) that Herodotus reports that Persia in the sixth century B.C. had over 1,700 miles of post roads— from one end of the empire to the other— with over 110 relay stations along the way. The Romans, too, had a comparable system throughout their empire, even stretching north into Britain. They called the rest stations for their carriers mansiones (from which we get the word “mansion”). The Chinese had a similar system, which began in the second century B.C. and remained fundamentally the same as the one described by Marco Polo about a thousand years later.

But perhaps the most ingenious system of all was devised by the Incas. Their carriers were speedsters, each sprinting along a 1.5 mile route, before their message was passed on to the next runner. In a single day, 250 miles could be covered this way, using over 100 runners. Remember, there were no horses in the New World until the Spanish introduced them; although this communication system was perhaps the world’s most labor-intensive, in terms of speed it set a pace that was enviable.

Interaction between the official and private posts is a modern phenomenon. In pre-Renaissance times, carriers for the private sector were not permitted to use the relay stations of the official post, nor were official carriers allowed to carry private letters. The post was designated a royal or state prerogative, and its functioning, apart from the public sector, was considered of prime importance to most governments.

The Thurn and Taxis Pan European Postal System

By the end of the fifteenth and early into the sixteenth century, a courier service that spanned a continent was developing from what had been originally a simple family business. The Taxis family first began their postal routes with a contract to provide service between Crown Prince Philip in France and his father Emperor Maximilian I in Austria. As the years went by, the Taxis family concluded contract after contract with ruler after ruler, linking them with the increasingly large Taxis communication service empire. Before the end of the sixteenth century, the Taxis family was not only providing the courier service between nations but even administering the internal communications within the Holy Roman Empire. By the end of the next century, the Taxis family received the postmaster generalship of the Holy Roman Empire as a hereditary title, and had become knighted Princes of the Empire as the House of Thurn and Taxis.

When first started, the Taxis postal system was for the royal court and government use only. During the early 1500s, in the documents that survive, the members of government are constantly chastised for using the post for private communication and for allowing their friends to use the post for private gain. But by the late 1500s such admonitions do not exist. We do not know when the change occurred, but we can surmise why: the growing business establishments of Europe needed a communications network. By the beginning of the seventeenth century, the post of Thurn and Taxis could be used by anyone who could pay the price.

Today, speed and accessibility of communications are taken for granted. Few people reading these words even know anyone who lives without a telephone and certainly everyone can get mail. In the immediate future, it is expected that most businesses will have a photocopier tied in to telephone lines, so that correspondence placed in one copier can be duplicated instantly halfway around the world. And it is speculated that even private homes will have this tie-in before too many decades have passed, with such conveniences as newspapers being photocopied for subscribers, eliminating all the printing and distribution steps.

But predictions about communications and transportation are difficult. In the 1950s it was believed that the 1980s would see a jet-aged society, shuttling through space for even the shortest journeys. Little did they know that fuel prices and technology would have us bundled in sweaters, paying Cadillac prices for nonpolluting two-seater cars. But while we cannot predict the future of the communication systems of the world, we do know of a long and noble past. The letter that you get today has traveled far, been handled by many, and is part of a network of transportation and communication that is the best humanity could devise these thousands of years.