title for Postal Systems note
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section heading icon     overview

This note considers postal services, a point of reference for considering telecommunication economics, network regulation and the governance of cyberspace.

It covers -

  • this overview
  • evolution - the history of postal services from the 1840s through to separation from telecommunication services, corporatisation and contemporary debate about privatisation and competition.
  • regulation - regulatory aspects of postal services, including their status as monopoly service providers and their handling of privacy, censorship, security and other questions over the past 150 years.
  • banking - the rise and fall of postal banks.
  • economics - the business of delivering things, alive and well despite claims that snailmail would soon go the way of the dodo
  • privatisation - questions about privatisation of postal services and organisations in the UK, Japan and elsewhere
  • landmarks - a chronology of postal services.

It supplements discussion elsewhere on this site regarding postal privacy, censorship, offences such as defamation and stalking, messaging and network privatisation.

subsection heading icon     introduction

Government postal services offer a lens for understanding the emergence of contemporary large-scale enterprises, changing perceptions of the state and expectations about the regulation of communications within and across borders.

Adoption of email (and electronic junkmail) has not lead to the death of the postal service and appears unlikely to do so in the near future, instead reinforcing moves to enhance the efficiency of existing postal operations.

subsection heading icon     orientations

A starting point is provided by Andrew Odlyzko's cogentThe history of communications and its implications for the Internet (PDF).

For the UK see in particular Michael Daunton's Royal Mail: The Post Office Since 1840 (London: Athlone Press 1985) and Kenneth Ellis' The Post Office in the Eighteenth Century: A Study in Administrative History (New York: Oxford Uni Press 1958), superseding Howard Robinson's The British Post Office: A History (Princeton: Princeton Uni Press 1948). There is a more popular account in Getting the Message: The Story of the British Post Office (Stroud: Alan Sutton 1993) by Christopher Browne.

Accounts of the US system include News In The Mail: The Press, Post Office & Public Information (Westport: Greenwood Press 1989) by Richard Kielbowicz, US Mail: The Story of the United States Postal Service (New York: Holt Rinehart Winston 1960) by Arthur Summerfield, Wayne Fuller's The American Mails, Enlarger of the Common Life (Chicago: Uni of Chicago Press 1972) and A Short History of the Mail Service (Washington: Smithsonian Institute Press 1970) by Carl Scheele. Older works on the US include Ross McReynolds' History of the United States Post Office, 1607-1931 (Chicago: Uni of Chicago 1935), Edward Daniel's United States Postal Service & Postal Policy, 1789-1860 (Cambridge: Harvard Uni Press 1941), Wesley Rich's The History of the United States Post Office to the Year 1829 (Cambridge: Harvard Uni Press 1924) and William Smith's The History of the Post Office in British North America, 1639-1870 (Cambridge: Cambridge Uni Press 1920).

The major study of the UPU - and indeed of international coordination - remains George Codding's The Universal Postal Union: Coordinator of the International Mails (New York: New York Uni Press 1964).

The literature on different services and delivery mechanisms is uneven. Recommended works include Donald Holmes' Airmail: An Illustrated History, 1791-1981 (New York: Potter 1981), Richard Carline's Pictures in the Post: the Story of the Picture Postcard (London: Gordon Fraser 1971) and Frank Staff's The Picture Postcard and its Origins (London: Lutterworth 1979).

For philately see Dennis Altman's Paper Ambassadors: The Politics of Stamps (London: Collins 1990) and Matthew Bowyer's They Carried the Mail: A Survey of Postal History and Hobbies (New York: Robert Luce 1972).

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