It’s in the mail

by John on October 3, 2007

It’s just about the time to start getting Christmas cards from overseas relatives, and I started wondering about how that works.  My cousin purchases the stamp in England, so who pays the U.S. Post Office for delivering it?  Then, while standing in line at the post office behind several people purchasing money orders, it struck me that there must be some international organization that makes all this work.  It turns out there is.

When government really works, we hardly notice it.  We don’t have to attend endless stakeholders meetings, write questions during the public comment period that we know the bureaucrats really don’t care if they answer, or heaven forbid, try and decide the correct propositions for incredibly complex policy decisions based on a couple of paragraphs in our voter’s handbooks.  The governance of international mail really works very well, and I love the name of the agency that runs it, which to me sounds like something out of the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy….the Universal Postal Union.

The whole thing got started with the development of the modern postal system in England in 1840, when Sir Rowland Hill devised a system where, for the first time, postage on letters would be prepaid, with a standard rate per weight of letter, no matter how far it was to be sent.  This worked so well that he topped it off by introducing the world’s first postage stamp, and soon Hill’s reforms were being adopted all over the world.  Almost anyone could afford to write to anybody.

International mail first relied on bilateral postal treaties, but those soon got so complicated that they got in the way, so in 1863, U.S. Postmaster General Montgomery Blair arranged a meeting in Paris to work out common guidelines for such treaties.  This lead to a conference arranged by Heinrich vonStephan of the North German Confederation, hosted by the Swiss Government and on 9 October 1874, the Treaty of Bern was signed. The world essentially became one large postal district and the 9th was named as World Post Day (damn…missed it again).

The Universal Postal Union has done much to help the world communicate, developing so many things that we take for granted, including postal money orders, registered letters and international air mail.  They also provide technical support and advice to less developed countries.  Interestingly, they are working on ways in ways to facilitate internet transactions by setting up shipping, payment and customs clearance procedures so trade is possible between individuals even in the most remote parts of the world.

So, when you go to the post office, think of it as our local portal to a system that, in addition to delivering the Light, allows people all over the world to communicate through all but the worst of natural disasters, and even through most wars.  Amazingly, this system is run out of an office in Switzerland with a staff of only 150 people from 40 different countries with such little fuss, muss and bother that hardly anyone ever thinks about them.  Perhaps the folks in Sacramento should figure out how they do it, and if they find out, that would be something really worth communicating.

This article originally appeared in the  Point Reyes Light in 2007, and was also picked up by the Universal Postal Union, who reprinted it in their magazine.

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