postal service, arrangements made by a government for the transmission of letters, packages, and periodicals, and for related services. Early courier systems for government use were organized in the Persian Empire under Cyrus, in the Roman Empire, and in medieval Europe. Private systems operated sporadically but were gradually abandoned or incorporated into government services. The English postal service, an outgrowth of royal courier routes, was established in 1657. Reforms proposed by Sir Rowland Hill were adopted in 1839; they provided for universal penny postage prepaid by an adhesive postage stamp or an official envelope.
The first organized system of post offices in America was created by the British Parliament in 1711, but as early as 1639 there was a post office in Boston. The mails were carried over a system of post roads; the New York City–Boston service was established in 1672. Postage stamps were first used in the United States in 1847; other developments were the registering of mail (1855), city delivery (1863), money orders (1864), and penny postcards (1873). Special-delivery service started in 1885, rural delivery in 1896, the postal savings system in 1911 (discontinued 1966), and parcel post in 1913. Mail was transmitted to the West Coast by the pony express of 1860–61. Mail service by railroad was instituted in 1862, and airmail in 1918.
In the United States, postal service is under the direction of the U.S. Postal Service, having been reorganized in 1970 from the old Post Office Department. It is governed by an 11-member board, who choose a Postmaster General; since the reorganization, the Postmaster General is no longer a member of the cabinet. A separate five-member commission is charged with reviewing and approving rate changes proposed by the board. The U.S. Postal Service operates as an independent, self-supporting agency within the government.
The Universal Postal Union (UPU), which facilitates the exchange of mail among nations, was established after the International Postal Convention of 1874; the UPU is now a specialized agency of the United Nations. Many governmental postal services have special divisions for serving stamp collectors (see philately). Since the early 1970s in the United States, private shipping services, such as Federal Express (now FedEx) and United Parcel Service (UPS), have competed for special services, and by the 1990s electronic services such as fax (see facsimile) and electronic mail also cut into the postal service's business.
See F. G. Kay, Royal Mail (1951); F. Staff, The Transatlantic Mail (1957); C. H. Scheele, A Short History of the Mail Service (1970); G. Cullinan, The United States Postal Service (rev. ed. 1973); J. H. Bruns, Great American Post Offices (1998); R. R. John, Spreading the News: The American Postal System from Franklin to Morse (1998).
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.