postal service

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postal service

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. The recipient paid the postage, which could be expensive. 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 changes greatly expanded the use of the service.

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. Financial difficulties, congressional limitations on how it can run its business (especially funding requirements for benefits that are much more stringent than those used by businesses and governments), and declining first-class mail revenues have prevented effective modernization and caused the U.S. post office to shut some offices and processing plants and reduce its work force and its operating hours.


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); W. Gallagher, How the Post Office Created America: A History (2016); D. Leonard, Neither Snow Nor Rain: A History of the United States Post Office (2016).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia™ Copyright © 2022, Columbia University Press. Licensed from Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Postal Service


a communications system that regularly transmits letters, postcards, periodicals, money orders, printed matter, and parcels, usually with the aid of some means of transportation.

Brief historical survey. The need to exchange information was felt in remote antiquity. After the invention of writing, people began transmitting information in written form, thus signaling the beginning of postal communications. At first sporadic, postal communications became more systematic as slaveholding states arose and rulers found themselves in need of continuous information on conditions in their own country and subject territories. Ancient Greece, Persia, Egypt, China, and the Roman Empire had well-organized government postal services, with written communications conveyed by relays of mounted messengers and messengers traveling on foot.

In the Middle Ages, fragmented and feudal Europe had monastic and university posts. Monastic posts maintained contact between monasteries and the head of the church in Rome and between the various monastic communities and the heads of orders. University posts maintained contact between students and their families, with some university posts delivering messages to private individuals for a fee. The development of trade and crafts gave rise to city posts that served merchants and artisans; in time, the right to use these posts was granted to other strata of the population as well. In Western Europe a private postal service organized by the German noble houses of Thurn and Taxis competed with the city posts; the system lasted for about 400 years and was bought out in 1867 by the Prussian government. In the 16th and 17th centuries, centralized royal posts arose in France, Sweden, Great Britain and other countries. With the development of productive relations and the rise of capitalism, it became necessary to organize a regular and rapid postal service both within and between countries.

The issuance of postage stamps by Great Britain in 1840 was a landmark in the history of the postal service. Postcards first appeared in 1869 in Austria. At the First International Postal Congress (1874), Russia and 21 other countries signed the Bern Treaty and formed the General Postal Union, which was renamed the Universal Postal Union in 1878. The Universal Postal Convention, concluded in 1878, regularized the exchange of correspondence involving written communications. Mail transport was greatly speeded by the invention of the steam locomotive and the steamship in the early 19th century and the invention of the airplane in the early 20th. The postal service began serving the entire state and the whole population. The invention of the telegraph (1832), telephone (1876), and radio (1895) did not diminish the importance of the mails as a means of communication for millions of people, and in the 1970’s the mails remain the most widely used and cheapest form of communication. Despite the rapid development of automatic electric communication systems, the postal service will undoubtedly retain its great importance in the foreseeable future.

As early as the tenth century, there existed in Rus’ a special obligation called povoz, which required the population to supply carts and horses for princes’ messengers. The 13th century saw the organization of a special service for regularly conveying written messages; this specifically Russian service, the iamskaia gon’ba, lasted until the second half of the 19th century. Post-horse stations (iamskie dvory) were built on roads leading from Moscow to allow messengers to change horses. To direct the work of the iamskaia gon’ba, a state institution called the Iamskoi Prikaz was set up in the 16th century. When the Postal Department was formed in 1782, the iamskie dvory were renamed postal stations (pochtovye stantsii). Besides the iamskaia gon’ba, which served the administrative apparatus, other postal institutions were created in the second half of the 17th and the early 18th century to serve not only the government but also private individuals. The postal routes that were organized from Moscow to Riga in 1665 and from Moscow to Vilnius in 1669 made it possible to exchange private and other correspondence with foreign countries. Within Russia a postal service was set up between many cities, and main or branch post offices were opened in big cities. Money remittance by mail and mail delivery by mailmen started in 1781, and standard postal rates based on weight and distance were introduced in 1783.

By the early 19th century there were about 460 postal institutions with some 5,000 employees. In 1837, Russia became one of the first countries to use railroads to help deliver mail. Municipal postal services began in St. Petersburg in 1843 and in Moscow in 1845. In 1843 officials introduced a single postal rate for letters, regardless of distance. In 1848, the first letter boxes were installed and envelopes with a printed state coat of arms to indicate payment were first issued. The first postage stamps were issued in 1858. All this greatly simplified the use of the postal service and led to an increase in the volume of mail. Postal service for the rural population was introduced in 1865. No major changes took place in the organization of the Russian postal service between 1878, when the Russian Postal Department signed the Universal Postal Convention, and the Great October Socialist Revolution.

The Soviet government inherited from tsarist Russia a postal service that was backward by European standards and disorganized because of the economic chaos in the country. The Soviet government set about radically reorganizing the whole postal service and improving its technical base. Between 1917 and 1921, a number of decrees were issued expanding the functions of the postal service; for example, the information service and the distribution of periodicals were placed under the postal service’s jurisdiction. During this same period, the first Soviet postage stamps were issued.

During the first five-year plans (1929–40) and especially after the Great Patriotic War (1941–45), work was done to develop the postal network, increase the volume of airmail and mail transported by motor vehicles, and mechanize and automate mail processing. The military postal units played an important role in the Great Patriotic War by maintaining the communications between the front and the rear. The development of the postal service in the USSR is shown in Table 1.

Table 1. Development of the postal service in the USSR
Post offices (thousands) ......115185
 In rural areas (thousands) ....34461
Letter boxes (thousands) ......25216640
 In rural areas (thousands) ....6174450
Volume (million units)
 Written correspondence......9812,5808,714
 Money orders and pensions ...3599697
 Parcels ...............2045197
 Newspapers and magazines ...4436,69838,264
Mail cars run (million km)......38133611
Motor-vehicle routes (thousand km)1281,295
Airmail (thousand tons) .......121341

The postal service has become an integral part of the state system of communications and a branch of the national economy of the USSR. It satisfies the cultural and day-to-day needs of the population and the demands of industry, agriculture, and the administrative apparatus for information exchange within the country and with other states. One of the postal service’s most important duties is to deliver several billion copies of newspapers and magazines to subscribers. In addition, postal employees deliver pensions to the homes of millions of pensioners, collect payments for electric bills in rural areas, and collect receipts of consumers’ cooperative stores. More than 40,000 post offices serve as savings banks. Hundreds of thousands of correspondence students send their examinations and term papers by mail. Over 8 million people a year receive various consumer goods from Posyltorg (Republic Mail-order Trade Office), with rural stores receiving goods from Kooposyltorg (Central Administration of Wholesale and Small-scale Wholesale Mail-order Trade). Mail pickup at home and special services for the mailing of books and gift orders are among the services gaining in popularity.

Organization of the postal service. The postal service is a unified system that is composed of a network of post offices and various means of transportation; its purpose is to pick up, process, and deliver mail. Post offices include main post offices and communication centers; the latter have branch post offices. Main post offices have been set up in republic, krai, and oblast administrative centers, and communication centers have been established in cities under republic and oblast jurisdiction and in raion centers. Self-service postal points are becoming common in cities. In rural areas with no permanent post offices, the population is served by mobile post offices—cross-country vehicles that make regular runs between inhabited locations.

Special units of the postal service system include railroad post offices, divisions for rail and air transport of mail, periodical dispatch enterprises, and the money-order monitoring bureaus. Railroad post offices and offices for rail and air transport of mail are set up at crossings and termini of rail, air, highway, and water routes, where the volume of mail is great. The chief function of these offices is to organize the transport of the mail on trunk postal routes and to sort the mail before delivery.

Main post offices and communication centers organize postal service in the area assigned to them; they receive, process, transport, and deliver mail. Branch post offices mainly receive mail, forward it to the main post office or communication center, and deliver the mail they receive from the main post office or communication center to the addressees.

Mail is received at post offices in special rooms that contain work areas for postal employees. The employees receive all types of mail except nonregistered letters and postcards, which come in from letter boxes on streets and in post offices.

The processing of mail includes sorting the mail by address and preparing it for delivery by the best possible routes to ensure the speediest delivery. At major post offices, modern technology is used to mechanize the operations of stamping and sorting letters, parcels, and printed matter and moving the mail horizontally and vertically.

The last stage in the work of the postal service is delivering the mail to the addressees. Mail to large organizations, enterprises, and institutions is delivered by vehicle to persons authorized to receive it; this service is known as the special urban postal service. Mail is delivered to individuals by mailmen. Motorized mail delivery to central boxes is being introduced in cities; the mailman makes the round of his sector, picks up the mail from these central boxes, and places it in subscribers’ boxes in the entryways of apartment houses. Another form of motorized mail delivery is now being introduced in which conveyer belts at post offices are used to distribute the mail among the various subscribers’ boxes; the boxes are conveyed by trucks to various delivery sectors and then installed in the entryways of apartment houses after boxes from the previous delivery have been removed. These systems ease the work of the mailman and shorten delivery time by one or two hours.

The dispatching of periodical publications includes picking up the publications from the printer, preparing the accompanying documentation, sorting the periodicals according to the post offices that will deliver the periodicals to subscribers, wrapping the periodicals, and sending them off by airplane, train, or motor vehicle. The work is usually done by dispatch units set up at the printing press; the units are under the jurisdiction of the post office. In many cases, however, the dispatching is done by the post office itself—main post offices, the division handling rail transport of mail, and city and raion communication centers— on its own premises.

Since post offices accept and pay out money orders, they handle enormous sums of money, amounting to several tens of billions of rubles a year. About 50 inter-oblast money-order monitoring bureaus have been set up to supervise these money operations. These enterprises check to see that the correct amount of money is paid by comparing original documents on the receipt and payment of the money orders. Automation of money-order operations by means of the Onega-3 machines and the Minsk computers are leading to a reorganization of money-order monitoring bureaus into zonal computer centers. In 1974, there were centers of this type in Leningrad, Minsk, and Moscow.

In many countries the mail is transported mainly by railroads. In the USSR, with its great distances and variety of climatic and road conditions, all types of transportation are used to transport mail. Railway transport is used mainly for heavy mail, such as parcels, printed matter, and magazines. As of 1974, there were over 3,200 mail cars, equipped to process mail in transit and provide recreation facilities for employees. The mail cars are part of express and passenger trains. On the most heavily used routes, the mail is hauled in combined mail and baggage trains, comprising from eight to 12 mail cars and from two to six baggage cars and running according to an established schedule. There are also railroad cars that carry the mail to its destination with no transfer of mail; the cars are recoupled at intermediate railroad junctions. Containerized transport delivery is expanding. Airmail is used mainly for the transport of newspapers and correspondence between major cities and within oblasts, krais, and republics. In some regions of the North and the Far East, the airplane and the helicopter are the only way to transport mail. Motor vehicles are used to transport mail between and within raions and in cities; they are used to pick up letters from letter boxes and bring mail and mailmen to the delivery sectors. Heavy vans and other motor vehicles transport newspapers and magazines from the printing presses to oblast centers and big cities. Animal-drawn transport is used within raions when roads become impassable because of mud or snow.

The postal service of the USSR comprises the largest number of postal offices in the world and offers the cheapest service. Between 1966 and 1970, the volume of mail in the USSR increased by 47.9 percent, as against 1.7 percent in Great Britain, 19.5 percent in France, 19.7 percent in the USA, 23.5 percent in Japan, and 28.4 percent in India. Postal services are also developing rapidly in other socialist countries; between 1965 and 1970 in Poland, for instance, volume increased by 21 percent, the number of postal institutions by 6 percent, the run of mail motor vehicles by 37 percent, and the run of mail cars by 16 percent. The Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (COMECON) is doing a great deal of work to establish cooperation in solving scientific problems, designing and introducing new machinery and advanced technology, and exchanging experience.

The advanced capitalist countries have extensive postal networks. For example, in 1970 there were 32,000 post offices in the USA, 25,000 in Great Britain, 20,000 in Japan, and 18,700 in France. In the USA, however, only 78 percent of the post offices in cities and only 22 percent of the post offices in rural areas offer a complete range of services; the corresponding figures are 21 percent and 29 percent for France and 50 percent and 32 percent for Japan. The remaining post offices are auxiliary post offices and perform only the simplest operations, such as receiving and distributing regular and registered mail and selling postage stamps; the personnel are usually part-time employees of the postal department.


Grallert, V. Puteshestvie bez viz. Moscow, 1965.
Razvitie sviazi ν SSSR, 1917–1967. Moscow, 1967.
Organizatsiia i planirovanie pochtovoi sviazi. Moscow, 1971.
Dobychina, L. Ia. Organizatsiia pochtovoi sviazi; 4th ed. Moscow, 1971.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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