Mail, or post, is a method for transmitting information and tangible objects, wherein written documents, typically enclosed in envelopes, and also small packages, are delivered to destinations around the world. Anything sent through the postal system is called mail or post.
In principle, a postal service can be private or public. Governments often place restrictions on private postal delivery systems. Since the mid 19th century national postal systems have generally been established as government monopolies with a fee on the article prepaid. Proof of payment is often in the form of adhesive postage stamps, but postage meters are also used for bulk mailing.
Postal systems often have functions other than sending letters. In some countries, the postal system also has some authority over telephone and telegraph systems. In others, postal systems allow for savings accounts and handling applications for passports.
The art of communication by written documents carried by an intermediary from one person or place to another almost certainly dates back nearly to the invention of writing. However, development of formal postal systems occurred much later. The first documented use of an organized courier service for the diffusion of written documents is in Egypt, where Pharaohs used couriers for the diffusion of their decrees in the territory of the State (2400 BC). This practice almost certainly has roots in the much older practice of oral messaging and may have been built on a pre-existing infrastructure.
The Persian system worked on stations (called Chapar-Khane), where the message carrier (called Chapar) would ride to the next post, whereupon he would swap his horse with a fresh one, for maximum performance and delivery speed. Herodotus described the system in this way: "It is said that as many days as there are in the whole journey, so many are the men and horses that stand along the road, each horse and man at the interval of a day’s journey; and these are stayed neither by snow nor rain nor heat nor darkness from accomplishing their appointed course with all speed".
The economic growth and political stability under the Mauryan empire (322–185 BC) saw the development of impressive civil infrastructure in ancient India. The Mauryans developed early Indian mail service as well as public wells, rest houses and other facilities for the common public. Common chariots called Dagana were sometimes used as mail chariots in ancient India.
In ancient times the kings, emperors, rulers, zamindars or the feudal lords protected their land through the intelligence services of specially trained police or military agencies and courier services to convey and obtain information through runners, messengers and even through pigeons. The chief of the secret service, known as the postmaster, maintained the lines of communication ... The people used to send letters to [their] distant relatives through their friends or neighbors.
By the end of the Eighteenth century the postal system in India had reached impressive levels of efficiency. According to British national Thomas Broughton, the Maharaja of Jodhpur sent daily offerings of fresh flowers from his capital to Nathadvara (320 km) and they arrived in time for the first religious Darshan at sunrise. Later this system underwent complete modernization when the British Raj established its full control over India. The Post Office Act XVII of 1837 provided that the Governor-General of India in Council had the exclusive right of conveying letters by post for hire within the territories of the East India Company. The mails were available to certain officials without charge, which became a controversial privilege as the years passed. On this basis the Indian Post Office was established on October 1, 1837.
China enjoyed postal relay stations since the Han dynasty (206 BC–220 AD), this network was vastly improved and extended during the Mongolian rule under Kublai Khan. Postal stations were used not only for the transmission and delivery of official mail, but were also available for traveling officials, military men, foreign dignitaries. These stations aided and facilitated the transport of foreign and domestic tribute, and trade in general. By the end of Kublai Khan's rule there were more than 1400 postal stations, which in turn had at their disposal about 50000 horses, 1400 oxen, 6700 mules, 400 carts, 6000 boats, over 200 dogs and 1150 sheep.
The stations were 15 to 40 miles apart and had reliable attendants working for the mail service. Foreign observers, such as Marco Polo have attested to the efficiency of this early postal system.
Well before the Middle Ages and during them, homing pigeons were used for pigeon post, taking advantage of a singular quality of this bird, which when taken far from its nest is able to find his way home due to a particularly developed sense of orientation. Messages were then tied around the legs of the pigeon, which was freed and could reach his original nest.
Many religious orders had a private mail service, notably Cistercians' one connected more than 6,000 abbeys, monasteries and churches. The best organization however was created by the Knights Templar. The newly instituted universities too had their private services, starting from Bologna (1158).
Popular illiteracy was accommodated through the service of scribes. Illiterates who needed to communicate dictated their messages to a scribe, another profession now quite generally disappeared.
In 1505, Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I established a postal system in the Empire, appointing Franz von Thurn und Taxis to run it. The Thurn and Taxis family, then known as Tassis, had operated postal services between Italian city states from 1290 onwards. Following the abolition of the Empire in 1806 the Thurn and Taxis postal system continued as a private organisation, continuing to exist into the postage stamp era before finally being absorbed into the postal system of the new German Empire after 1871.
It was around this time nationalization and centralization of most postal systems took place. Today, the study of mail systems is known as postal history.
Some countries have organized their mail services as public limited liability corporations without a legal monopoly.
The worldwide postal system comprising the individual national postal systems of the world's self-governing states is co-ordinated by the Universal Postal Union, which among other things sets international postage rates, defines standards for postage stamps and operates the system of International Reply Coupons.
In most countries a system of codes has been created (they are called ZIP Codes in the United States, postcodes in the United Kingdom and Australia, and postal codes in most other countries), in order to facilitate the automation of operations. This also includes placing additional marks on the address portion of the letter or mailed object, called "bar coding." Bar coding of mail for delivery is usually expressed either by a series of vertical bars, usually called POSTNET coding, or a block of dots as a two-dimensional barcode. The "block of dots" method allows for the encoding of proof of payment of postage, exact routing for delivery, and other features.
The ordinary mail service was improved in the 20th century with the use of planes for a quicker delivery (air mail). The first scheduled airmail service took place between the London suburbs of Hendon and Windsor on 9 September 1911. Some methods of airmail proved ineffective, however, including the United States Postal Service's experiment with rocket mail.
Receipts services were made available in order to grant the sender a confirmation of effective delivery.
Mail going to naval vessels is known as the Fleet Post Office.
Worldwide the most common method of prepaying postage is by buying an adhesive postage stamp to be applied to the envelope before mailing; a much less common method is to use a postage-prepaid envelope. Franking is a method of creating postage-prepaid envelopes under licence using a special machine. They are used by companies with large mail programs such as banks and direct mail companies.
In 1998, the U.S. Postal Service authorised the first tests of a secure system of sending digital franks via the Internet to be printed out on a PC printer, obviating the necessity to license a dedicated franking machine and allowing companies with smaller mail programs to make use of the option; this was later expanded to test the use of personalised postage. The service provided by the U.S. Postal Service in 2003 allows the franks to be printed out on special adhesive-backed labels. In 2004 the Royal Mail in the United Kingdom introduced its SmartStamp Internet-based system, allowing printing on ordinary adhesive labels or envelopes. Similar systems are being considered by postal administrations around the world.
When the pre-paid envelope or package is accepted into the mail by an agent of the postal service, the agent usually indicates by means of a cancellation that it is no longer valid for pre-payment of postage. The exceptions are when the agent forgets or neglects to cancel the mailpiece, for stamps that are pre-cancelled and thus do not require cancellation and for, in most cases, metered mail. (The "personalised stamps" authorized by the USPS and manufactured by Zazzle and other companies are in fact a form of meter label and thus do not need to be cancelled.)
Documents cannot be read by anyone other than the receiver; for instance, in the United States it is a violation of federal law for anyone other than the receiver to open mail. However, exceptions do exist, such as postcards, which can be read by the postman for the purpose of identifying the sender and receiver. For mail contained within an envelope, there are legal provisions in some jurisdictions allowing the recording identities. The privacy of correspondence is guaranteed by the Mexican Constitution, and is alluded to in the European Convention of Human Rights and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. According to the laws in the relevant jurisdiction, correspondence may be openly or covertly opened or the contents determined via some other method, by the police or other authorities in some cases relating to their relevance to an alleged or suspected criminal conspiracy, although black chambers (largely in the past, though there is apparently some continuance of their use today) opened and open letters extralegally. Military mail to and from soldiers on active deployment is more often subject to strict censorship. International mail and packages are subjects to customs control.
Control of private citizens' mail based on its content is a form of censorship and concerns social, political, and legal aspects of civil rights. Even though often illegal, there have been cases over the centuries of governments illegally opening and copying or photographing the contents of private mail. While in most cases this censorship is exceptional, in the military, censorship of mail is routine and almost universally applied, particularly with respect to soldiers near a battlefront.
Modern alternatives such as the telegraph, telephone, and e-mail have reduced the attractiveness of paper mail for many applications. Sometimes these modern alternatives are more attractive because, unlike paper mail, there is no concern about unfamiliar people learning your address from the return address on the outside of an envelope. Modern alternatives can be better than paper mail because vandalism can occur with mailboxes (although it can also be argued that paper mail does not allow for computer viruses). Also, dangerous hazards exist for mail carriers such as unfriendly pets or bad weather conditions. Due to hazards or inconveniences postal carriers may refuse, officially or otherwise, to deliver mail to a particular address (for instance, if a clear path to the door or mailbox is not present). Postal mail is, however, still widely in use for business (due to the particular legal standing of signatures in some situations and in many jurisdictions, etiquette, or transmission of things that cannot be done by computer, as a particular texture, or, obviously, items in packages) and for some personal communication. For example, wedding invitations in some Western countries are customarily sent by mail.
Since the advent of e-mail, which is universally faster (barring some extreme technical glitch, computer virus or the like), the postal system has come to be referred to in Internet slang by the retronym "snail mail". Occasionally, the term "white mail" or "the PaperNet" has also been used as a neutral term for postal mail.
In modern times, mainly in the 20th century, mail has found an evolution in vehicles using newer technologies to deliver the documents, especially through the telephone network; these new vehicles include telegram, telex, facsimile (fax), e-mail, and short message service (SMS). There have been methods which have combined mail and some of these newer methods, such as INTELPOST, which combined facsimile transmission with overnight delivery. These vehicles commonly use a mechanical or electro-mechanical standardised writing (typing), that on the one hand makes for more efficient communication, while on the other hand makes impossible characteristics and practices that traditionally were in conventional mail, such as calligraphy.
This epoch is undoubtedly mainly dominated by mechanical writing, with a general use of no more of half a dozen standard typographic fonts from standard keyboards. However, the increased use of typewritten or computer-printed letters for personal communication and the advent of e-mail, has sparked renewed interest in calligraphy, as a letter has become more of a "special event." Long before e-mail and computer-printed letters, however, decorated envelopes, rubber stamps and artistamps formed part of the medium of mail art.
In the 2000s with the advent of eBay and other online auction sites and online stores, postal services in industrialized nations have seen a major shift to item shipping. This has been seen as a boost to the system's usage in the wake of lower paper mail volume due to the accessibility of e-mail.
Postage stamps are also object of a particular form of collecting, and in some cases, when demand greatly exceeds supply, their commercial value on this specific market may become enormously greater than face value, even after use. For some postal services the sale of stamps to collectors who will never use them is a significant source of revenue for example postage stamps from Tokelau, South Georgia & South Sandwich Islands, Tristan da Cunha, Niuafo´ou and many others. Stamp collecting is commonly known as philately, although strictly the latter term refers to the study of stamps.
Another form of collecting regards postcards, a document written on a single robust sheet of paper, usually decorated with photographic pictures or artistic drawings on one of the sides, and short messages on a small part of the other side, that also contained the space for the address. In strict philatelic usage, the postcard is to be distinguished from the postal card, which has a pre-printed postage on the card. The fact that this communication is visible by other than the receiver often causes the messages to be written in jargon.
Letters are often studied as an example of literature, and also in biography in the case of a famous person. A portion of the New Testament of the Bible is composed of the Apostle Paul's epistles to Christian congregations in various parts of the Roman Empire. See below for a list of famous letters.
A style of writing, called epistolary, tells a fictional story in the form of the correspondence between two or more characters.
While many things are sent through the mail, interpersonal letters are often thought of first in reference to postal systems. Handwritten correspondence, while once a major means of communications between distant people, is now used less frequently due to the advent of more immediate means of communication, such as the telephone or e-mail. Traditional letters, however, are often considered to harken back to a "simpler time" and are still used when someone wishes to be deliberate and thoughtful about his or her communication.
Bills and invoices are often sent through the mail, like regular billing correspondence from utility companies and other service providers. These letters often contain a self-addressed, envelope that allows the receiver to remit payment back to the company easily. While still very common, many people now opt to use online bill payment services, which eliminate the need to receive bills through the mail.
Bulk mail is mail that is prepared for bulk mailing, often by presorting, and processing at reduced rates. It is often used in direct marketing and other commercial solicitations sent by advertisers, although it has other uses as well. The senders of these messages sometimes purchase lists of addresses (which are sometimes targeted towards certain demographics) and then send letters advertising their product or service to all recipients. Other times, commercial solicitations are sent by local companies advertising local products, like a restaurant delivery service advertising to their delivery area or a retail store sending their weekly advertising circular to a general area. Bulk mail is also often sent to companies' existing subscriber bases, advertising new products or services.
There are a number of other things almost without any exception sent exclusively as letters through postal services, like wedding invitations.
First-class mail in the U.S. includes postcards, letters, large envelopes (flats) and small packages, providing each piece weighs 13 ounces or less. Delivery is given priority over second-class (newspapers and magazines), third class (bulk advertisements), and fourth-class mail (books and media packages.) First-class mail prices are based on both the shape and weight of the item being mailed. Pieces over 13 ounces can be sent as Priority Mail.
Postcards are also used by magazines for new subscriptions. Inside many magazines are postage-paid subscription cards that a reader can fill out and mail back to the publishing company to be billed for a subscription to the magazine. In this fashion, magazines also use postcards for other purposes, including reader surveys, contests or information requests.
Packages are often sent through some postal services, usually requiring additional postage than an average letter or postcard. Many postal services have limits on what can and cannot be sent inside packages, usually placing limits or bans on perishable, hazardous or flammable materials. Some hazardous materials in limited quantities may be shipped with appropriate markings and packaging, like an ORM-D label. Additionally, because of terrorism concerns, the U.S. Postal Service subjects their packages to various security tests, often scanning or x-raying packages for materials that might be found in mail bombs.
Magazines are also sent through postal services. Many magazines are simply placed in the mail normally (but in the U.S., they are printed with a special bar code that acts as pre-paid postage - see POSTNET), but many are now shipped in shrinkwrap to protect the loose contents of the magazine.
Hybrid mail, sometimes referred to as L-mail, is the electronic lodgement of mail from the mail generator’s computer directly to a Postal Service provider. The Postal Service provider is then able to use electronic means to have the mail piece sorted, routed and physically produced at a site closest to the delivery point. It is a type of mail growing in popularity with some Post Office operations and individual businesses venturing into this market. In some countries, these services are available to print and deliver emails to those unable to receive email, such as the elderly or infirmed. Tyler Gram is one such service in the USA; in the UK, Royal Mail offers a similar service.
|Canada||Canada Post||www.canadapost.ca / www.postescanada.ca|
|Chile||Correos de Chile||www.correos.cl|
|Costa Rica||Correos de Costa Rica||www.correos.go.cr|
|Mexico||Servicio Postal Mexicano||www.sepomex.gob.mx|
|Hong Kong||Hongkong Post||www.hongkongpost.com|
|India||Indian Postal Service||www.indiapost.gov.in|
|South Korea||Korea Post||www.koreapost.go.kr|
|Sri Lanka||Sri Lanka Post||www.slpost.gov.lk|
|Republic of China (Taiwan)||Chunghwa Post||www.post.gov.tw|
|Åland Islands||Posten Åland||www.posten.ax|
|Belgium||De post / La poste / Die Post||www.post.be|
|Czech Republic||Česká pošta||www.cpost.cz|
|Faroe Island||Postverk Føroya||www.postverk.fo|
|Finland||Posti||www.posti.fi / www.posten.fi|
|Netherlands||Koninklijke TNT Post||www.tntpost.nl|
|Switzerland||Swiss Post||www.post.ch / www.poste.ch / www.posta.ch|
|United Kingdom||Royal Mail||www.royalmail.com|
|New Zealand||New Zealand Post||www.nzpost.co.nz|