Old-Time and Modern Mails

Some Peculiarities of the Postal System.

Boston Herald

The adhesive postage stamp was invented about sixty years ago. Ever since men began to write letters there had been some system for carrying them, but the sending of a letter was a complicated piece of business until the little gummed patch of paper was invented. Then, seemingly, everybody took to writing upon the most trivial pretext, and presently the postal system was doubling its capacity each year.

Now, when anything grows too fast, it is apt to tie itself in a hard knot. That is precisely what happened in this case. When folks had learned the convenience of the mails at home they began to send letters into other countries. Each nation had its own postal system, and when it received a letter from outside it made a charge for delivering it. If an Englishman sent a letter to Switzerland the French post-office charged a small sum for carrying it to the border, and the Swiss post-office charged a trifle more for taking it to the addressee. This made it necessary for each country to do an enormous amount of book-keeping, and even led to disputes as to which owed the other at the end of each year. To add to the confusion each nation had its own rate for letter carrying.

Finally, in 1873, the world's postal business grew so large that no system of book-keeping could keep track of it, so a conference was held at Berne, Switzerland. Herr von Stephan, a German, submitted plan for simplifying matters. He thought that postage was too high, for one thing, and that all the book-keeping and wrangling were so much waste of time and money. He had made a great many figures, and had found that each nation's correspondence with other countries was so nearly equal that it was not worth while reckoning the difference. The United States received about as many letters from as it sent to Australia, and a great country, such as Russia or England made very nearly an even exchange with little Cuba or Uruguay. He proposed that every one stop keeping count altogether, and that a uniform rate of five cents be set upon all foreign letters. It was a most sensible plan, and before the conference ended the leading governments of the world signed a treaty and the Universal Postal Union was formed. To-day every country on earth is in the union, with the exception of China and a few nations too small to matter, and a half-ounce letter may be sent clear around the globe for a nickel.

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The Lectures
March 28, 1901

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