The first known postal document, found in Egypt, dates from 255 BC. But even before that time, postal services existed on almost every continent, in the form of messengers serving kings and emperors. Over time, religious orders and universities added their own message delivery systems to exchange news and information. Relay stations were set up along the messengers’ routes to speed up delivery over long distances. Eventually, private individuals were allowed to use the messengers to communicate with one another.
During the 17th and 18th centuries, the exchange of mail between countries was largely governed by bilateral postal agreements. But by the 19th century, the web of bilateral agreements had become so complex that it began to impede the rapidly developing trade and commercial sectors. Order and simplification were needed in the international postal services. The process began with national postal reforms. The most significant reform occurred in Great Britain in 1840, when Sir Rowland Hill introduced a system whereby postage on letters had to be prepaid. Uniform rates were also introduced for all domestic letters of a particular weight, regardless of the distance travelled. Sir Rowland Hill was also responsible for introducing the world’s first postage stamp, the Penny Black.
In 1863, United States Postmaster General Montgomery Blair called a conference in Paris. Delegates from 15 European and American countries met and succeeded in laying down a number of general principles for mutual agreements. But the scope of their decisions was limited and they were not able to settle on an international postal agreement.
It was left to Heinrich von Stephan, a senior postal official from the North German Confederation, to draw up a plan for an international postal union. At his suggestion, the Swiss Government convened an international conference in Berne on 15 September 1874. The conference was attended by representatives from 22 nations.
On 9 October of the same year – a day now celebrated around the world as World Post Day – the Treaty of Berne, establishing the General Postal Union, was signed. The Union’s membership grew so quickly over the next three years that its name was changed in 1878 to the Universal Postal Union.
The 1874 Treaty of Berne succeeded in unifying a confusing international maze of postal services and regulations into a single postal territory for the reciprocal exchange of letters. The barriers and frontiers that had impeded the free flow and growth of international mail had finally been pulled down.