Notes from the Past

Early History of the Universal Postal Union

We all take for granted the benefits of the worldwide mail service today.  It didn't work so smoothly before the latter part of the 19th century.  At that time, varying rates and routes made accurate determination of postage difficult.  Carriage of the international mails was also involved in nation-to-nation competition.  International cooperation was very limited and often the postal administrations were more interested in maximizing revenue to the detriment of customer service.

There were periodic complaints about this.  One of the earliest noted was in 1811.  The first person to take some real action was Montgomery Blair, the U.S. Postmaster General, who proposed in August, 1862, that an international conference should take place to discuss the problems in hope of finding some solutions.  The conference took place in Paris starting on May 11, 1863, and continuing until June 8.  Delegates from 15 postal administrations were there and adopted 31 articles for future proceedings.

Five years passed until Dr. Heinrich von Stephan, Superior Privy Councilor of Posts of the North German Confederation proposed a scheme for forming an international postal union.  Since 1850, a postal union had been in successful operation between 16 German and Austrian states.  The congress which he proposed for two years hence was delayed by the Franco-Prussian War.  After peace returned, Switzerland invited representatives to meet in Berne on September 1, 1873.  In turn this meeting was adjourned when Russia was unable to participate.  A congress resumed its work on July 1, 1874.  The major work of the conference was agreement on four principles:

    1. That a common regime should be accepted throughout the postal service of the world, to be regulated by a treaty.
    2. That the right of transit by land or sea should be guaranteed by each country to every other country.
    3. That the responsibility of providing for the transmission of mails should rest with the country of origin, all the intermediate services used by the country to be paid for at fixed rates and according to periodical statistics.
    4. That each country should keep all its postage collections on both paid and unpaid letters, so as to dispense with the large number of detailed international accounts.
A third meeting was held on October 9, 1874.  At this meeting a convention was signed, specifying the postal rates between member countries of the Union Generale des Postes, as it was then called.  The rates were fixed at 25 centimes, or its equivalent, for single weight letters, half that amount for post cards, and between 5 and 11 centimes for samples or printed matter not exceeding 2 oz. in weight.

In all, there were fourteen sittings of this first congress.  It was agreed that the Union should come into force on July 1, 1875.  The agreement was ratified by most of the governments by May 5, however, France stated they would be unable to join the Union until January 1, 1876.  France, as well as the French Colonies and India, joined in 1876.

A second congress was held in Paris in 1878, at which time the title of the Union was changed to Union Postale Universelle which remains today.  Periodic congresses have been held since then.  Often these congresses are honored by commemorative stamps.  The Congress held in Washington in 1896 decided the colors for stamps: inland post card rates were to be green, inland letter rates were to be red, and foreign letters were to be blue.  In Rome in 1906 the International Reply Coupon.

Would that all international organizations should achieve such good results as the UPU.

Posted November 2, 2000

Editor's Note:  I have willingly excerpted (almost plagiarized) this from Stamps Day By Day, L. N. and M Williams. Blandford Press Ltd, 1950.

Index of 508 Notes from the Past

Note:  If the link isn't returned the first try, try again.

Comments? Send me an e-mail
Please include a reference to this item.