Even in the age of instant communication by email phone and text, the postal system is still a marvel of government efficiency. By any reckoning, the US postal service is the most ubiquitous governmental enterprise in the country. Often the only governmental service in a town is the post office -- in some cases were the post office not prominently situated on the main road and easily recognizable, the presence of a distinct community might not even be apparent to someone just passing through.
From ancient times, governments have used systems for delivering the written word to expand, consolidate and control their territory and the people who live there. Moreover, an efficient postal system was essential to support a thriving economy between cities, regions and nations.
The first documented use of an organized courier service for the dissemination of written documents is in Egypt, where Pharaohs used couriers for the dissemination of their decrees in the territory of the State (2400 BCE). The earliest surviving piece of mail is also Egyptian, dating to 255 BCE.
The first credible claim for the development of a real postal system comes from Ancient Persia. The best-documented claim (Xenophon) attributes the invention to the Persian King Cyrus the Great (550 BCE), who mandated that every province in his kingdom would organize reception and delivery of post to each of its citizens. He also negotiated with neighboring countries to do the same and had roads built from the city of Post in Western Iran all the way up to the city of Hakha in the East. Other writers credit his successor Darius I of Persia (521 BCE). Other sources claim much earlier dates for an Assyrian postal system, with credit given to Hammurabi (1700 BCE) and Sargon II (722 BCE). Mail may not have been the primary mission of this postal service, however. The role of the system as an intelligence gathering apparatus is well documented, and the service was (later) called angariae, a term that in time came to indicate a tax system. The Old Testament (Esther, VIII) makes mention of this system: Ahasuerus, king of Medes, used couriers for communicating his decisions.
The Persian system worked using stations (called Chapar-Khaneh), whence 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 verse prominently features on New York's James Farley Post Office, although it has been slightly rephrased to "Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds."
The economic growth and political stability under the Mauryan empire (322–185 BCE) stimulated sustained development of civil infrastructure in ancient India. The Mauryans developed early Indian mail service as well as public wells, rest houses, and other facilities for the public.[ Common chariots called Dagana were sometimes used as mail chariots in ancient India. Couriers were used militarily by kings and local rulers to deliver information through runners and other carriers. The postmaster, the head of the intelligence service, was responsible for ensuring the maintenance of the courier system. Couriers were also used to deliver personal letters.
The first well-documented postal service was that of Rome. Organized at the time of Augustus Caesar (62 BCE – 14 CE), the service was called cursus publicus and was provided with light carriages (rhedæ) pulled by fast horses. By the time of Diocletian, a parallel service was established with two-wheeled carts (birotæ) pulled by oxen. This service was reserved for government correspondence. Yet another service for citizens was later added.
Some Chinese sources claim mail or postal systems dating back to the Xia or Shang dynasties, which would be the oldest mailing service in the world. The earliest credible system of couriers was initiated by the Han Dynasty (206 BCE – 220 CE), who had relay stations every 30 li along major routes.
The Tang dynasty (618 to 907 AD) operated recorded 1,639 posthouses, including maritime offices, employing around 20,000 people. The system was administered by the Ministry of War and private correspondence was forbidden from the network. The Ming dynasty (1368 to 1644) sought a postal system to deliver mail quickly, securely, and cheaply. Adequate speed was always a problem, because of the slow overland transportation system, and underfunding. Its network had 1,936 posthouses every 60 li along major routes, with fresh horses available every 10 li between them.
The common thing about all these systems and many more is that they were usually limited to the area controlled by a single nation. But what if your needed to send a letter to a person in another country, either because you were away from your own country and needed to "write home," or because you desired to trade information or goods with a scholar or merchant in a distant place?
The first Universal Postal Union wasn't formed until 1874. Only 22 nation were initially subscribers to the idea of a standardized international postal system. Prior to 1874, some nations did have individual postal treaties, but prior to 1850, the concept of a the postal service of one nation interacting regularly with that of another was virtually unknown. Moreover, before the advent of steamships and railroads, reliable transport across oceans and continents was virtually non-existent. Sailing ships were at the mercy of the wind; caravans could be waylaid by bandits.
And this brings us to the remarkable nature of the event of July 3, 1527. It was on that date that we know a letter was written in St. John's Newfoundland by Captain John Rut and addressed to King Henry VIII of England. While we cannot be certain that it was the first letter in English to be written and mailed from the "New World," we do know that it is the earliest such letter of which we have evidence in the form of the letter itself.
Rut was an English mariner, born in Essex, who was chosen by Henry VIII to command an expedition to North America in search of the Northwest Passage; on 10 June 1527 he set sail from Plymouth with two ships, Samson and Mary Guilford. The voyage was set up by Cardinal Wolsey at the wishes of Robert Thorne, a Bristol merchant. Samson was commanded by Master Grube and the Mary Guilford was commanded by Rut.
During the voyage across the Atlantic Ocean, the ships separated during a storm, and it is assumed that Samson was lost. In early July Mary Guilford met heavy ice and turned southward; they reached the Labrador coast near St. Lewis Inlet, which they explored. In late July Mary Guilford set sail for St. John's. They entered St. John's harbour on 3 August where they reported encountering eleven Norman fishing vessels, one Breton fishing vessel and two from Portugal.
It was at St. John's, Newfoundland on 3 August 1527 that the first known letter in English was sent from North America. While in St. John's, Rut had written a letter to King Henry on his findings and his planned voyage southward to seek his fellow explorer. The letter in part reads as follows:
Pleasing your Honourable Grace to heare of your servant John Rut with all his company here in good health thanks be to God.
The conclusion of the letter reads:
...the third day of August we entered into a good harbour called St. John and there we found Eleuen Saile of Normans and one Brittaine and two Portugal barks all a fishing and so we are ready to depart towards Cap de Bras that is 25 leagues as shortly as we have fished and so along the Coast until we may meete with our fellowe and so with all diligence that lyes in me toward parts to that Ilands that we are command at our departing and thus Jesu save and keepe you Honourable Grace and all your Honourable Reuer. In the Haven of St. John the third day of August written in hast 1527, by your servant John Rut to his uttermost of his power.
After leaving Newfoundland for warmer climes, Mary Guilford sailed along the east coast, past the Chesapeake Bay to Florida. It is believed that this was the first English ship to have done so. Rut returned to England the following year and no other record of him remains.
But how did the letter get from St. John's to England? Among sailing captains the tradition was to exchange letters between vessels on their outbound voyage ad those returning to a home port. On land, traveling scholars and merchants would likewise agree to carry letters with them and exchange them with other travelers who were headed to the vicinity of the intended recipient. The system, though inefficient by modern standards, worked remarkably well.