The Postman: Short History of the Delivery of Mail

An exchange of messages occurred long before the idea of a postman or postal mail service began. The first messages delivered were in Persia but these were primarily between the elite, as the common man had no reason to send a message. During the Dark Ages pigeon post functioned as a sort of mail service, and messages continued to be exchanged in other ways until, according to The World in Miniature; England, Scotland, and Ireland, the idea for mail service first “emanated from the university of Paris, which from its high celebrity, being crowded with students from all parts of Europe, caused a vast correspondence between them and their friends.”[1] Apparently in 1478, Parisian students were constantly requesting clothes, books and other various necessaries, which encouraged the university to hire a “regular corps of active messengers [to fulfill the requests].”[2] This soon resulted in a postal service and caused people to wait for the postman’s knock, no matter whether or not what was delivered brought happy or sad tidings.

Nineteenth Century Postman, Author's Collection

Nineteenth century postman. Author’s collection.

Just as Parisian students needed the postman’s deliveries, a similar situation soon existed in England, Scotland, and Ireland. This resulted in the establishment of a postal service in about 1635. For about 150 years afterwards, mail carriers traveling on horseback between “posts” delivered letter to postmasters who removed local letters and added new mail to be carried off to distance places by the next rider. Of course, such a mail system was inefficient, and it took a long time for the delivery of a letter. There was also the problem of riders being “exposed to all accidents of weather, stoppages by swollen rivers, delays through the roads being cut up … straying from the beaten track during fogs, and to all other chances of the road, including attacks by footpads or highwaymen.”[3]

Post Boy, Public Domain

Post Boy. Public domain.

Another problem was the letters sent were paid for by recipients rather than senders, and postal charges were based on the number of sheets of paper in the letter and the distance the letter. These costs made it almost impossible for the poor to receive mail, and it was noted that the postman rarely knocked on a poor person’s door. However, when the postman did knock, the letter might “be purchased [by the recipient] at the price of a dinner … [as a letter was] a forbidden luxury; an enjoyment not to be brought by those who daily struggle with the dearest necessities.”[4]

Because paper and delivery was so expensive people became adaptive and creative just like Jane Austen did in the letter shown below that she wrote to her sister. Austen’s letter was achieved by cross-writing or cross-hatching. That happened when a writer reached the bottom of the page, turned the paper sideways, and continued writing thereby achieving twice as many words on a page. Although the densely worded letter was a little difficult to read, it saved paper and helped reduce delivery costs.

Jane Austen’s cross-written letter to her sister Cassandra. Courtesy of The Morgan Library & Museum.

A story about poor Molly and her mother further demonstrates the problems associated with the costs of mailing a letter. One day a postman came with a letter addressed to Molly’s mother, and he demanded the delivery cost of “one shilling and a penny.”[5] Molly and her mother were too poor to pay, and the postman left saying, he return the next day. Molly went to her neighbors hoping to borrow the necessary funds but they could not scrape together the shilling and a penny. A rich, but “cross-grained, humpbacked,” and avaricious barber named Zachary Slum offered Molly a crown for her long auburn locks, but she refused. After pondering “for two days … on the means of possessing the precious, unexpected letter,”[6] she ran to the barber shop and returned home with the letter, her auburn locks had been shorn off so she could obtain the money necessary to pay for the letter.

Collecting Postage, Public Domain

Collecting Postage. Public domain.

Initially, all of the mail was gathered in one spot (the grand office) and distributed on specific days to specific places. For instance:

“[L]etters and pacquets [sic] were to dispatched every Monday to France, Italy, Spain, Flanders, Germany, Sweden, Denmark, &c, and to Kent. Every Tuesday to the United Netherlands, Germany, &c.”[7]

Similar deliveries existed for Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, and, in addition, the grand office employed 182 deputy postmasters in England and Scotland, of which these postmasters had their own offices and sub-post masters at their branches.

The Post Office by Edward Villiers Rippingille, 1820, Public Domain

“The Post Office” by Edward Villiers Rippingille, 1820. Public domain.

The time of delivery of all this mail varied and was sometimes based on the importance of who was receiving the mail. For instance, in London, the delivery of letters occurred “in the morning, somewhat earlier in the City of London … than in Westminster, and the north-west parts of the metropolis.”[8] Although there were always exceptions, in the delivery of two-penny letters, which occurred up to “six times daily … and three times daily in the environs, thus affording facilities to correspondence, of incalculable benefit to a commercial city like that of the British metropolis.”[8]

The General Postman, Author's Collection

The general postman.  Author’s collection.

It was also the local postman’s responsibility to delivery the mail, and the postman allowed nothing to stop him. He appeared “in fair weather and in tempest, in scorching sun and nipping frost.”[9] His job was to deliver missives, and the power he held was unequaled: If an expected message didn’t come, he was blamed, and, when bad news arrived, it was his considered his fault. His wages were low, and, his royal livery uniform scoffed at, and sometimes it seemed as though the only advantages a postman possessed was his health because according to the The Stamp-collector’s Magazine:

“[H]e literally walks through life, absolutely knocks through a whole existence, transacting small government bargains, with no time to sit or stand and think of the iniquities, real or imaginary of his political masters. … Again, if the postman starts in life with a dapper figure, shall he not be slim and elegant to the last? … Gout shuns him, corpulency visits him not, whilst exercise crowns him with all its gifts and claims the postman as its own. [10]

W.T. Reily, Public Domain

W.T. Reily. Public domain.

Besides, good health, at least one postman also received praise for his heroics. His name was W.T. Reily of Windsor:

“[O]ne dark night in July 1866, when on his way home … by the bank of the Thames, … [he heard such piteous cries that] without pausing to doff his uniform, [he] plunged into the stream, and … rescue[d] a woman … [from] a watery grave.”[11]

His bravery earned him the Royal Humane Society’s Certificate, but that was not the last time he sprang into action. Soon afterwards a 4-year-old boy was knocked down by a carriage. Seeing the child in imminent peril, Reily reacted:

“[He] at once crawled on hands and knees underneath the rear of the vehicle — the only means by which he could reach the child — and succeeded in rescuing the child happily without farther injury than a crushed hand, consequent on one of the horse’s hoofs having trodden thereon.”[12]

He was rewarded this time with eager approvals and hearty pats on the back from the surrounding crowd who witnessed the daring rescue. Despite the heroics of postmen like Reily, the postman in his royal livery — red and black — was thought of as both a deliverer “of joy — [and a] messenger of evil!”[13]

Even if you were never sure what the postman would bring in the eighteenth and nineteenth century, it was  imperative he appear. And he was to appear, even if his knock was not always welcomed. One nineteenth century magazine, The Mirror of Literature, Amusement, and Instruction, noted this stating,

“The sharp summons communicated by his Dexter finger and thumb to the knocker causes emotion in every heart.”[14]

This emotion generated by the postman was further elaborated:

“The Postman deals his short, imperative knock, and the sound shall, like a fairy spell, as quickly call a face of hopeful gladness to the door: … the welcome bringer of blessed news, — the long-hoped, long-prayed for carrier of good tidings … He passes to the next house, and his summons makes the anxious soul within quail and quake with apprehension … the dismal tale-bearer, the ambassador of woe.”[15]

The Postman's Knock, Author's Collection

The Postman’s Knock, Author’s Collection


  • [1] Pyne, W.H., ed., The World in Miniature; England, Scotland, and Ireland, Vol. 1, 1827, p. 103.
  • [2] Ibid.
  • [3] Hyde, James Wilson, The Royal Mail, 1889, p. 14-15.
  • [4] Heads of the People, 1840, p. 254.
  • [5] Ibid.
  • [6] Ibid., p. 256.
  • [7] Pyne, W.H., ed., p. 106.
  • [8] Ibid., p. 112.
  • [9] Heads of the People, 1840, p. 252.
  • [10] The Stamp-collector’s Magazine, Volumes 1-3, 1863 p. 12.
  • [11] The Postman’s Gazette, Vol. III, No. 25. 13 April 1895, p. 1. 
  • [12] Ibid.
  • [13] The Stamp-collector’s Magazine, p. 9. 
  • [14] The Mirror of Literature, Amusement, and Instruction, 1838, p. 319.
  • [15] The Stamp-collector’s Magazine, p. 9.

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