My great-aunt and uncle delivered mail together on a rural route. My uncle drove his own car down the side of the road and my aunt rode along next to him, with the window rolled down. Mail would have been piled on the seat between them. She opened the mailboxes, placed the letters and packages inside, then flipped the red flag up.

A red flag raised on a rusted mailbox was a thrilling sight when I was a kid. Because we lived outside of town, we had a rural route address — RR#3. Instead of a mail slot cut into the front door,  a mailbox sat on a post at the end of our driveway. Midmorning, we’d look out the kitchen window to see if the red flag was raised to let us know that  letter or a parcel had arrived. If we wished to post a letter, we’d place it inside the mailbox and raise the red flag to signal that mail was ready for pick-up.

Pony Express map by William Henry Jackson, 1861 (Photo source: CSU > Libraries > Archives > Digital Collections)

Today, we ‘flag’ important email or check for the flashing light in the corner of a cell phone screen or maybe the flashing red light on a telephone answering machine. For centuries, clever people have used various technologies and distribution systems the circulate mail.

The Pony Express is a system of mail delivery we’ve long attributed to the American wild west. This relay style system of message delivery began in China as early as 221 BC. During the Chou Dynasty, post houses were spaced 9 miles apart. Couriers galloped their horses from one to the next, pausing to exchange their tired mounts for a fresh ride , then continuing on their way. Historians have discovered references to Roman delivery as early as 2000 BC. Cuniform writings on baked clay tablets were delivered across the Roman empire by riders on horseback and postal ships. This system was dissolved in the years after the fall of Rome.

Handwritten letters were rolled up and delivered in metal cylinders like this one. (Photo source: Columbia University archive)

Throughout the 1200s, guilds and corporations from across Europe operated their own independent mail delivery services. Dependable news and message delivery existed between Florence, Genoa, Sienna and northern France.  With the permission of the German emperor from 1512 to 1867, the family of Franz von Taxis delivered private and government mail throughout Spain, Germany, Austria, Italy, Hungary, Belgium and the Netherlands. At one point, Taxis employed 20,000 carriers.

The need for private mail carriers diminished as European nation-states gathered strength. In 1477, Louis XI introduced France to The Royal Postal Service. In 1672,  France declared a monopoly on mail service that forced personal deliverers  out of business.  England followed close behind with King Henry VII naming a “master of posts” in 1516. (From 1867 to 1981, the Canadian postal system appointed postmasters but the title changed to President and CEO after the incorporation of Canada Post in 1981. The U.S. postal system has continued to appoint postmasters since 1775.)

Mail delivery coach in Great Britain, 1837(Hulton Archive/Getty)
Mail delivery coach in Great Britain, 1837 (Hulton Archive/Getty)

The earliest reference to postal services in Great Britain comes around 1482 during a time of conflict involving Scotland. Letters were delivered to King Edward by horsemen who could cover 200 miles in two days. Throughout the 1700s, economic growth brought with it cries for Improved postal services. With road improvement, stagecoaches and post boys  on horseback were able to carry letters and parcels from city to city. By 1830, same day service was possible.

Although I’ve always enjoyed receiving a mail, excepting bills and junk mail, I’ve always taken the service for granted. My sudden interest in the topic is attributable to a character I’m writing about named Floyd. He is an introverted mail carrier who lives in a sleepy northern Ontario town. He is a voracious reader who lives on a steady diet of isolation and trivia. As fictitious characters often do, he has made certain demands on this writer to communicate his story. And so I answer his call to learn more about the roots of his profession.

In the next post, I will share what Benjamin Franklin, dog sleds, penny farthings and telegraphs have to do with postal service.

Lead photo source: Library and Archive of Canada

How did the mail arrive when you were a kid ? Perhaps you have a piece of postal trivia to share.

I’d love to hear from you. Please leave a comment.