Towards a Global Postal Union

On this day in 1874, the Treaty of Bern was signed establishing the General Postal Union (now the Universal Postal Union) to create a coherent global mailing system.

Prior to the founding of the UPU, a country would need a separate postal treaty for each country it wanted to exchange mail with; senders were burdened with having to calculate the postage for each country their mail would travel though, and would even need to obtain a given country’s stamps (something that would be difficult enough to do today, let alone in the 19th century). If you wanted to send mail directly to a nation that had no treaty, you would need to find dedicated mail forwarders in a third country that had a treaty with the recipient. In a rapidly globalizing world, this arrangement could not last.

At the urging of the United States, an “International Postal Congress” was held in 1863 to hash out a streamlined global postal system. The Germans, led Heinrich von Stephan, spearheaded the effort and created the UPU framework, which created a standard flat rate to mail a letter anywhere in the world; required government to give equal treatment to foreign and domestic mail; and provided that stamps of one nation are accepted anywhere along the route.

The UPU is still based in Switzerland as a U.N. agency. As one of the oldest international organizations in history, it helped usher in the era of globalization — and all its attending conveniences — that we now take for granted. Such global standards and forums not only saved time and money, but in the case of maritime and aviation law, have arguably saved lives. (Imagine what international travel would be like without a uniform safety or communication framework!)

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