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With the advent of emails and its subsequent popularity, writing letters on paper has become a somewhat antiquated art. Nevertheless, this old-fashioned 'snail mail'―as it is now known―is still going strong. The US postal service delivers over 200 billion letters and packages every year (although most of it would probably be commercial).
The history of communication in the form of letters probably goes back centuries, as relaying a message from one person to another through an intermediary is likely to have begun during the times when humans begun to settle down. The Persian, Roman, Chinese, and Assyrian empires had postal systems, but did not use stamps, and the recipient paid on delivery.
The Pharaohs of Egypt are documented to be the first to use an organized courier system to deliver their diktats to their subjects. This was around 2400 BC. It is said that the Persian king Darius I (521 BC) was the one responsible for the first postal system, but there are also claims that the first organized system was in Assyria, and is credited to Saragon II (722 BC), and even Hammurabi (1700 BC). It is likely that these systems were more of an intelligence gathering and a tax collecting device.
Another likely claimant is China; although the exact date is unknown, it is documented that during the Qin dynasty (221 BC - 207 BC), China had a well-organized postal system. Moreover, it is highly probable that its origin went back to the earlier Zhou Dynasty (1122 BC - 256 BC).
The first documented postal service is that of Rome, and was created during the time of Augustus Caesar (62 BC - AD 14). The service was called 'cursus publicus', and had light carriages (rhedae) with fast horses. There was also a slower service which had two-wheeled carts (birolae) pulled by oxen. Thus, the concept of regular and 'speed post' was very much in existence even then! The service was originally for official correspondence only, but soon even citizens had access to it.
The Latin name for mail, 'posta', is derived from stations created en route, called 'posata' or 'pausata', which means 'place of rest'. As the name suggests, messengers would rest here during their voyages. These stations were placed at strategic locations where major routes criss-crossed, and large amounts of mails had to be delivered.
The current system was designed by James Chalmers around 1834. In 1837, Rowland Hill published a booklet titled 'Postal Reform: its Importance and Practicability', in which he reasoned that charges should be levied onto the sender and not the receiver, as the receiver was being made to pay for mails that he might not want. In fact, there had been instances where the receiver had refused to accept them. The book also argued in favor of a uniform rate based on the weight of the package and not the distance, as it would help save the government huge sums of money on accounting.
The British Post Office issued the first official stamp in 1840. They were for internal use, and didn't have the country's name on them. Today, the United Kingdom is the only country that is not required to identify the stamps used by it for international mails―a privilege it enjoys for being the first country to issue stamps.
As mentioned earlier, payment for the service is usually done by attaching postage stamps. They have become the worldwide method of collecting advance charges and taxes for delivering mail. When the correspondence is sent, the postal service affixes the stamp with a mark, effectively canceling the stamp so that it cannot be used again. Stamps are the subject of the popular hobby of philately―collecting unique and valuable postage stamps.