IT MAY be hard to imagine a world without cheap postal services, but 200 years ago sending mail was a luxury. Posting a letter from London to Edinburgh cost an average daily wage. In 1840, after a proposal by Rowland Hill, an inventor, Britain launched the Penny Post, the world’s first universal mail service. The state-run post office was given a mail monopoly in return for delivering letters to any address in the country at the same rate. Cheaper postage proved wildly popular and the flows of information it enabled boosted economic growth. But the scheme’s finances proved controversial. The low cost of the service hit profits and the government introduced income tax to fill the fiscal hole.
That did not stop the idea of a “universal service obligation” for post spreading across the entire rich world over the next century. At the industry’s peak, post offices worldwide delivered nearly 350bn items of mail in 2007. But over the past…Continue reading