Post Offices of Europe 18th – 21st Century

A Comparative History

by Muriel Le Roux (Volume editor) Sébastien Richez (Volume editor)
©2014 Edited Collection 571 Pages


The cursus publicus, established by the Roman Empire to connect all its conquered territories, may be considered to be the ancestor of all modern post offices. Therefore, mail service networks are part of an organization, dating from Antiquity, which is common to the entire European community.
From the 18th century onwards, the French mail service network may be divided into three successive phases. First, the consolidation of the transportation system that was being set up. Second, the development of the system’s ability to deal with increasing traffic (through broader human resources). Thirdly, the diversification of its operations and the development of its technical modernisation.
What was the situation in other European countries? Are there similarities and differences in how their networks were set up and organized? Finally, how did European Post Offices cooperate with each other in spite of their differences?

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the Author
  • About the Book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Acknowledgements
  • Contents
  • Foreword of the First Edition: Jean-Paul Bailly, Chairman Of La Poste Group (2004-2013)
  • INTRODUCTION The Post Office: From Past to Future: Michèle Merger
  • The New Research Guide to Postal History directed by the Comité pour l’histoire de La Poste. The Post and its Correspondence: Sophie Morlot
  • Research Centres for the History of Postal Services. The Italian Case: Bruno Crevato-Selvaggi
  • The Spanish Postal History. Historiography and Research, the State of the Art: Gaspar Martínez Lorente & Pedro Navarro Moreno
  • For “Archaeology of the Equestrian Postal Services”. Cases of Post Houses in France and Italy: Armando Serra
  • Tuscan Postmasters in the 18th Century: Cristina Badon
  • Russian Postal Service in the 18th Century: Natalia Platonova
  • The Scales of Postal Communication in New France in Context: John Willis
  • The Hungarian Post Office and Travel Narratives in the 18th and 19th Centuries: Éva Ring
  • Expanding the Network of Postal Routes in France 1708-1833: Anne Bretagnolle & Nicolas Verdier
  • The Revolution of the German Mail Coach System in the Early 19th Century: Klaus Beyrer
  • Comparative Evolution of the Post Service in Spain and Europe during the Second Half of the 19th Century: Gaspar Martinez Lorente & Pedro Navarro Moreno
  • Pneumatic Post Networks in Europe: Élisa Le Briand
  • The Wiener Rohrpost. A Case Study: Robert Dalton Harris & Diane DeBlois
  • Cost Economics of Carrying the Mail by Postal Services and Messageries in France (Mid-17th Century – Late 18th Century): Anne Conchon
  • French Packet Boats. The Concession of Postal Routes to Private Navigation Companies 1835-1914: Marie-Françoise Berneron-Couvenhes
  • PTT Labor Management 1946-1974: the State as Father? The Case of Mail Deliverers in the Paris Region: Marie Cartier
  • Postal Espionage in the 18th Century Denmark: Sune Christian Pedersen
  • From the Kaiser to Tony Blair. Postal Censorship in Europe: Jesús Garcia Sanchez
  • The Post Office as an Instrument of Administrative Centralization? Its Role in the Local Administration of Isère from 1800 to 1840: Marie-Cécile Thoral
  • Sunday Mail Service in France and Europe. A Different View of the Role of the Post Offices from the Early 19th Century to 1920s: Sébastien Richez
  • Formal Procedures for Sending Official Correspondence to and from Canada During the Colonial Period (17th to 18th Century): Bernard Allaire
  • The Organization of Postal Services in the Border Areas between France and Spain: Antonio Aguilar Perez
  • European Influence on Postal Reform in 19th Century France: Olivier Bataillé
  • The English Impact on the Adoption of a Unique Tax in France and Other European Countries: Olivia Langlois
  • The Basic Premise of a Universal Postage Tax. The 1892 Project: Iwona Wierzchowiecka
  • Postal Savings Banks in Europe before 1945. A Lost Opportunity for Cooperation: Benoit Oger
  • A European System for a New Network. The Airmail Service with no Surtax in the 1930s: Léonard Laborie
  • The Strengthening of Competitiveness on the Agenda. French Corporations over the Last 25 Years: Patrick Fridenson
  • The “Change”, between History and Management: Eric Godelier
  • Management and Adaptation at La Poste Group: Christian Kozar
  • From Service to Business. A Brief History of Italian Postal Reform: Andrea Giuntini
  • One of the First Experiences of “Change”. The Case of the RATP: Albert David
  • The Paces of “Change” at the RATP: Michel Margairaz
  • “Change” in La Poste. A New Idea?: Muriel Le Roux
  • The Following Have Collaborated on this Work
  • History of Post Offices and Communications. Exchanges and Territories. A Series at the Crossroads

Foreword of the First Edition

The international conference on the history of Post Offices held in Paris in June 2004 was a world premiere in its own right: it was the first learned meeting on the comparative history of the European postal networks. Under the aegis of the most important research organization in France, the CNRS, together with the most important French company with respect to the size of its employee base, La Poste Group, forty participants representing ten different nationalities presented and discussed over a period of three days a wide variety of subjects, ranging from the organization of postal networks in the 18th century to current reforms that are transforming European Post Offices, and including the darkest hours of postal history and censorship.

The richness and diversity of the material collected during this colloquium, as well as the original nature of its purpose, inspired the organizers of the event to publish the texts of all papers presented in both a French and an English edition.

The French Post Office has distinguishes itself once again by adamantly supporting historical research. The formation in 1995 of the Committee on the History of the French Post Office (le Comité pour l’histoire de La Poste – CHP), a group that brings together academicians and postal employees, has confirmed our company’s interest in acquiring a better understanding of its history. Along with the CHP, the existence of several other similar organizations also confirms this interest. The national postal archive service, Le Service National des Archives de La Poste, and its network of investigators within our own network, is a repository for the dossiers and archives that constitute the textual memory of our history and link it directly with the everyday life of French people today and in the past. The Bibliothèque Historique des Postes et Télécommunications in Ivry-sur-Seine holds over 120,000 volumes. Finally, the Musée de La Poste, created in 1946, brings together a wealth of collections, organizes temporary exhibitions that meet with greater and greater success, and houses both photo and video archival collections.

At a time when its environment is changing faster than ever before in a fast-paced transformation, La Poste has resolutely decided not to ignore its origins and, concurrently, seeks to be a active observer of what is happening elsewhere in the postal world. In the guise of the 2004 conference, it was our aim to collect as much information as ← 13 | 14 → possible about our history and foster a spirit of inquiry and open-mindedness vis-à-vis significant events in the history of other postal services to sustain a more broad-minded perspective.

As the round table discussion of 12 June has shown, knowledge of our own past as well as foreign postal services are part and parcel of the myriad elements on which the vision of the future we have chosen for La Poste rests.

Our ambition is apparent: we seek to be a leader among postal operators in Europe, the foremost symbol of local postal services in France, an original model for personal banking, and a leading contemporary public service at everyone’s service.

In order to become a European standard, La Poste must be a leader in each of its areas of expertise. It must also develop a unique business model that includes the roles it plays in public service; this model rests on an ethical concept of development. Because La Poste represents a unique set of public services – services that evolve as they adapt to the needs of their customers – it bases its development on personal consideration; it is a business that stands alone among its peers. As such, it must be particularly mindful of its history to ensure that it remains faithful to its basic values whenever it changes.

The best example of this we can offer in 2006 is undoubtedly our activity in the area of personal banking. The seniority of the Post Office’s special status in this area gives it a singular legitimacy, a positive image, and the renewed confidence of the French people. These factors were fundamental to the argument in favor of the need to allow La Poste to perpetuate this activity by creating La Banque postale (Postal Bank), which is animated by the postal values of convenient service for the largest possible number of users.

The establishment of this “banque pas comme les autres” (a bank like no other bank) represents one of the progressive, long-term steps taken by La Poste since its contractual plan Performances et Convergences was put in place. The plan involves a commitment to significant projects of modernization and professionalism. In so doing, La Poste will enter a new phase of its history, prepared to challenge European and international competition on an equal footing. It will not hesitate to position itself vis-à-vis new activities and services that harmonize with its traditional role, like providing personalized service, in the eyes of the French public.

Although the traditional image of the mailman on his bicycle remains a steadfast symbol of mail delivery for his customers, La Poste has made innovations in this area by utilizing the most recent technologies to respond better to its clients’ expectations (as witnessed, for ← 14 | 15 → instance, by the enormous success of the registered electronic letter). For the period 2003–2010, it also plans to invest 3.4 billion euros in an unprecedented program of industrial modernization. Moreover, with its many branches, La Poste’s world-class expertise allows it to comply fully with the expectations of all types of businesses, from the creation of documents to their filing, via data and returns management.

Another element of the Group’s trade, the express package, is following a two-pronged strategy of international growth and technological transformation. This strategy will enable it to profit maximally from the impressive development of e-commerce and present itself undeniably as the obvious partner of e-commerce sites.

As for the network of post offices themselves, we have set forth on an ambitious plan to modernize offices and expand the array of services they offer. Strengthened by its incomparable grid of over 17,000 points of service, La Poste has set itself the goal of becoming the foremost distribution point of convenience services in France. To do so, it is indispensable that the French population both wants and enjoys visiting our offices, whose renovation and improvement was long overdue, where the services offered were too narrowly restricted to traditional postal offerings. With over 2,400 important renovations or transformations planned between 2006 and 2007, investments of nearly 770 million euros, and the launch of a new concept – the “post office of the future” – ours is certainly the most ambitious projects ever undertaken by La Poste for its public network at large.

Although the different service branches of La Poste (mail, parcel/ express mail, banking, and general public network) are undergoing a period of rapid modernization, the future of our group also lies in the values that stem from our history and culture. These values are the guiding light to the life of La Poste and the daily comportment of postal employees; they are the groundwork of our reputation in the eyes of those who interact with us – be they representatives, clients, or partners. These values have always been the bedrock of our professional activities yet they are also contemporary: openness, accessibility, convenience, equity, and social development.

This last value is the foundation of our commercial responsibility. Because of its stature, its activities, and its close ties with participants in the fabric of economic life, La Poste is a central factor of the French economy and contributes nearly 1% of the national GDP. This contribution comes with a tri-partite economic, social, and environmental responsibility.

Two examples: first, professional diversity, which valorizes the position of women at all levels of responsibility in a business where they have only recently become a majority of the work force; and secondly, ← 15 | 16 → long-term development, especially with its concern for preventive health care, on-the-job safety, and recognition of the impact of our activity on the environment (optimal efficiency in waste management, the enforcement a politics of “smart (recycled) paper”, use of electric vehicles, and a responsible purchasing strategy.)

All this without neglecting the immense responsibility of the largest business employer in France, with its 300,000 agents who participate daily in its development, representing its values and promoting the trust that enhances the stature of La Poste. Every individual in the La Poste Group is important to us. By developing our capabilities, improving equipment and working conditions, and sustaining a spirit of shared responsibility, La Poste ensures its perenniality as an institution, from yesterday to today.

The articles we have published in this volume show the extent to which the history of the postal service, in all periods and countries, is the history of its workers who were capable of making innovations and participating in their own modernization. These studies make an invaluable contribution to our enterprise: the 2004 conference bears witness to the existence of a community of researchers working together to advance and write the history of an institution that is to be found, albeit with a different organizational structure, in every nation. I believe that it is this community’s most fervent desire to unite itself more strongly, so that it can more easily coordinate and exchange the results of all its research and synergies, thanks to an international organization I summon to this task. This would be the natural and most effective continuation of this pioneering work of the June 2004 conference.

Paris, March 2007

Jean-Paul Bailly, Chairman of La Poste Group (2004–2013)


The Post Office: From Past to Future*

Michèle MERGER

Since its inception, the mission of the Post Office has always been to connect people regardless of the distance that separates them and to fulfill the basic human need to communicate. This need called for the creation of a broad-based undertaking that joined the forces of a central administration, in charge of organizing and managing the dispatch of correspondence and parcels, with a postal network that gradually expanded over time by relying on other major transportation networks (roads, railways, and later air traffic). Collectively these networks were among the elements that allowed for the restructuring of space on the local, regional, national and continental levels. Serving all communities equally, the Post Office soon expanded its services, to the benefit of financial services that are now becoming one of the most important economic sectors, after having been marginalized for many years, Finally, since the 1990s, the Post Office has been subject to significant judicial changes, compelled by guidelines issued by the European Commission in Brussels.

The purpose of this brief introduction is not only to recall some of the main events in postal history but also to suggest some topic for further reflection on recent transformations and concerns about the future of the postal sector in the context of a European continent that is constantly striving toward further integration.

The Emergence of Immediate and Diversified Service at the Crossroads of National and International Synergies

The dispatch of letters and correspondence has always been regarded with considerable importance from a political, diplomatic, and economic point of view. Faced with the growing needs of a world that was about to witness an industrial transformation, the organization of the postal service was consolidated in the early decades of the 19th century. This evolution took place in relation to three basic principles that have al ← 17 | 18 → ways characterized the postal service: equal access for all customers, reliability, and continuity. Significant measures were taken to ensure that these three requirements were met. By the end of the 1820s in France, 35,000 communities that represented 75% of the total population had no postal service. In order to put and end to this situation, a decision was made in 1828 to connect post offices in these localities at least once a day; one year later it was decided that mail would be delivered to homes every two days, before daily delivery was provided. This decision was ratified by the law of 10 June 1829, marking the beginning of an unprecedented expansion of the postal service: by 1829 there were more than 1,800 post offices in France, more than 4,000 in 1845 and 5,500 in 1877.

Similar policies were adopted in all European countries. In the Sardinian Kingdom daily service that had been restricted to the royal roads until 1835 was extended to the coach-mail that used the provincial roads; one year later it was established on secondary roads. New post offices were opened in the chief towns that were equivalent to the main district towns: in 1835–1836, 260 such offices were registered in the kingdom versus 100 in the period 1828–1829. In Belgium daily delivery became a reality in all municipalities from 1841 onward. Some studies in this collection clearly indicate the key importance of horses and roads for traffic strategies and the mutual relationship of trade and industry. The articles on the organization of postal services convincingly demonstrate that until the middle of the 19th century, the main arteries of long distance postal service overlapped with the major commercial axes of roads. A cycle of activities related to care of the horses, providing hay and repairing vehicles took place at the relay stations where teams were changed.

Improvements in postal service resulting from the development of the railway system continued to be made in the second half of the 19th century. The new means of transportation was faster and more regular and corresponded better to service demands: it could route mail more efficiently at a lower cost of transportation. In France the first mail cars appeared on the Paris-Rouen train line in 1844–1845, and the last mail coaches disappeared between 1870–1873. Many small post offices were established in train stations or in the vicinity. In countries like Spain, the railroad brought an even more impressive modernization of the postal service that had been blocked by an incomplete road network that was insufficient for people’s needs. The postal and rail services shared common goals because they both promised their users continuity, safety, and speed. Among numerous contemporary descriptions of the benefits of this synergy of postal and rail services, we cite this excerpt from a Sardinian parliamentary commission written in 1854: ← 18 | 19 →

The railroad has brought about extraordinary progress for the benefit of society. One aspect of this progress is broader and faster postal communication. Only a few years ago, it was commonly believed that the establishment of regular postal dispatches to neighboring countries as well as between the major cities of the realm represented enormous progress […] From now on, however, this same dispatch can be made several times a day thanks to the railroad.1

The need for faster and faster information also explains the development of the pneumatic post in many European capitals – London (1853), Berlin (1865), Paris (1866), and Vienna (1875) – thanks to the establishment of a system based on the installation of tubes using compressed air and a vacuum as a dynamic force for distributing urban correspondence more rapidly. The development of these networks was also linked to the presence of telegraph offices.

Other articles in this collection present other synergies between the postal network and means of transportation. The advent of steamship navigation allowed the largest sea-going shipping companies to service major postal lines around the Mediterranean, as well as in the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. Airmail, begun in the aftermath of the First World War, suited the demands of the modern postal system better than any other means of transportation: defying natural obstacles, it led the way to developing airmail transportation shortly after 1945. Aviation itself was forced to improve its take off and landing techniques because of the demands of the airmail postal service, because air passengers could not be subjected to the same risks taken by pilots when they were carrying only mail.

Another synergy appeared on the international level: during the 1840s, many international agreements, usually bilateral, that favored the routing mail both domestically and beyond the borders of the European continent were signed. Under the influence of smaller countries, the General Postal Union was founded in Bern in 1874, before becoming the Universal Postal Union four years later. Another factor that contributed to enhancing the quality of the postal system joined these initiatives: international trains were put into service that enables the postal services to organize the routing of mail from one country to another more efficiently. Airmail service was also the subject of numerous ← 19 | 20 → bilateral and then multilateral conferences, where participants (administrations, countries, airline companies) were able to move beyond their own conflicts of interests.

The entry of postal networks on the international scale was the result of the complementary logistics of postal flow and cost strategies. Since the 19th century postal service was increasingly expected to move large volumes of mail rapidly. By 1840 the United Kingdom was routing 170 million letters; only twenty years later, the volume of mail distributed was over 620 million pieces of mail. In the long term, this sort of progression has led to the dispatch of trillions of letters. As a mode of exchange that allows the general population to communicate with each other six out of seven days a week, the post office has become a public service that has continuously grown and diversified its services, despite the advent of the internet and electronic mail, in particular, in 1969. In major industrialized countries today, mail such as billing, bank statements, and personal or public news account for half of all mail circulation.

The origin of the rapid increase in the quantity of mail goes back to the end of the 1830s when the principle of a single standardized rate was adopted geographically. Introduced by the Englishman Rowland Hill, standardized rates were used in England for the first time in 1839 and marked the end of incremental rates based on distance that were paid by the receiver. But the measure only focused on the availability of letters at the post office. Many other countries like France (1848), the Swiss Confederation (1843–1845), and Piedmont (1850) adopted standardized rates that put solidarity and equity (EQUITE) on the winning side of the debate. The standardization was extended to home delivery and was never questioned until the end of the 20th century when diversification led to different types of delivery service in most countries based on how quickly or slowly the mail was delivered. These types of delivery service vary according to customers’ needs and require postage amounts of variable rates.

Postal service is not limited to sending mail, since it also provides financial services that funnel individual savings through postal accounts. These financial operations were increasingly developed in the aftermath of the First World War and seemed to consolidate the role of the post office as the provider of a public service that responded to the needs of the general population. ← 20 | 21 →

From Monopoly to Liberalization: From Public to Universal Service

Administrations that seek to observe good business practices and eventually contribute to financing the national budget have traditionally provided postal service as a public service. Its most recognizable symbols are the post office and the mail deliverer. This type of organization remained unchanged in all European countries through the 1980s but was re-examined in the 1990s, under the influence of ministers who were responsible for the postal service in countries that were members of the European Community.

Directives from Brussels have recommended a politics of liberalization that strives to create an economic entity based on business logic and the unrestricted availability of products and services. As such, this economic entity gives free rein to market forces and open competition. The politics of the European Commission have tended to inscribe public service companies in a competitive context. This approach has led not only to a re-examination of the status of postal organization and the notion of public service2 but also to the elaboration of new concepts and an effort to clarify issues that have progressively modified the laws of the Community. The concept of universal service defined by a European directive in 1996 on telecommunications and the post office followed the notion of service in the general economic interest, recognizing the existence of specific activities that were not affected by the tenets of competition and the laws of the market. The new concept somewhat tempered the early stages of competition by imposing mandatory principles on participants that were taken to be unavoidable and a set of “responsibilities that were intended to provide universal access to certain fundamental qualitative benefits at reasonable prices.” Universal service is conceived differently from public service3 and constitutes a basic service: it represents a ground-level service, and in relation to the collective needs of each member of the European Union, it can be enlarged by the addition of complementary services. Its operative prin ← 21 | 22 → ciples – equality, universality, and continuity – and behavioral guidelines – a transparent management style, rate system and financing – are comparable to the principles and guidelines for public service.

The constitution of these monolithic postal administrations has evolved over time, but the interpretation of the statements from Brussels and the legal heritage of each member of the Union (15 total before 1 May 2004) have led to different solutions, without the emergence of a dominant model. Some administrations have become public organizations, like La Poste in France and the Royal Mail in the UK; others are now commercial law corporations with limited liability. Two of these, the T Post Group in the Netherlands and the Deutsche Post Ag have been partially privatized. The Netherlands were the first European country to privatize their postal administration in 1989: the company has traded on the stock exchange since 1994, and only 18% of the Post Group’s capital is currently owned by the Dutch government. The Deutsche Post Ag is still financially controlled by the state and the Länders, which hold just over 55% of its capital; Deutsche Post Ag offered 19% of its stock on the Frankfurt Stock Exchange in November 2000. Other postal administration have become stock-issuing companies whose only stockholder is the national government: Sweden created the Posten AB in 1994, and Italy formed the Poste Italiane in 1998;4 France saw the creation of La Poste in 2000.

These statutory changes were accompanied by a new organization that was supposed to reduce service costs and further diversify activities. The goal of the postal groups’ strategies was not only to respond to Brussels’ expectations regarding liberalization5 but also to expand their impact abroad. All these enterprises were required to separate their mail and financial services. There were three main types of mail service:

1) regular domestic mail (correspondence),

2) advertizing as national mail; bulk mailings of increasing size; beyond the concentrations that are characterized by the clear distinction between parcel service and mail service, and between these two services and financial services, and

3) international mail.

The reorganization of services meant that alliances with other operators had to be formed; this naturally led to more diversified activities, both at home and abroad. In the Netherlands, the Post Group, directed ← 22 | 23 → by Peter Bakker with a current staff of 160,000 employees, not only bought TNT, the Australian service provider in 1996 (TNT had become its logistics pole that specialized in parcel delivery), but also Jet Services, a French company in 1998, as well as Technologista, the Italian logistics server that also operated in Germany and France. The Dutch company also made other acquisitions in Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany, and Denmark; it concluded agreements and created branches with other European postal administrations (in Switzerland and Italy), in Asia (China and Singapore), and in Australia. Thanks to this strategy, the Post Group now has a presence in over sixty countries and serves nearly two hundred countries. In Germany, Deutsche Post, with a staff of 348,000, has seen a similar evolution under the direction of Klaus Zumwinkel. Thanks to an increase in capital, it was able to purchase other companies and develop some of its services. The agreement with DHL, which absorbed its competitor of Alsatian origin, Danzas, at the end of 2000 (DHL is now part of the Deutsche Post World Net group) gave Deutsche Post entry into other European countries as well as India and Pakistan. The group is either directly or indirectly associated with 88 national companies and over 300 international companies; it is divided into four divisions: Mail, Express, Logistics, and Financial Services.

Financial Services have been developed in all countries thanks to the creation of banking products (credit cards, rechargeable payment cards, mutual funds) and new services (purchase credits; real estate credit as a back-up to housing savings plans; damage insurance products for automobiles or homes), besides traditional services (checking accounts and passbooks). Postbank in Germany, and the Italian Bancoposta, launched in 2003, are showing impressive business figures. France will be able to follow its neighbors’ lead first by expanding the financial services of La Poste: thanks to the plan contract that was approved in 2003 linking the company to the State until 2007. The first financial evaluation will be done in 2006 when the possibility of further expansion of its financial operations will be re-examined.

With a broader range of services than banks and an additional business day (most Saturdays), the post office system has been able to draw many new clients who have been enticed by lower costs on almost all services offered: Postbank has captured over 11 million Germans and Bancoposta has lured over 3.5 million Italians. The aggregate of financial services is on its way to becoming their predominant activity, representing approximately 45% of postal revenue, only slightly less than “traditional” postal services.

Significant effort has been made across the board to improve the quality of services and increase productivity. The Italian example alone is indicative of this change. Under the management of Corrado Passera, a former director of Olivetti who was nominated to lead the group in 1998 (Passera was succeeded by Massimo Sardi in April 2002), the Poste Italiane were successful in attaining the European standards for mail distribution: in 2003, 87% of all priority mail arrived the day after it was sent, while over 92% of all regular and certified mail arrived on the third day after it was sent. The Poste Italiane have also modernized their offices for their customers’ use and computerized their traditional operations. Customers may now pay their gas and electric bills online and use the Internet to send telegrams and letters that will later be delivered to the receiver by hand. Moreover, the company manages and supervises all correspondence sent by the police force, as well as the national and municipal police to citizens. It has also diversified its services by developing logistical services along with banking activities in approximately thirty post offices in Rome, where residents may apply for or renew a passport.

The reforms also addressed the interrelationship of post offices and sorting centers. The latter are often still set up in places that are no longer convenient or suitable to people’s needs or new techniques in postal circulation, because of changes in work or leisure time habits. At the end of the 1990s in France, more than one-third of the mail sorting centers throughout the country was not in the vicinity of a major artery of traffic. This was true especially for the centers at train stations, since the train has been neglected more and more by the postal system in favor of transporting mail by plane. According to the plan contract signed in 2003, the La Poste Group is planning to install mail preparation centers up the line from the main sorting centers and reorganize mail sorting according to three different platforms:

1) national platforms near borders with international demand; 2) regional platforms (about forty); and 3) local and contiguous platforms. The post office network (approximately 17,000 in 1992), reflecting its historical development, is inadequately developed in the suburban areas and the Paris suburbs.6 La Poste was called upon either to set up or relocate post offices, some of which had been established in shopping malls or even in supermarkets. This willingness to change the face of the network is not only specific to France. The Deutsche Post in Germany made arrangements with business partners (pubs, or service stations or nearby businesses such as bakeries, grocery stores, tobacconists, or stationery stores) in order to de-isolate rural post offices for the benefit of urban areas and develop a new kind of network, the point of service of which there were already 7,000 in 2004. France has begun to develop this solution that has also been adopted by Sweden, on an experimental basis, by collaborating with merchants (about 100 postal points of service were opened in 2004) or municipal networks (1,200 in 2004) for basic services. However, there has been a strong critical reaction from the rural population, local officials and defenders of public service who feel that the closing of the “real” post office, along with the discontinuation of its various postal operations follows closely on the heels of the closing of schools and marks the end of the state’s presence in the countryside.

The results of the endeavors by the T. Post Group, Deutsche Post, and the Poste Italiane are not enough to demonstrate the recent changes in postal services on their own, especially since the Swedish example does not appear to justify the merits of the deregulation hoped for by the European Community. As of 1 January 1993 the Swedish postal monopoly on the routing of mail was the first to be abolished in Europe. One year later the postal administration was transformed into a public company, Posten AB, that was confronted with two main types of responsibilities: picking up and distributing mail on work days at standard and affordable costs (it was understood that uniform rates on distributed mail would be preserved); the company also expected to provide basic daily banking services, issuing and paying money orders and postal checks. The disappearance of the monopoly allowed about one hundred companies to become authorized to provide postal services along with the largest such company, City Mail that had targeted businesses since the beginning of the 1990s as a way of attacking Posten’s monopoly. Ten years later all observers agree that the company’s rating is far from satisfactory. Under the leadership of Ulf Dahlsten and renamed by many Swedes as Post Pot, Posten AB has tried to diversify itself in order to remain competitive when faced with new information technologies. In particular, it opened a gateway site that was supposed to stimulate the circulation of parcels, but the site was closed when it became prohibitively expensive.7 The business has seen enormous financial losses (more than 80 million euros in 2002), and most of its assets have been sold. Moreover, the number of traditional post offices (2,000 approaching 1990) has been divided by five and over 30% of operations have been downsized, without showing any significant increase in productivity. The cost of stamps has doubled. Begun in the ← 25 | 26 → “pervasive deregulation euphoria”8 of the 1990s, the Swedish experience soon became and “edifying example”9 in the context of union discussions that proves that the liberalization of the postal sector should be rejected. For many observers the Swedish example is not one to be followed, but it does not undermine the validity of the reforms undertaken in Europe in the past fifteen years or so.

Final remarks

Above and beyond these varying opinions, the historian should speculate on the future of the postal sector based on the results shown by different countries. The lack of any critical distance from a contemporary historical approach limits the validity of any such analysis and prevents us from passing any definitive judgment on current experiences. Nonetheless, certain observations are possible. The first concerns the postal sector’s need to effect quantitative and qualitative changes. The demographic and socio-economic changes that have taken place in Europe on the whole called for a new configuration of post office networks and mail sorting centers. The weight of the past deserved to be surpassed by a “transformation of the postal presence”10 and by improving the way mail is handled. The second observation has to do with the concept of universal service.

One must realize that the different countries that compose the European Union all share its definition, but there is no reason why exactly same modes that guarantee this definition should be used within all borders. The choices that have been made justifiably recognize different realities and national heritages and explain why no one single model has imposed itself.


ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2014 (October)
diversification modernisation mail service
Bruxelles, Bern, Berlin, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2014. 571 pp., 46 ill., 24 tables

Biographical notes

Muriel Le Roux (Volume editor) Sébastien Richez (Volume editor)

Muriel Le Roux is a senior researcher at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in France. Having been at the Maison Française d’Oxford (UK), she is based at the Institut d’histoire moderne et contemporaine (CNRS – ENS – Paris 1). A specialist in the history of science, technology and business, she has been in charge of research programmes for the Committee for the History of the Post Office (CHP) for many years.


Title: Post Offices of Europe 18th – 21st Century
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576 pages