In the UPU Monument (Weltpostdenkmal)
in Bern, bronze and granite, by René de Saint-Marceaux
, the five continents join to transmit messages around the globe
Before the Postal Union
Before the establishment of the UPU, every pair of countries that exchanged mail had to negotiate a postal treaty with each other. In the absence of a treaty providing for direct delivery of letters, senders sometimes resorted to mail forwarders who would transfer the mail through an intermediate country.
Negotiations for postal treaties could drag on for years. When Elihu Washburne arrived in Paris in 1869 as the new United States Minister to France, he found "the singular spectacle ... of no postal arrangements between two countries connected by so many business and social relations.":13–14 At the last grand dinner given by Emperor Napoleon III before the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, the first topic he discussed with Washburne was the postal treaty.:38 After Napoleon III was defeated at the Battle of Sedan, the United States became the first country to recognize the French Third Republic, an event that brought thousands of Parisians into the street shouting "Vive l'Amérique.":124 However, such sentiments did not lead to the signing of a postal treaty between the United States and France. There would be no relief until the Postal Union was established in 1874.:14:254–255 Washburne wrote, "There is no nation in the world more difficult to make treaties with than France.":13
Faced with such difficulties, the United States took the lead in calling for improvements to international mail arrangements. United States Postmaster General Montgomery Blair called for an International Postal Congress in 1863. Meeting in Paris, the delegates laid down some general principles for postal cooperation but failed to come to an agreement.
General Postal Union
Heinrich von Stephan, German Postmaster-General and founder of the General Postal Union
The task was taken up by Heinrich von Stephan, the Postmaster-General of the German Reichspost. After defeating Napoleon III in 1870, the North German Confederation and the South German states united to form the German Empire. The Reichspost established a uniform set of postage rates and regulations for the new country. However, the uniformity ended at the German border. Mailing a letter from Berlin to New York required different amounts of postage, depending on which ship carried the letter across the Atlantic Ocean. To bring order to the system of international mail, von Stephan called for another International Postal Congress in 1874.
Meeting in Bern, Switzerland, the delegates agreed to all of von Stephan's proposals. The Treaty of Bern was signed on October 9, 1874, establishing what was then known as the General Postal Union.
The treaty provided that:
- There should be a uniform flat rate to mail a letter anywhere in the world
- Postal authorities should give equal treatment to foreign and domestic mail
- Each country should retain all money it has collected for international postage.
One important result of the Treaty was that it was no longer necessary to affix postage stamps of countries that a mailpiece passed through in transit. The UPU provides that stamps from member nations are accepted along the entire international route.
Universal Postal Union
The Treaty of Bern had been signed by 21 countries, 19 of which were located in Europe. After the General Postal Union was established, its membership grew rapidly as other countries joined. At the second Postal Union Congress in 1878, it was renamed the Universal Postal Union.
French was the sole official language of the UPU. English was added as a working language in 1994. The majority of the UPU's documents and publications – including its flagship magazine, Union Postale – are available in the United Nations' six official languages French, English, Arabic, Chinese, Russian, and Spanish.
Toward the end of the 19th century, the UPU issued rules concerning stamp design, intended to ensure maximum efficiency in handling international mail. One rule specified that stamp values be given in numerals, as denominations written out in letters were not universally comprehensible. Another required member nations to use the same colors on their stamps issued for post cards (green), normal letters (red) and international mail (blue), a system that remained in use for several decades.
100 years of UPU commemorated on a US postage stamp
After the foundation of the United Nations, the UPU became a specialized agency of the UN in 1948. It is currently the third oldest international organization after the Rhine Commission and the International Telecommunication Union.