I sent a letter to my love And on the way I dropped it, Someone must have picked it up And put it in their pocket
So runs the still-popular circle game. But has email made the song - and hence the game - redundant? Will millennia of written communication dissolve this century into the ether of electronic pulses? With the Royal Mail currently handling 80 million items a day, that doesn't seem too likely. Frank Kermode, in his introduction to The Oxford Book of Letters, estimates that most of us write at least half a dozen letters every week, so that in 50 or 60 years of normal writing life, many people must despatch about 18,000 letters. But that book was compiled in 1995. What is the figure in 2006? Would it include emails, texts, faxes?
An internet story circulates about the day the first Hotmail message was sent to India, with "Get your free email account at hotmail.com" at the bottom of it. Next morning the traffic statistics had quintupled overnight, on the strength of that one email. People are hungry, desperate even, to communicate. Mail is crucial: but are letters?
Back in the mists of time, letter-writing was born, shortly after the invention of writing. The physical expression of mail took different forms according to the culture in which it arose.
Ancient postal services
In Egypt, where the afterlife dominated the everyday more than anywhere else in history, some of the first "letters" were written on bowls and scraps of papyrus inscribed to dead relatives, from the late Old Kingdom (about 2686-2181bc) to the late New Kingdom (about 1550-1069bc). Some are currently in the Petrie Museum of Archaeology at University College London.
These letters are not just saying "Hi". They treat the dead as powerful and possibly malignant beings. They urge compassion and restraint upon the departed and remind recently deceased members of the family - spouses, parents, siblings -to intervene in the afterlife, even at the court of the underworld, to solve difficulties over health or property. One can only speculate on the ultimate delivery.
In Mesopotamia, where trade was the lifeblood of the emerging state, letters began as clay tokens rattling inside a clay box sent between Sumerian merchants around 4000bc. The tokens stood for trade accounts. To indicate what was inside the boxes, merchants impressed cuneiform symbols on the outside. Soon enough, they realised that the symbols obviated any need for the tokens and the information was sent on the "envelope" tablets alone. To keep everyone in the loop, they developed schools for an educated elite and for the many scribes who were needed for all the record-keeping and letter-writing needed by the fast-growing civilisation.
The postal service continued to grow. Although some ancient historians credit Assyrians Sargon II (2334-2279bc) the great conqueror, or Hammurabi (1795-1750bc) the great law-giver, with inventing the first postal service, the Greek writer Xenophon attributes the invention of a universal postal service to the much later Persian Empire, with Cyrus the Great (550bc) and his barids, who were entitled to call on local authorities for refreshments for themselves and their horses. This was not exactly a mail service that Postman Pat would recognise, however. The couriers were well attested as intelligence and even revenue-gatherers for the rulers. Surveillance went hand in hand with information. The Bible (Book of Esther, VIII) mentions this courier system: Ahasuerus, King of Medes, sent out messengers to issue his decrees - servants with beasts of burden rather than jolly red vans, and it took weeks rather than hours, but the post got through.
It was not until the Greeks that European letters escaped the bounds of scribal control. In about 325bc, the Greeks developed fluent handwriting with upper and lower-case characters, as opposed to the formal scribing of upper-case symbols (attributed to Cadmus, founder of the city of Thebes).
They first used a writing stylus, made of metal, bone or ivory, to place marks on wax-coated tablets which were made in hinged pairs and closed to protect the scribe's notes, but, soon enough, personal messages were written in ink made from ground minerals or macerated plant fibres, on to papyrus or parchment.
Paper did not arrive the West till the Middle Ages. It was probably a Chinese invention (see box below). Greek handwriting was transplanted during the 1st century bc into the Roman Empire. Papyrus (made from pulped reeds) or parchment (sheep's skin) and ink were not cheap, but they were not prohibitively expensive. Private couriers were still sent on foot or on horseback, but at the time of Augustus Caesar (62bc to ad14), the Romans organised a cursus publicus, or state post, largely for civil servants and military orders for governing the empire, using light carriages called rhed with fast horses. This offered a first-class service, while another, slower, service was equipped with two-wheel carts (birol) pulled by oxen.
Later, private citizens were offered a paid-for service. Among the Roman aristocracy, letter-writing became the rage, with outpourings of love, gossip, information and political propaganda mingling with commercial transactions on a hitherto unknown scale. The very word "post" comes from posata or pausata, the places where messengers rested and routes crossed.
The modern mail service
The word mail supposedly derives from the Teutonic name for the bag used by messengers. The Teutons came up with their own system, memorialised in the symbol still used in Germany today: a black post-horn symbol on a yellow background (see left). For 500 years, a well-connected family called the Princes of Thurn und Taxis (Tassis in Italian), ran the Vatican's private postal service. On receiving a letter from the Pope, delivered speedily and personally by Roger of Tassis, the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick III (1444-1493) realised the potential of a more formal system than that of the merchants' private couriers. The empire covered most of Europe, with terrible roads, impassable swamps and high mountains, but the Thurn und Taxis messengers used a relay system of horses to get their messages over mountains and across rivers.
Prince Franz von Thurn und Taxis was appointed postmaster by Emperor Maximilian I. In 1501, he obtained the right to carry government as well as private mail throughout the empire, and expanded this to a network of postal routes in Spain, Germany, Austria, Italy, Hungary, and the Low Countries from 1512 to 1867. At its height, the system employed about 20,000 messengers to deliver mail and newspapers.
Letters became a staple of art, as well as an art in themselves, from the fictional note dropped on purpose in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, for instance, to the many paintings created by the Dutch artist Jan Vermeer (1632-1675) of women receiving, reading and writing letters. "Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window", "Lady Writing a Letter With Her Maid", "The Love Letter", "Woman Writing a Letter" are just a few of the moments of still concentration that Vermeer immortalised in his domestic interiors pierced by shafts of light. Such moments could not have been created without widespread literacy and a postal service, just as the tea and coffee that the women drank and the silks and muslins that they wore, could not have been traded without international correspondence.
However, such a supranational network could not withstand Napoleon's conquests and the technological challenges of the 18th and 19th centuries with the invention of steam navigation and the railway.
An Austrian postmaster, Johann Georg Khumer of Friesach, introduced the first modern postmark in 1787, although it was 80 years before this pioneering step became general practice. Governments began to see that, if communications were to keep pace with transport, formalities would have to be standardised and reduced. They could not afford to leave control of the mail to private enterprise. Pressure for wider democracy, too, led to the decline of the Thurn und Taxis system in the 1850s and so, nearly 500 years after it was established, the family's postal network was sold. In 1867 it was nationalised by the newly emergent Prussian monarchy.
In Great Britain in 1840, reformer Rowland Hill (1795-1879), impelled by the injustice of the random level of private postal levies, imposed the rate for letters in the Post Office internal service as a penny; that standardised fee was matched by the introduction of the stamp, the famous Penny Black (see left). Before the establishment of post offices and sub post offices later in the 19th century, people collected and posted their letters at receiving houses. These were often inns or posthouses along main coach routes or, in towns, the coaching inns at the end of the routes.
Handling the post was just one commercial activity undertaken by the receiving house - similar in function to modern sub post offices. The postmaster may also have worked as a chemist, builder, bookseller or decorator, or provided a general village shop.
Today, we take pillar boxes for granted, but in the late 1840s posting a letter could mean a long walk to the nearest receiving house or post office. The novelist Anthony Trollope was responsible for introducing them to Britain. An employee of the Post Office, in 1851 he visited the Channel Islands to experiment with improving services. He trialled roadside posting boxes so successfully that they were installed on the mainland in 1853, and the familiar cylindrical red box was introduced in 1879.
In 1874, an international convention was signed at Bern which set up the Universal Postal Union, facilitating the exchange of mail between nations.
The treaty unified a confusing maze of postal services and regulations across the world into a single postal territory for the reciprocal exchange of letters (the union now operates as a specialised agency of the United Nations).
In 1881, Henry Fawcett, UK Postmaster General, introduced the postal order as an easy and safe method of transferring money, intended for people who did not have bank accounts. Dark doings over a postal order in 1908 formed the basis of Terence Rattigan's play, The Winslow Boy (1946).
Volumes of mail escalated. In 1883, parcel post was introduced and letter carriers renamed postmen. By 1901, the UK Post Office handled 2.1 billion letters, with several deliveries a day.
Writing technology went hand in hand with this increased volume of post. As the first Remington typewriter advertisements declared: "To save time is to lengthen life." In 1874, Charles Sholes and Carlos Glidden made an agreement with the Remington company to have their model, the "Type-writer", with its QWERTY keyboard, manufactured in quantity. They envisaged only commercial use for the sewing-machine based instrument, but by the late 1890s portable machines were being used at home, while smaller versions produced for writing letters home from the trenches during the First World War quickly caught on.
Similarly, popular use of the fountain pen, first patented in the US in 1809, was established in the 1880s and really took off with soldiers writing home during the First World War. Sales of Parker pens in 1920 were one million and kept leaping as technology improved. The invention of the ballpoint pen, patented by Ladislaw Biro in 1938, made writing even more convenient.
The world shrank. Aeroplanes and air-compression tubes (see box) made communications faster and faster. The world's first regular airmail service was a temporary one, run between Hendon, north London and Windsor, as part of the coronation celebrations for King George V on September 9, 1911. The first regular international airmail service started in 1919, when the Royal Air Force delivered mail between London and Paris.
In fact, letters became the victim of their own success. In 1968, the UK Post Office was the world's first modern postal service to introduce a two-tier delivery system. Royal Mail's solution to the vast quantity of mail was to use first and second-class stamps, the more expensive first class indicating next-day delivery. But this posed new dilemmas: were you worth no more than a second-class stamp?
Even now, when the invention of the telegraph (1837) and telephone (1875) mean that we can talk to anyone, anywhere, Royal Mail continues to deliver post regularly to more than 26 million addresses. The mailbag competes with the mobile phone (1975) and email (1971). But will there ever be anything as thrilling as the first handwritten letter from a lover?