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Postal History: The History of Couriers


Got something from Yodel or Amazon on the way? You’re not alone. Today, it is almost impossible to imagine what the world would be like without couriers, both domestically and globally.

Couriers are now being utilised to transport just about anything to hundreds of millions of front doors all over the world, from food delivery to work supplies and everything in-between.

But how did couriers reach these lofty heights of success? And how has technology enabled new advances in delivery services through the ages?

The courier insurance brokers at Commercial Vehicle Direct offer this fascinating exploration into courier history to discover how and why couriers ought to be celebrated for their services to the world both past and present.

Couriers’ Origins: Roman Times

It is well documented that the courier profession is one of the oldest in the world. The earliest examples of couriers can be dated back to the cursus publicus in Ancient Rome, the world’s first state-mandated network of delivery couriers.

The original couriers would hand-deliver messages by riding on horseback, using homing pigeons or simply running back and forth. In fact, the word ‘courier’ itself is derived from the Latin word “currere”, which means “to run”.

Probably the most famous example of these early couriers is the legend of Pheidippides, the Greek messenger in 490 BC. He ran all the way from a battlefield near the town of Marathon to Athens to announce the defeat of the Persian army, before collapsing and dying from exhaustion.

This legend endures today in the naming and length of the marathon event to commemorate Pheidippides’s delivery efforts – 26.2 miles is the approximate length of his run between Marathon and Athens.

Thankfully, no couriers are required to make such grand sacrifices for recognition today.

Cost for deliveries: Unknown, although allegedly only the emperor, his officials and friends were permitted to use the state-mandated network that utilised horses and carriages. Otherwise, private letters and deliveries were couriered on foot by servants or traders. The penalty for unauthorised people using the state courier network was death, so the potential non-financial cost for such deliveries was likely the highest in courier history.

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Couriers in the Middle Ages

In the Middle Ages, couriers continued to be deployed across Europe, though now they were almost exclusively on horseback for further and faster deliveries. However, the average speed was still only about 50km per day, which meant that a letter sent between London and Naples would take around a month and a half to arrive.

Royal courts also began paying couriers for delivery jobs during this time, making courier work an official paid vocation.

By the 16th century, a horse courier network had expanded across the entirety of western Europe. However, it was still only the wealthiest and most important organisations who could afford private couriers due to the demand for horses, accommodation and travel expenses. This meant that couriers were often freelancers, accepting deliveries of messages from multiple sources and competing against other couriers to be the first to deliver important news.

Courier work was very dangerous and only the fittest and healthiest men were successful for long. Knowledge of other languages was also sought after – particularly Latin when it came to religious couriers delivering messages for the Pope and bishops across the continent – emphasising the need for couriers to bring communities together even then.

Despite the exclusivity of private couriers, there were also public postal networks in place across Europe as of the 16th century. The postal networks in England were open for regular people to travel upon once post houses, such as taverns, were fixed. However, the only postal system that was open to the general public by paying a fee was within the Holy Roman Empire.

Post houses eventually became open to the public too and soon after became the first public post offices, where messages and cheques could be sent and collected. Capitalism itself is therefore often considered to have some of its roots in the delivery industry, alongside traditional commerce.

Delivery availability: Public, though at a cost; private for companies, through an even greater cost.

The Pony Express

The courier business saw few technological advances until it expanded across the Atlantic with the first non-native settlers in the United States. While horses and carriages were still used early on in the United States, the courier industry was transformed forever after the emergence of the Pony Express.

Although only active for 18 months between 1860 and 1861, the Pony Express had a huge impact by utilising relays of couriers on horseback between Missouri and the new gold towns of California. Getting communications to the new state was essential, and the Pony Express’s relay system delivered these across multiple horses in ten days – previously unheard of in the history of delivery services.

Much like the idea behind goods in transit insurance today, the Pony Express couriers held their mail pouch – their mochila – in high renown. The employers even told couriers that both they and their horses should perish before their mochila pouches did.

Unlike today, couriers were also under strict rules regarding their stature. Riders weren’t allowed to weigh over 57kg (8st 13lbs) so that the mochila could carry the full capacity of 9kg of mail, along with the further 9kg of equipment on the horse.

However, the riders were well compensated for their exhausting efforts.

They received $100 a month as pay, which was a lot of money compared to the average $0.43 - $1 per day for unskilled labour at the time.

The Pony Express revolutionised the courier industry and has been romanticised as bringing an entire nation together ever since.

Cost for deliveries: $5 per 1⁄2 ounce (14 g), then $2.50, and then $1 by July 1861.

Couriers Today

Technology in the courier industry has come a long way since the days of the Pony Express, but the unifying spirit endures. With the advent of superfast global transportation, the rise of the Internet, voice search and smartphone apps and high-tech package processing, courier companies can now make deliveries from one side of the globe to the other in a matter of days.

Of course, this speed also depends on how much the customer is willing to pay for the services. In the UK, couriers can deliver goods on a same-day basis across the country if need be, a far cry from the weeks and months such deliveries would take centuries ago.

But where would we be without them? The rise of one of mankind’s oldest but slowest jobs into a global highspeed juggernaut has connected each of us across the globe together, allowing for the spread of not just commercial goods and mail but also of different cultures and thoughts across the world.

For the unification of our global communities, that’s arguably priceless. To protect your couriering endeavours, explore your courier insurance options today with CVD.

Cost for deliveries: Global deliveries from upwards of ~£9 (Parcelforce)

Why it's best to speak to us about your courier insurance:

  • New couriers welcomed - if you've just started your business we can help  
  • We have great rates for haulage and couriers with vehicles up to 44 tonnes 
  • We have cover for EU licences
  • We work with leading courier insurance specialists to get you the best deals available.

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