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Communication via written documents that an intermediary carrys from one person or place to another almost certainly dates back almost to the invention of writing. The development of a formal postal system comes much later, however. The first documented use of an organized courier service for the diffusion of written documents is in Egypt, where Pharaohs used couriers for the diffusion of their decrees in the territory of the State (2400 BC). This practice almost certainly has roots in the much older practice of oral messaging and may have been built on a pre-existing infrastructure.
The first credible claim for the development of a real postal system comes from Assyria, but the point of invention remains in question. The best documented claim (Xenophon) attributes the invention to Cyrus the Great (550 BC), while other writers credit his successor Darius I of Persia (521 BC) Other sources claim much earlier dates for an Assyrian postal system, with credit given to Hammurabi (1700 BC) and Saragon II (722 BC). Mail may not have been the primary mission of this postal service, however. The role of the system as an intelligence gathering apparatus is well documented, and the service was (later) called angariae, a term that in time turned to indicate a tax system. The Old Testament (Esther, VIII) makes mention of this system: Ahasuerus, king of Medes, used couriers for communicating his decisions.
The next credible claimant to the title of first postal system is China. Claims concerning the origins of this mail system also conflict somewhat, but it is clear that an organized postal infrastructure is put in place during Qin Dynasty (221 BC-207 BC) and that is is substantially expanded during the subsequent Han Dynasty. The origins of a Chinese mail system may go back to the Zhou Dynasty (1122 BC - 256 BC), when Confucius (551 BC-479 BC) says "news of deeds travels faster than the mail." It may also build on a pre-existing messaging infrastructure started by the Shang Dynasty. Whatever its point of origin, the Chinese Postal Service has clear title to the world's oldest continuously operating mail system. Today's Chinese mail system is continuous with one that was probably formalized under the Qin Dynasty.
The first well documented postal service is that of Rome. Organised at the time of Augustus Caesar (62 BC-AD 14), it may also be the first true mail service. The service was called cursus publicus, and was provided with light carriages called rhedae with fast horses; additionally there was another service, slower than the other one, managed with two-wheels cars (birolae) pulled by oxen. This service was reserved to the government's correspondence, another service for citizens was later added.
By the name of the stations in which mail was distributed and messengers' routes crossed, derives the latin name of mail, Posta (originally posata or pausata = place of rest) because in these stations messengers used to rest during their voyages. The english term "mail" is instead supposed coming from the Teutonic name for the bag used by messengers.
Another important postal service was created in the Islamic world by the caliph Moāvia; the service was called berid, by the name of the towers that were built in order to protect the roads by which couriers travelled.
Well before the Middle Ages and during them, carrier pigeons were used, taking advantage of a singular quality of this bird, that when brought far from its nest is able to find his way home due to a particularly developed sense of orientation. Messages were then tied around the legs of the pigeon that was freed and could reach his original nest, where the receiver was.
Many religious orders had a private mail service, notably Cistercians's one connected more than 6,000 abbeys, monasteries and churches. The best organisation however was created by Teutonic Knights. The newly insitituted universities too had their private services, starting from Bologna (1158)
Before that popular illiteracy was fought (mainly in 20th century and particularly in western countries), illiterates who needed to communicate dictated their messages to a scribe, another profession now quite generally disappeared.
Modern mail is usually organised by national services (that in recent times are increasingly being replaced by privately-owned companies), reciprocally interconnected by international regulations (some of which still in their original 18th-century form, many others of which are set out by the Universal Postal Union), organisations and agreements.
Usually the payment for the service is settled with the sticking of a pre-paid for stamp; when the envelope or package[?] to which the stamp or stamps are affixed is accepted into the mail by an officer or agent of the postal service the agent usually indicates by means of a cancellation that it is no longer valid for pre-payment of postage (the exceptions being when he neglects to do this, or for stamps that are pre-cancelled[?] and thus do not require cancellation). Stamps are also object of a particular form of collecting called philately, and often their commercial value on this specific market becomes enormously greater that the printed one, even after use. Another form of collecting regards postcards, a document written on a single robust sheet of paper, usually decorated with photographic pictures or artistic drawings on one of the sides, and short messages on a small part of the other side, that also contained the space for the address. In strict philatelic usage, the postcard is to be distinguished from the postal card, which has a pre-printed postage on the card. The fact that this communication is visible by other than the receiver, often causes the messages to be written in jargons.
Mail is quite generally protected by the secret of correspondence (secretus epistulae), meaning that no letter or other document can be read by other than the receiver (under U.S. law, this only applies to First Class Mail[?]). This right is usually guaranteed by most national constitutions, like the Mexican Constitution[?]. Usually special procedures are required in case correspondence has to be, openly or discreetly, controlled by police. The operations of control of the private citizens' mail is called censorship and concerns social, political, legal aspects of the civil rights. While in most cases this censorship is exceptional, military censorship of mail, particularly of soldiers at the front, is routine and almost universally applied.
The use of mail is subject to common rules and a particular etiquette. After the discovery of new communicating systems and vehicles, mail lost most of its special charm in favour of more quickly connecting systems such as the telephone, and remained as a vehicle for commercial or formal documents. It is however still widely in use in more cultivated classes for personal communication; in particular, wedding invitations are always sent by mail.
In modern times, mainly in 20th century, mail has found an evolution in vehicles using newer technologies to deliver the documents, especially through the telephone network; these new vehicles include telegram, telex, fac-simile (fax), e-mail, short-message-service (sms). There have been methods which have combined mail and some of these newer methods, such as INTELPOST[?], which combined facsimile transmission with overnight delivery. These vehicles commonly use a mechanic or electro-mechanic standardised writing (typing), that on the one hand makes for more efficient communication, while on the other hand makes impossible characteristics and practices that traditionally were in conventional mail, such as calligraphy.
This epoque is undoubtedly mainly dominated by mechanical writing, with a general use of no more of half a dozen standard typographic fonts from standard keyboards. However, the increased use of typewritten or computer-printed letters for personal communication and the advent of e-mail, has sparked renewed interest in calligraphy, as a letter has become more of a "special event." Long before e-mail and computer-printed letters, however, decorated envelopes, rubber stamps and artistamps formed part of the medium of mail art.
The ordinary mail service was improved in 20th century with the use of planes for a quicker delivery (air mail[?]). Some methods of airmail proved ineffective, however, including the United States Postal Service's experiment with guided missiles for international mail transport (http://www.usps.com/history/history/his2_75.htm#MISSILE) (external link).
Receipts services were made available in order to grant the sender a conformation of effective delivery.