Heinrich von Stephan and the founding of the Universal Postal Union

Museum for Communication Berlin, Museum Foundation Post and Telecommunication

When a letter is sent from Germany to Sweden, a fee of 90 euro cents is paid to the German postal service. But the Swedish mailman delivering the letter might have to travel long distances across dense archipelagos or barren rocky landscapes to get it to its destination. Isn't that a little unfair? Well, in return, the Swedish postal service receives the money for sending a letter from Sweden to Germany. So the countries, and ideally the whole world, just need to be in agreement.

The big idea for the establishment of the Universal Postal Union came from Heinrich von Stephan, a former Privy Post Councillor, who later became General Postal Director for the German Empire and the founder of the Museum for Communication Berlin.

With the signing of the Treaty for the formation of a General Postal Union on October 9, 1874 in Bern, 21 states from 4 continents formed a single postal area for all contracting countries, creating one of the oldest international organizations worldwide.

While 55 different postage rates were previously used for German postal traffic abroad, each letter with a fixed weight of 15 grams now cost the same amount: 20 pfennigs.

Distance zones—calculated on a mileage scale, classified into different weight categories, and based on the value of the shipment—were no longer needed.

Postage payment regulations, i.e., the complex settlement and compensation between the individual states, also disappeared. Each postal administration could keep the charges it levied.

To continuously adapt the General Postal Union Treaty and constantly improve the seamless running of international postal traffic, regular follow-up conferences were contractually set.

The establishment of a permanent office in Bern as a central contact and monitoring point, as well as a court of arbitration for resolving conflicts, strengthened confidence in the new organization.

At the second World Postal Congress in 1878 in Paris, the General Postal Union was renamed to the Universal Postal Union and the decision was made to publish world postcards.

More and more countries joined the Universal Postal Union. Since the 1880s, in addition to most European states and colonies, Japan, Australia and the countries of South America—and so countries on all 5 continents—have been linked by a common worldwide postal area.

In 1878 standardized postage stamp colors were introduced to handle basic fees, which were stipulated at the 1906 Universal Postal Congress in Rome. Green was established as the color for franking printed items, red for postcards, and blue for cross-border mail.

In 1920 the Universal Postal Union also regulated the issue of postal identity cards. They served as valid identification for the person delivering or at the post office counter.

For the 50th anniversary of the Universal Postal Union an event was held in the atrium of the Museum for Communication Berlin, with German President Friedrich Ebert (first row, second from left) also taking part.

World Post Day is celebrated on October 9 to commemorate the foundation of the Universal Postal Union, which continues to establish the rules for global postal traffic for its 192 member states to this day.

Credits: Story

Heinrich von Stephan and the founding of the Universal Postal Union

A virtual exhibition by Museumsstiftung Post und Telekommunikation.

Curator: Wenke Wilhelm

All objects are part of the collection of Museumsstiftung Post und Telekommunikation.


Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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