Today is World Post Day. It commemorates the date of the establishment of the Universal Postal Union (UPU) in 1874 in Bern, Switzerland. The UPU was the start of a global communications revolution which allowed people to write to others all over the world. October 9th was first declared World Post Day at the 1969 UPU Congress in Tokyo. Since then, World Post Day has been celebrated all over the world to highlight the importance of the postal services.
In these days of the internet and email we can forget the obstacles that had to be overcome as late as the 1870s to get a letter from one country to the next. Prior to the establishment of the UPU, each country had to prepare a separate postal treaty with other nations it wished to carry international mail to or from. In some cases, senders would have to calculate postage for each leg of a journey, and potentially find mail forwarders in a third country if there was no direct delivery. To simplify the complexity of this system, the United States called for an International Postal Congress in 1863. This led Heinrich von Stephan, Royal Prussian and later German Minister for Posts, to found the Universal Postal Union. It is currently the third oldest international organization after the Rhine Commission and the ITU. The UPU was created in 1874, initially under the name “General Postal Union”, as a result of the Treaty of Bern signed on October 9, 1874. Four years later, the name was changed to “Universal Postal Union.”
The UPU established 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 of the most important results of the UPU Treaty was that it ceased to be necessary, as it often had been previously, to affix the stamps of any country through which one’s letter or package would pass in transit. The UPU provides that stamps of member nations are accepted for the entire international route. 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 (denominations spelled out in letters not being universally comprehensible), another, that member nations all 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.
After the foundation of the United Nations, the UPU became a specialized agency of the UN in 1948. In 1969, the UPU introduced a new system of payment where fees were payable between countries according to the difference in the total weight of mail between them. These fees were called terminal dues. Ultimately, this new system was fairer when traffic was heavier in one direction than the other. For example, in 2012, terminal dues for transit from China to the USA was 0.635 SDR/kg, or about 1 USD/kg.
I’m old enough to remember when sending a letter internationally was the only effective way to stay in touch with friends and family, and how exciting it was to find a letter from Kenya or England in my mail box. I would keep those letters and read them again and again. Ancient history. Imagine, therefore, how amazing it was – not all that long ago – to be able to communicate with people abroad AT ALL. Until the 1980s we would stick a stamp on a letter and send it off to someone in another country, and not even stop to think about what was involved. Who pays for transit once the letter leaves your home country? How do you guarantee safe transit abroad? Etc. etc. These problems still exist although most international communication now involves telephone and internet. Packages are still an issue, however. A year ago I tried to send a package from China to the U.S. and it took over a month to work out the details with the Chinese postal service. I’ve also wrestled with problems in Argentina and on Easter Island.
What I miss most in the electronic age is having a tangible artifact in my hands from friends abroad. The letter I held in my hand from a friend abroad was solid, real. It was once in that person’s hands and is now in mine. The paper was distinctive, the handwriting was distinctive. Of course I love having instant messages from all over the world, but the physical tangibility is missing. The words are there, but not the body. In his essay “Self Reliance” Ralph Waldo Emerson famously said that every technological advance comes with a human price tag. That is certainly true of the replacement of “snail mail” with binary code traveling across the internet in electronic blips at the speed of light. There was a time once when my living room was festooned each Christmas with cards from around the world, making my house rich with a physical sense of connectivity. All gone.
Mailing letters is definitely a rarity for me these days but I do send packages. Quite often I send edibles as presents with unusual herbs and spices featuring heavily. True cinnamon is one grand favorite. Most cinnamon sold commercially is cassia, Cinnamomum cassia: nice enough in its way, and very useful, but nowhere near as aromatic and complex as Cinnamomum verum or “true cinnamon.” I’ve never found it in stores, only online, so if I want it myself or to send it to someone (usually my sister) I have to use the international postal service. The old botanical synonym for the tree—Cinnamomum zeylanicum—is derived from Sri Lanka’s former name, Ceylon. Sri Lanka still produces 80–90% of the world’s supply of Cinnamomum verum, which is also cultivated on a commercial scale in the Seychelles and Madagascar.
Cinnamomum verum trees are 10–15 meters (32.8–49.2 feet) tall. The leaves are ovate-oblong in shape and 7–18 cm (2.75–7.1 inches) long. The flowers, which are arranged in panicles, have a greenish color and a distinct odor. The fruit is a purple 1-cm drupe containing a single seed which can be used as a flavoring although rare. The bark is the source of the spice.
Cinnamon has been known from remote antiquity. It was imported into Egypt as early as 2000 BCE. Cinnamon was so highly prized among ancient nations that it was regarded as a gift fit for monarchs and even for a god; a Greek inscription records the gift of cinnamon and cassia to the temple of Apollo at Miletus. Its source was kept mysterious in the Mediterranean world for centuries by the middlemen who handled the spice trade, to protect their monopoly as suppliers. True cinnamon is native to Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, the Malabar Coast of India, and Burma. The first Greek reference to cinnamon is found in a poem by Sappho in the 7th century BCE where it is mixed with myrrh and frankincense. According to Herodotus, both cinnamon and cassia grew in Arabia, together with incense, myrrh, and ladanum, and were guarded by winged serpents. The phoenix was reputed to build its nest from cinnamon and cassia. Herodotus mentions other writers who believed the source of cassia was the home of Dionysos, located somewhere east or south of Greece.
The Greeks used kásia or malabathron to flavor wine, together with wormwood (Artemisia absinthium). While Theophrastus gives a good account of the plants, he describes a curious method for harvesting: worms eat away the wood and leave the bark behind. Egyptian recipes for kyphi, an aromatic used for burning, included cinnamon and cassia from Hellenistic times onward. The gifts of Hellenistic rulers to temples sometimes included cassia and cinnamon, as well as incense, myrrh, and Indian incense (kostos), so one might conclude that the Greeks used it for similar purposes.
The Hebrew Bible makes specific mention of the spice many times: first when Moses is commanded to use both sweet cinnamon (Hebrew: קִנָּמוֹן, qinnāmôn) and cassia in the holy anointing oil (Exodus 30:22-25); in Proverbs where the lover’s bed is perfumed with myrrh, aloes, and cinnamon (Proverbs 7:17); and in Song of Solomon, a song describing the beauty of his beloved, cinnamon scents her garments like “the smell of Lebanon” (Song of Solomon 4:11-14). Cassia was also part of the ketoret, the consecrated incense described in the Hebrew Bible and Talmud. It was offered on the specialized incense altar in the time when the Tabernacle was located in the First and Second Jerusalem temples. The ketoret was an important component of the temple service in Jerusalem. Psalm 45:8 mentions the garments of the king (or of Torah scholars) that smell of myrrh, aloes, and cassia.
Pliny gives an account of the early spice trade across the Red Sea that cost Rome 100 million sesterces each year. Cinnamon was brought around the Arabian peninsula on “rafts without rudders or sails or oars,” taking advantage of the winter trade winds. Pliny also mentions cassia as a flavoring agent for wine. According to Pliny, a Roman pound (327 grams (11.5 oz)) of cassia, cinnamon, or serichatum cost up to 300 denarii, ten months’ wages for a laborer. Diocletian’s Edict on Maximum Prices from 301 gives a price of 125 denarii for a pound of cassia, while an agricultural laborer earned 25 denarii per day. Cinnamon was too expensive to be commonly used on funeral pyres in Rome, but the Emperor Nero is said to have burned a year’s worth of the city’s supply at the funeral for his wife Poppaea Sabina 65.
Through the Middle Ages, the source of cinnamon was a mystery to the Western world. From reading Latin writers who quoted Herodotus, Europeans had learned that cinnamon came up the Red Sea to the trading ports of Egypt, but where it came from was less than clear. When the Sieur de Joinville accompanied his king to Egypt on crusade in 1248, he reported – and believed – what he had been told: that cinnamon was fished up in nets at the source of the Nile out at the edge of the world (i.e., Ethiopia). Marco Polo avoided precision on the topic. Herodotus and other authors named Arabia as the source of cinnamon. They recounted that giant cinnamon birds collected the cinnamon sticks from an unknown land where the cinnamon trees grew and used them to construct their nests, and that the Arabs employed a trick to obtain the sticks. Pliny the Elder wrote in the first century that traders had made this up to charge more, but the story remained current in Byzantium as late as 1310. You can get yours by international post direct from Sri Lanka. You’ll still pay a fair price, but not ten months’ salary. Its aroma is magnificent. You’ll never go back to cassia.