The Early Heroes of Snail Mail

Wednesday October 11, 2017 Written by Genevieve


About 2,000 years before you were texting your housemate from bed with hungover demands for a meat pie and a Coke, Persian, Greek and Roman generals were messaging their mates from battlefields with strategic demands and updates with the help of pigeons. Julius Caesar is thought to have used pigeons as messengers in his conquest of Gaul. And before we had Olympic gymnastic commentators like Roy and HG, it was pigeons who were used by the Greeks in the 8th century to publicly broadcast the results of the Olympics to cities near and far.

The French are particularly mad for pigeon post. In the Franco-Prussian war of the late 19th century, pigeons were smuggled out of a besieged Paris by hot air balloon, and helped create two-way communication between the capital and the French provisional government, saving thousands of lives. During World War 1, 30,000 of the flappers were mobilised again by France to carry messages. They were deemed so vital to the war effort that anyone found to be impeding their flight could be sentenced to death.

Even the police got in on the act. Since 1946 in eastern India, the police service has relied on pigeons to convey messages between remote police stations. The birds were only recently retired from their duties when the region was hooked up to the internet.

But pigeons haven’t been the only posties in history. Horses have played a critical role in the development of postal services across the world, as have dogs (as couriers and morale-boosting mascots), reindeer (throughout Scandinavia and Alaska), and camels – they were imported to Australia from Afghanistan and used to carry the mail across the desert.


Image via Wikipedia Commons

Then there’s the driverless mail rail system, constructed in London in 1925, which catapulted correspondence from one side of the city to the other – up to four million pieces of mail a day.

Click here for other random facts about the postal service  (including such highlights as: ‘Up until 1915 it was legal to mail a baby by US Mail’ and ‘In 2006, a prisoner named Richard Lee McNair got himself a job in prison repairing mail bags, and he climbed inside one and mailed himself out of prison.’

The future evolution of mail is probably a question best tackled by someone like Elon Musk. But what we can confidently predict is that as long as humans exist, they’ll probably think their thoughts are important enough to send in a message, whether it’s delivered by pigeon, driverless train or broadband. Even if it’s just a hungover demand for a meat pie.

Top image via Wikipedia Commons