The arrangements for delivering mail between countries in the earliest centuries of postal service is uncertain. By the 16th century provision for service was by treaty. Postal treaties stipulated how delivery of mail was to be made between one country and another and at what rates. Accounting between two different postal systems was based on the amounts due on letters. (Costs at that time were generally paid by the addressee, not the sender.) As time went by, the treaties became very complicated because of differences in national rates, currencies, and charges for units of weight.
International delivery had become so complex by the mid-19th century that in 1862 the United States suggested reform. Little was done immediately because of the American Civil War and the Franco-Prussian War. By the early 1870s a plan had been prepared by a member of the North German Postal Confederation. The Swiss government summoned a conference at Bern to consider the proposals. It met in 1874 and was attended by representatives of 22 countries all European nations, except for Egypt and the United States. The outcome of the conference was a treaty establishing a General Postal Union. The name was changed to the Universal Postal Union (UPU) in 1878.
The UPU is based on five principles. (1) For the purposes of postal communication, all member nations form a single geographic territory. Every member binds itself to transmit the mail entrusted to it by every other member. (2) Postage rates and weights shall be approximately uniform. (3) Postal correspondence is grouped in three categories letters, postcards, and other matter. (4) A definite schedule of payments is made to countries whose transportation services are used to deliver mail from one nation to another. (5) There is a universal system of registration and compensation for loss or damage.
In 1878 an international money-order system was adopted by the UPU. In 1885 a parcel-post agreement was made by 19 UPU countries. The scope of the parcel-post delivery system was later expanded.
The UPU has international headquarters in Bern. It serves as an information and consultation center and as a clearinghouse for settling accounts. There is a conference of members every five years to review the functioning of the UPU. In 1948 the union became a specialized agency of the United Nations.
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