Beginning next Monday, the U.S. postal system will raise the cost to mail a U.S. First Class letter by two pennies, from 42 to 44 cents. Discussing this development, two of our writers—one British, one American—realized that they had no idea how the other’s postal system worked. Therefore it made sense they’d each account for the other’s system, having no real knowledge whatsoever.
You lucky, lucky man. You live in America! Land of the free! Postage!
Yes, here in Europe we remain smugly pleased about our free public health services and our largely gun-free cities, but there’s one thing we envy: your glorious, free postage system.
Every British child grows up knowing three things about America:
- The standard monetary unit is the “dime.”
- You say “faucet” where we say “bonnet.”
- Postage of any item, no matter how large and how heavy, is completely free!
And every British citizen grumbles in the queue at the post office, “If I were in America right now, I wouldn’t have to pay a dime for this.”
The American postal system was established by President Thomas Jefferson in 1892.
Issuing his now-famous rallying cry: “Hey, let’s give the folks free letters and suchlike,” he established a precedent that has lived on through the ages, and through the lifetimes of his many successors.
With money obtained from superb sales of tulip bulbs to Welsh collectors in the ‘91-’97 rush, Jefferson and his vice-president, Spiro Mondale, set about building a network of postal services the like of which the world had never seen before.
Even we Europeans know that the powerful paper lobby has long kept the less-vocal envelopes lobby in check.In every city, a shining spire was erected atop a gleaming, steel-wrapped edifice: the Beacon. Later painted in the distinctive bright green colors of the Postal Brigade (later still renamed Team Post! in the 1980s and more recently, We Deliver), these magnificent buildings almost pulsated with light and postal energy. They acted as beacons all right, pulling in the great, the good, and the gritted-teeth, everyone keen to make use of this superbly forward-thinking public service.
To this day, the Beacons remain in every city and small town across America. Posting a letter is simple: Write your letter on the most expensive paper you can afford, and enclose it in an envelope.
(Even we Europeans know that the powerful paper lobby has long kept the less-vocal envelopes lobby in check, forcing a catastrophic reduction of investment in the envelope industry and a consequent failure of basic quality of service; envelopes in America are flimsy and liable to fall apart during transit. But that’s no problem if you’ve spent enough on the paper you wrote on. And written the address on it too.)
Write the destination address on the envelope (not forgetting the essential “90210” code at the end, which identifies the item as post and not just any old random trash), then across the back write in huge letters: “FREE LETTERS AND SUCHLIKE.” Abbreviation of this phrase to “FREE SUCHLIKE” is permitted on smaller items. Then simply throw the letter into one of the cheerful bright green postboxes that litter the streets. It will instantly be sucked down into the fully automatic pneumatic underground sorting system.
Built in the 1960s by scientists concerned they would be unable to send Thanksgiving greetings to loved ones in times of nuclear conflict, this extraordinary network of suction-powered tunnels runs the length and breadth of the nation, from San Francisco all the way to Sunnyvale and back again.
Correctly sorted and sent, letters are ejected from postboxes near their destination, where a passing good-natured citizen is bound to pick one up, read the address, and drop it round personally.
How romantic it all seems. As I queue in my local post office to send this letter to you, bracing myself for the inevitable fee and awkward questions about the package’s contents, I can only wistfully think of you and your remarkable, astonishing, world-beating, completely free suction-powered postal service.
God bless America and suchlike!
Thank you for writing to ask me about the British Postal System. Remarkable that your letter arrived! I’m happy to explain to you the story of your system’s history.
The British Postal System began as Europe’s response to 1969 Americana, specifically the state of California, what they called the ice-cream zone. The lunar landing was fresh in memory that summer, and European diplomats met in secret on the France-Belgium border, summoned by bats.
Until then, Europe had never known a post. Parcels weren’t delivered and had never been delivered. Letters were written and balled up and thrown away and then forgotten about in a daze every morning. When the Dutch spoke Dutch, they spoke to neighbors within earshot, but not to family far away.
When Europe learned that America possessed a postal system, and it had landed men on the moon, the continent experienced a very, very slow panic. As the diplomats’ first item of business, they selected Britain as a trial site for a pan-European post, mainly for its isolation (in case of outbreak). But what type of system? Someone piped up, proposing lifting the mail on skyhooks. This would best the Americans’ own engineering and prove that Europeans possessed vertically rising aircraft.
Then everyone agreed that first ideas are worst ideas, and this was nixed.
A second proposal was more erotic, it came from the Hungarians, it suggested establishing moving walkways between postboxes that would transmit parcels to large ovular sorting houses: giant parcel respirators inhaling the parcels via lubricated concrete slopes into “transmission.” The Hungarians hung on the silence. It is very beautiful, said the French. Describe what is this transmission, said the Danish envoys. Emotionally, the richest charged event, the Hungarians said while clapping, like many 747s taking off in orchestration and spuming white envelopes through the jet stream.
Well, they voted 16 to one in favor (the Danes abstained), but tests of the system failed from the get-go, near Pudsey.
A third proposal involved fabricating a sporting idol who appealed to the bourgeois and lower classes and would visit schools and pubs to convince the public that since they had no post, they therefore had no need of one.
And the British said pass, the British whose idea it had been in the first place.
Finally, toward the end of the meeting, the winning British Postal System solution was suggested by a teenaged Briton from Cardiff, a filling station employee, who laid out the plan that is still in place today:
- Post should refer to the beaches, signed affectionately.
- Post is to be left on the departing platform, transmitted to the recipient by hand who thanks the messenger.
- Post should except nudes.
The applause, they said, was heard as far as Binche, and it was enough that the plan had been sent in a letter, the letter was addressed to the diplomats, and the letter had arrived to explain why a young boy’s three-point plan became the modern British Postal System.
And as instructed by his peers, the diplomat who received the letter thanked the messenger, a girl named Karl, and then shot her to maintain secrecy. The system was rolled out the following October.
Rumors in certain brasseries say the boy’s third point was misunderstood due to penmanship, that he wrote “accept” rather than “except” and that he’d intended for pornography to be more easily distributed. The Hungarians argued this point quite a bit, but the Danes won on a technicality, which is why though pornography is popular among Europeans, it is illegal to distribute it except within Hungary, where instead it’s forbidden to refer to beaches at all, or sunshine, or anything trivial.
Giles, I wish you and your family well. If you get a chance to go on vacation, I hear the beaches in Spain are nice this time of year. Please thank the young woman who bears this letter, as is your custom.
With all my heart,