insights

UPU influence extends around the world

August 23, 1999 11:31 AM

  • Figure 1. Preparing the first-day cover, from top to bottom: a filler card keeps the envelope firm and provides a solid surface for the postmark; the appropriate stamp franks the cover; a peelable label bears the sender's name and address. Click on image to enlarge.

By Michael Baadke

In recent weeks, several articles in Linn's Stamp News have announced new stamp issues from various countries commemorating the 125th anniversary of the Universal Postal Union.

A 45¢ UPU stamp from the United States scheduled for release Aug. 25 was featured on page 1 of the Aug. 2 issue.

The design of the forthcoming U.S. stamp is illustrated here in Figure 1.

Page 1 of the Aug. 16 issue showed a 46¢ UPU stamp from Canada that will be issued Aug. 26. In the same issue, a 6¢ UPU stamp from Malta issued June 2 was shown on page 14.

The front page of this week's issue of Linn's includes an article describing 12 different stamps from the United Nations due for release Aug. 23 to mark the UPU anniversary.

What is the Universal Postal Union, and why are the countries mentioned here and others so busy issuing stamps to celebrate its anniversary?

The Universal Postal Union is an international organization that regulates the handling of mail between different countries. Its mission is represented by the UPU official emblem shown in Figure 2. The emblem pictures five messengers passing letters around the globe.

Representatives of the 189 UPU member nations meet once every five years at the UPU congress to decide upon guidelines for international mail handling that make it possible for mail from one country to be delivered in another country.

The 22nd UPU congress will take place this year from Aug. 23 through Sept. 15 in Beijing, China.

Consider this question: If you place a 55¢ stamp on a postcard and mail it to a friend in France, why should the French postal service bother to deliver it for you?

After all, the money you paid for your postage stamp went to the United States Postal Service, not La Poste, which is the name of the French postal service.

Your postcard will be delivered because the United States and France are both member nations of the UPU. Both adhere to the agency's agreements that provide for the delivery of mail in other countries.

A list of the 189 member nations is shown below.

Before the first UPU treaty was ratified, countries had to resolve individual agreements with one another and abide by a tremendous number of complicated postal rates to get a letter or parcel from one country to another.

During the middle of the 19th century, attempts were made to establish a more efficient system for international mail delivery.

In 1863, U.S. Postmaster General Montgomery Blair initiated a meeting in Paris of representatives from 15 countries with the intent to form a cooperative organization of world postal unions.

Those efforts led to the eventual development of the UPU years later. A 1963 15¢ U.S. airmail stamp, Scott C66, shows Blair and celebrates the 100th anniversary of his International Postal Conference.

The first congress of what would become the UPU took place in Bern, Switzerland, in 1874, at the request of Heinrich von Stephan, postal director of the Confederation of Northern Germany. Because of his efforts to forge a cooperative treaty he is known as the father of the UPU.

Representatives of 22 countries drafted a treaty at the 1874 congress that formed the General Postal Union. The name of the group was changed to the Universal Postal Union three years later.

At the first congress many agreements were made to reduce and simplify postage rates and arrange for efficient international mail delivery. The basic letter rate was set at 25 French gold centimes per 15 grams, with variations ranging from 20c to 32c permitted.

For the United States, the 25c rate equaled 5¢. The U.S. Post Office Department issued the 5¢ Zachary Taylor stamp of 1875 (Scott 179) specifically to meet this newly agreed-upon rate.

Many different international mailing issues have been resolved over the years by the UPU, including the colors of stamps intended for international mail, free-franking privileges for prisoners-of-war, and additional improvements in the delivery of international mail.

The postcard illustrated in Figure 3 demonstrates one way that the UPU has affected international mail and postage stamps.

At its 1897 fifth congress in Washington, D.C., the UPU established that three colors should be used to identify three basic international rates used by member countries: green for printed matter, red for postcard postage, and blue for single-rate ordinary letter postage.

Switzerland issued the first UPU commemorative stamps in 1900 to mark the 25th anniversary of the organization. The three stamps in the set, Scott 98-100, are each printed in one of the proper three colors representing the three overseas rates.

The postcard shown in Figure 3 was mailed in Geneva, Switzerland July 21, 1900, and was correctly franked with the 10-centime red postcard-rate stamp for delivery in the United States.

Each stamp in the set includes the inscription "Jubile de l'Union Postale Universelle" ("Anniversary of the Universal Postal Union") and the year dates "1875-1900."

The name of the organization is also printed in three languages across the top of the postcard, indicating that the card complies with regulations for international mailing established by the UPU.

During the 1906 congress in Rome, the UPU created the International Reply Coupon. Figure 4 shows one such IRC, which may be redeemed in any country for postage.

In the United States, for example, an IRC may be purchased for $1.05 at a post office and be mailed to another country. The overseas correspondent who receives the IRC can redeem it at his post office for postage stamps.

The UPU central office, known as the International Bureau, is located in Bern.

Each year a gathering of 40 elected members known as the Executive Council meets at the International Bureau to coordinate UPU activities between congresses.

The director general of the UPU is Thomas E. Leavey of the United States, a former assistant postmaster general of the United States.

Leavey is running unopposed for a second five-year term as director general that will begin Sept. 3.

The UPU publishes Union Postale, a quarterly journal of news and feature articles of interest to worldwide postal agency representatives. A regular philatelic column in the journal focuses on stamp-issuing policies and trends.

Since 1948, the UPU has been a specialized agency of the United Nations. The UPU's work today includes helping developing countries improve postal service and providing advice to member nations on matters of technology, business and customer service.

It all contributes to the UPU mission of promoting and developing communication between people around the world.