On the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the Univeral Postal Union, a historical conference will convene in Berne (Switzerland) on the 2nd of February 2024 with the support of the UPU and La Poste France, under the theme: "Achieving “a single postal territory”: A global promise – Past and present". The call for papers is open until 31 March 2023.
Since its inception, the Universal Postal Union (UPU) has had the objective of achieving a global “single postal territory”, to cite article 1 of the Convention signed at Berne in 1874.1 The genesis of this promise of global communication, the way in which it accompanied the expansion of the colonial powers, the uninterrupted pursuit of this goal over the decades and its reformulations, but also its diverging interpretations and ever incomplete realization, deserve the close attention of historians of contemporary societies and their globalization. However, compared with the International Telecommunication Union, long considered its twin,2 the UPU has remained in the shadows. Fascinated by the advent of electronic communication, historians have generally neglected the economic, social, cultural, and thus political, importance of postal networks in modern times. Absolutely central in the 19th century, postal networks have remained present, evolving throughout the 20th and 21st centuries up to the rise of e-commerce.
As an organization, the UPU is a fascinating aspect of global history, whose remarkable longevity merits reflection. Its creation was not straightforward. Confronted with Heinrich von Stephan, who was promoting a complete reform of the rules for international postal exchanges from Berlin, the head of the French Post condemned the fact that the Prussian had “undertaken to play politics with the Post”3 – in which he was not wrong, except in considering that he himself was not doing so by taking this position. To have or not to have a Universal Postal Union: this would make a marked difference for postal organizations, their employees and all postal service users. Moreover, there was enthusiastic support for the proposed reform in France, and its implementation was heralded in many countries as a great step forward because it made cross-border exchanges easier, but also, on another level, because it revealed, for the first time or close to it, humanity’s capacity to give itself common rules. The Union’s rapid expansion to include member countries on all continents struck contemporaries, as did its subsequent attachment to the UN system, as decided in 1947. The crisis that began in 2018 when the United States announced it was leaving the organization, which did not ultimately happen, was paradoxically an opportunity for the UPU to showcase its work and value. It also brought to the fore its limitations and underlying tensions.
Although the Union may not have prevented wars, as some optimists might posit, it has up until now always survived them. How has it coped with armed conflict and other economic, financial and health crises? In what way has it been a means of mitigating the effects or repairing the damage? More broadly, what does the Universal Postal Union tell us about globalization or about the globalization regimes of modern times, about the inequalities of wealth and power rivalries, and about the ability to bridge or overcome them? The UPU, as a platform for negotiating standards and settling disputes, is a space for exchanging and sharing on the one hand, and for delineating and differentiating on the other. How has a balance been struck and how has that balance shifted? Has the organization’s global promise been received and applied differently in the different member countries?
We are inviting researchers in the humanities and social sciences to bring the Universal Postal Union out of its academic shadow, to exchange their views, and to renew our knowledge on the occasion of a conference that will be held in Berne in the first quarter of 2024. The celebration of the 150th anniversary and the location of the colloquium at the UPU International Bureau headquarters should foster an exchange and mutual enrichment among researchers and attendees.
Some of the avenues worth exploring and related questions posed by the organizers at this stage include:
- A pioneer of multilateralism. What do we know about the International Bureau, its staff, and the workings of the Council of Administration, other bodies and Congress? This involves understanding the specific international machinery, grasping its workings, evolutions (with the emergence, for example, of “cooperatives”, i.e. Telematics and EMS) and points of friction. In charting the history of an organization, it is necessary to examine its internal structures, its dynamics of centralization and decentralization, but also, in no particular order, its working languages, relations with regional postal unions, place in the global multilateral landscape (relationship with the League of Nations, the UN, other international technical organizations and the European Union), and to consider its own communications, from the launch of the Union Postale magazine to the creation of World Post Day in 1969.4
- Governance and power in an organization that is intended to be apolitical. Is the Union representative of technocratic internationalism that has enabled experts to create their own power space, while touting its apolitical approach?5 How are issues depoliticized at the UPU?6 Conversely, how did diplomatic services on the one hand and national public authorities on the other keep track of what was happening in the UPU? What were the debates on the representation of interests other than those of post offices? Is there a precedent to the recent demands by couriers, logistics providers and e-commerce platforms? What place has historically been reserved for users, which were able to ask to be represented quite early on, in particular through the International Chamber of Commerce since the 1920s/1930s? Who are the members and what ties do they form with the UPU? While some work has been conducted on the subject, mostly focused on membership and the early years,7 many unknowns remain, not least concerning China or India, for example. How has the UPU been a space for consolidating colonial empires or challenging them? How did decolonization in the second half of the 20th century change the face of the UPU?
- Missions and services. What is the UPU for and whom does it serve? Among its missions, that of creating and maintaining a global single postal territory is set apart. What interpretations and debates has this mission given rise to? In this context, we could mention the idea of national networks becoming a vast global network organized around common rules, the emergence of the notion of universal service, and the issue of terminal dues – a development tool for some, a distortion of competition for others. Among the little known missions, we could explore technical assistance, quality measurement and improvement, or the issue of postal security and the fight against the use of the international network for fraudulent purposes. Alongside the main services whose management is certainly worthy of study – international mail, EMS (Express Mail Service), postal parcels – other services also warrant examination: money orders and financial services, postal identity booklet, international reply coupon, to cite only the early ones. Switching gears: How have the revolutions in transportation – from the advent of the automobile to aviation – changed the situation for the UPU and, conversely, what is the UPU’s influence in the transformation of mobility systems?
- Shocks and challenges. The UPU under trial. Thought should be given to the relationship between the UPU and its environment, including conflicts – two world wars, Cold War, local conflicts – various crises, as well as challenges, such as climate change or international organized crime and illegal trafficking (UPU–Interpol agreement, 1997). From this perspective, digitalization is both a challenge and an opportunity: has the UPU been and will it remain a player in digital transformation, from the creation of the Telematics Cooperative to the securing of .POST in 2005?8
- Towards a transnational history of stamps and philately.9 Both a mass medium and a paper ambassador, the modern stamp, since its appearance in the 1840s, has become a familiar object to the vast majority, if not entirety, of humankind. What role has the UPU played in the standardization of this banal object, hidden behind the national imagery conveyed? How do stamp collectors, through their very activities, participate in a progressive vision of a world called to communicate across borders? Since its creation, what ties has the International Federation of Philately (FIP) formed with the Union? When and how has the organization been represented on stamps around the world? What prospects are there in the context of digitalization, concerning postage marks and philately?
The conference will take place on 2 February 2024 at the UPU International Bureau in Berne. Speakers present will be able to be reimbursed, at least partially, for their transportation and accommodation expenses, according to the available budget. Speakers may also participate remotely.
For this conference, the UPU will provide full access to its archives in Berne.
Proposals must include, in a single Word file:
- About 500 words presenting the content and disciplinary background of the presentation;
- A short bibliography including up to five references;
- A biography of the speaker (maximum five lines).
- Proposals should be prepared in English or French (the conference languages), and e-mailed by 31 March 2023 to:
Léonard Laborie (French National Centre for Scientific Research – CNRS, Paris): email@example.com
Sébastien Richez (La Poste Historical Committee, Paris): firstname.lastname@example.org
Proposals will be examined by a scientific committee, which is currently being assembled.
The organizing committee comprises:
Olivier Boussard, Administration and Cabinet Director, UPU
Elisabeth Massonnet, Deputy Director, European and International Relations, La Poste Groupe
Kayla Redstone, Communication and Outreach Expert, UPU
José Anson, Economist, UPU
Muriel Le Roux, CNRS, Institute of Modern and Contemporary History (IHMC), La Poste Historical Committee
The results will be communicated in early May 2023.
1 “The countries between which this treaty is concluded shall form, under the designation General Postal Union, a single postal territory for the reciprocal exchange of correspondence between their post offices.” Article 1 of the Convention. Documents of the International Postal Congress held in Berne from 15 September to 9 October 1874. Berne, UPU International Bureau, 1944 reprint, 165 pages (excluding annexes), p. 139 [French version].
2 Few academic publications on the history of the UPU have appeared since the founding work of Georges Codding, The Universal Postal Union: Coordinator of the international mails, New York: New York University Press, 1964. We note: Francis Lyall, International Communications: The International Telecommunication Union and the Universal Postal Union, Farnham: Ashgate, 2011. On its anniversaries, the UPU has published retrospective reports of varying interest: The Universal Postal Union – Its foundation and development: Memoir published by the International Bureau on the Union’s 50th anniversary 1874–1924, Berne, UPU, 1929; Universal Postal Union 1874–1974: 100 years of international cooperation, Berne: Information Service of the Universal Postal Union, 1974; The Universal Postal Union: Its creation and development, Berne: International Bureau of the Universal Postal Union, 1983; The Universal Postal Union: 125 years 1874–1999, Berne and London, International Systems and Communications Limited and UPU, 1999. Also: Centenaire de la réunion de la première Commission internationale des Postes [Centenary of the meeting of the first International Postal Commission], Paris, Ministère des postes et télécommunications, 1963.
3 Edouard Vandal (1868), cited by Léonard Laborie, L’Europe mise en réseaux: La France et la coopération internationale dans les postes et les télécommunications (années 1850–années 1950) [Europe networking: France and international cooperation in Posts and telecommunications (1850s–1950s)], Brussels, Peter Lang, 2010, pp. 80–81.
4 Richard R. John, “The public image of the Universal Postal Union in the Anglophone world, 1874–1949”, in Jonas Brendebach, Martin Herzer, Heidi Tworek (eds.), International Organizations and the Media in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries: Exorbitant Expectations, London: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2018, pp. 38–69.
5 Jens Steffek, International Organization as Technocratic Utopia, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2021.
6 Marieke Louis, Lucile Maertens, Why International Organizations Hate Politics. Depoliticizing the World, London, Routledge, 2021.
7 Example: George B. Arfken, Canada and the Universal Postal Union, 1878–1900, Toronto, Ontario: Unitrade Press, 1992. More recently: Douglas, “Japan and the Universal Postal Union: An Alternative Internationalism in the 19th Century”, Social Science Japan Journal, vol. 17, No.1, 2014, pp. 23–39.
8 Christian Henrich-Franke, “And Postal Services? The Universal Postal Union and the Digitisation of Communication in the 1980s”, Media in Action. Interdisciplinary Journal on Cooperative Media, n°1, 2017, p.131–145. DOI: https://doi.org/10.25969/mediarep/16240.
9 We wish to thank Yves Drolet for the exchange of ideas on the subject.