In the day of same day delivery and Amazon Prime, we probably take for granted the fact that we can have packages delivered directly to our homes and don’t consider package delivery history. Delivery, mail, and courier services date back to the Persian Empire in the 6th century BCE, when King Cyrus the Great formalized a postal service. Later in Rome, a service called cursus publicus (or “the public way”) was created by Emperor Augustus to transport messages, public officials, and taxes. In the United States, the USPS was formed in 1775 by the Second Continental Congress. It’s clear from the history that any great civilization, if it spans any geographical distance beyond a day’s walk needs some system to send message from one point to another. The post historically has been a public service or a service of the state. In the 19th century in the United States groups like Wells Fargo formed Pony Express—a rapid mail and package delivery service that reduced travel time from the Pacific to Atlantic coast to 10 days. They were able to do this by establishing a network of stations, each with fresh horses, allowing packages to travel further without having to wait for a horse to get rested.
Generally, these delivery systems transported goods, money, and documents and were not part of the retail market. Not long after Pony Express and the rise of railroads in the United States, Sears, Roebuck & Company was formed. They published catalogs of goods with clearly listed prices that people could order. Once someone made an order, the goods would be delivered. Mail order closely followed the rise of the department store in the middle of the 19th century. Many farmers living in rural areas turned to mail order, which was able to offer better prices than department or general stores could offer. There are some interesting parallels between the rise of mail order shopping and the rise of internet shopping. Besides some small technological changes, we’re pretty much in the same place now that we were then. It was cheaper and more convenient to order from a catalog. Now, instead of a catalog, you use a website, and instead of traveling by rail, your package probably will travel by some combination of plane and truck.
By the 1950s we’d reached the peak of door-to-door sales. Salesmen would travel from city to city, knocking on people’s doors and selling them goods. This added a human element to catalog sales. Mail order declined considerably as cars proliferated the market. Retail storefronts were able to offer good prices and the ability for someone to order and pick up their purchases on the same day dealt a significant blow to the mail order business.
Now, we’re shifting back in the other direction. The return of mail order through online retailers is beating out brick and mortar shops (ironically, Sears is closing stores left and right because they can’t compete with the likes of Amazon). Again, people are convinced by low prices and convenience. Early mail order suffered from the delay of the post, and retail stores were able to take advantage of that. Now, with companies like Amazon solving the convenience issues of mail order, they’re able to dominate and allow people to get goods even more efficiently, conveniently, and affordably than any retail store can provide. As we head into the holiday season with 55% of people planning to do their shopping online, it’s clear that we’ve returned to a new (old?) paradigm of retail. As we shop online and wait in anticipation for our packages, it’s worth taking a moment to pause and consider package safety.