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German Private Posts

German local private posts were firms which, with official permission or tolerance, performed postal services for the public in the locality or within a limited area. Legally, the work of the private posts in Germany was possible because a ‘loophole’ in the Reichpost Law of 28th October 1871 that stated: “The carriage of sealed letters from one locality with a post office to another locality with a post office by any means except the Reich post is forbidden.” It meant that only the Reichpost was permitted to carry sealed letters from locality to locality, but no reference was made to the handling of any other forms of mail (such as parcels, leaflets, postcards, circulars) between localities or to the handling of all forms of mail inside the boundaries of the locality. This law was taken directly from the 1867 postal regulations of the North German Confederation which were derived from the Prussian regulations of 1852.

One of the forerunners of private post was Fussbotenpost in Berlin. In 1800, Berlin had over 170,000 inhabitants but no postal service within the city boundaries. There was only the Royal Prussian Court Post Office at 40 Konigstrasse, anybody with post to send had to bring it there, and post intended for delivery within the city was not accepted. Therefore in 1800, guilds and traders established Fussbotenpost which provided postal service within the city boundaries. It operated till October 1806 when Berlin was occupied by Napoleon’s troops. The Prussian state post didn’t provide a local service until 1827.

One of the first local posts (and the first to issue stamps in 1861) was ‘Boten Institute’ in Hamburg. The first private post to fully take advantage of the ‘loophole’ in the law and to provide wide postal services was ‘Brief- und Bruckschriften Expedition’ established in Berlin by J.J. Schreiber in 1873. But it was not until the mid-1880’s that the volume of postal traffic expanded sufficiently to establish and operate a larger number of private posts. In the years to 1900, about 250 private posts were set up in 174 towns in Germany. Many of these firms were not economically viable and perished sooner or later, some even wanted to make profits only as ‘stamp producers’ at the expense of collectors. The success of the private posts was enabled by their ability to compete with the Reichpost by undercutting its postal tariffs (typically, the private posts charged 2pf for postcards and 3pf for letters, the Reichpost rates were 5pf, resp 10pf) and offering additional services such as the mass distribution of leaflets, producing advertising postcards etc.

At first, the postal authorities of the North German Confederation (and later the Reich post) looked favourably on the private posts because they often provided services that the official post could not yet provide. By 1880’s, the Reich post began to see the private posts as competitors and started to hinder or constrain their operations. The Reich post took out an injunction against the use of the word ‘Post’ on the stamps and materials by the private posts – we find instances where this word was removed or obliterated from the stamps, postal stationery and cancellers, the position of the letter boxes of the Private Posts was very restricted, the private post customers paid heavily for mistakenly posting their letters in the wrong box etc. Paradoxically, one of the main supporters of the private posts was the Postmaster-General himself, Heinrich von Stephan, who was the Postmaster-General from 1871 to his death in 1897. His successor, Victor von Podbielski, held opposite views and in December 1899, the Postal Law was changed and new articles stated: “Closed letters which circulate within the limits of a place of origin provided with a post office cannot be sent otherwise than by the Reich post.” and “Commercially based institutions for the collection, conveyance or delivery of sealed letters, cards, printed matter and samples of merchandise, addressed to individual recipients, are forbidden to operate on and after 1 April 1900.”

This change of law left almost no space for the private posts operations (except unaddressed leaflets distribution, money sending and distribution of parcels) and led to closure of virtually all of them. The private posts owners and personnel were relatively well compensated on closure, many employees were taken into the service of the Reichpost, and also the postcard rate was lowered from 5pf to 2pf as a gesture towards public opinion.

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