October 09, 2019 4 min read

Today is World Post Day, the anniversary of the Universal Postal Union being set up in 1874 in Bern, Switzerland, and a day to stop and thank your local postie for the amazing work they do – delivering joyful notes, unwanted bills and delightful online purchases rain, hail or shine.

It’s such an Australian scene, the sound of the postie zipping down your street on a scooter, with a friendly G’day or a wave at the letterbox, perhaps dodging a magpie or two (like this poor fellow who was in the news recently!)

1935 Myers catalogue

Credit:  Myer Emporium. (1935). The Myer mail order shoppers' guide for autumn & winter, 1935. Melbourne: Myer Emporium. State Library Victoria


Today I thought I’d delve into a bit of Aussie postal history, and look into the evolution of buying stuff from the comfort of your couch.

Aussies have embraced the convenience of online shopping with open arms; in 2018, 73% of households shopped online, and we spent $27.5 billion, with online sales growing by about 20% a year. By 2020 estimates are the 1 in 10 purchases across Australia will be online. Yet none of this would work without someone delivering your stuff. Your local postie as an essential part of the e-commerce puzzle, and many small businesses of all types.

Post in Australia

In Australia the first Post Master was appointed in Sydney in 1809, originally working from home, grabbing the mail sack off the ship and posting a list on his front door of those who had received mail. This was considered a BIG improvement compared to previous arrangements, which saw crowds of anyone expecting a letter massing on the docks when a ship came in and fighting to get their hands on the mail bag.

Each state developed its own way of doing things post wise (as we do), until Federation when the first Post-Master General was appointed to instill some much needed consistency and integration across the country. Technology and a bit of regulation kicked things along, with airmail introduced 1914, automated mail handling a bit later, and in the 1960s we all got postcodes. In 1975 the responsibilities for telephony and postal services were split, creating the precursors to Telstra and Australia Post. Interestingly, while Australia Post is owned by all Australians, instead of being subsidised by tax payers, it actually pays the government (us!) dividends. Quite a bit. $78 billion-ish. They also employ a bunch of people and look after some gorgeous heritage post offices (and some ugly ones too).

The long history of ordering from your couch

Online shopping is a natural extension of a very old tradition of buying things from the comfort of your home (and getting hands on stuff you can’t find locally) – however before i-phones and laptops, people did this through mail order catalogues – which are older than you might think.

In 1498 Aldus Manutius, an Italian publisher, scholar and educator, published a cataloguelisting titles available in his new invention – the paperback – introducing his new concept to the buyers of Venice.

 In 1667 William Lucas, a British gardener, published a catalogue of plant seeds and sent it to his customers in what is likely the world's first direct mail campaign. However, it took improvements to the railway network and postal service to really set the scene for a brand new way of shopping.

In 1861 Welsh draper Pryce Pryce-Jones developed the first mail order catalogue for a small Welsh flannel business he had just taken over, turning it into an international heavy weight (and becoming a millionaire in the process) by leveraging the rail network to offer his goods to remote customers across Europe (and later America) – including Queen Victoria herself, and the Russian Army.

Over the in US, the first mail order catalogue was Tiffany’s annual ‘Blue Book’, however Richard Warren Sears (yes, that Sears) really took it to the next level with his widely popular mail order catalogue business and eponymous department store.

In Australia the large department stores took note of the huge popularity of mail order businesses in Europe and America, as they were especially suited to our small disbursed population. One gorgeous example is this 1935 Myer’s mail order catalogue – showcasing 1930s glamour at its best -  which you can view online thanks to the State Library of Victoria.  

Our appetite for online shopping is insatiable. A 2001 report found that only 7% of small businesses were selling online. By 2016, Aussies were spending just over $21 billion online. Australia Post’s own 2019 e-commerce report states that in 2018 more than 73% of Aussie households shopped online, and we now spend $27.5 billion a year online.  

As consumers, we have more choice than ever before. We’re also increasingly expecting environmentally friendly shipping options, plastic free and re-usable packaging, and some delivery companies offer carbon offset deliveries.

Who knows where online commerce will go next (drone deliveries dropping shopping from the sky?) but I, for one, tip my hat to posties everywhere – and the parcel pickup counter staff – who keep online shopping ticking along. Thank you – and happy World Post Day! 

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