A post office is a customer service facility forming part of a national postal system. Post offices offer mail-related services such as acceptance of letters and parcels; provision of post office boxes; and sale of postage stamps, packaging, and stationery. In addition, many post offices offer additional services: providing and accepting government forms (such as passport applications), processing government services and fees (such as road tax), and banking services (such as savings accounts and money orders). The chief administrator of a post office is a postmaster.
Prior to the advent of postal and ZIP codes, postal systems would route items to a specific post office for receipt or delivery. In 19th-century America, this often led to smaller communities being renamed after their post offices, particularly after the Post Office Department ceased to permit duplicate station names within a state.
The term "post office" or "post-office" has been in use since the 1650s, shortly after the legalisation of private mail service in England in 1635. In early Modern England, post riders – mounted couriers – were placed ("posted") every few hours along post roads at "posting houses" or "post houses" between major cities ("post towns"). These stables or inns permitted important correspondence to travel without delay. In early America, post offices were also known as "stations". This term and "post house" fell from use as horse and coach service was replaced by railways, aircraft, and automobiles.
Today, "post office" usually refers to postal facilities providing customer service. The term "General Post Office" is sometimes used for the national headquarters of a postal service, even if it does not provide customer service within the building. A postal facility used exclusively for processing mail is instead known as sorting office or delivery office, which may have a large central area known as a "sorting" or "postal hall". Integrated facilities combining mail processing with railway stations or airports are known as mail exchanges.
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There is evidence of corps of royal couriers disseminating the decrees of the Egyptian pharaohs as early as 2,400 BC and the service may greatly precede even that date. Similarly, organized systems of posthouses providing swift mounted courier service seems quite ancient, although sources vary as to precisely who initiated the practice. Certainly, by the time of the Persian Empire, a system of Chapar-Khaneh existed along the Royal Road. The 2nd-Century BC Mauryan and Han dynasties established similar systems in India and China. Suetonius credited Augustus with regularizing the Roman network, the cursus publicus. Local officials were obliged to provide couriers who would be responsible for their message's entire course. Locally maintained post houses (Latin: stationes) privately owned rest houses (Latin: mansiones) were obliged or honored to care for them along their way. Diocletian later established two parallel systems: one providing fresh horses or mules for urgent correspondence and another providing sturdy oxen for bulk shipments. Procopius, though not unbiased, records that this system remained largely intact was dismantled in the surviving empire by Justinian in the 6th Century.
The Princely House of Thurn and Taxis initiated regular mail service from Brussels in the 16th century, directing the Imperial Post of the Holy Roman Empire. The British Postal Museum claims that the oldest functioning post office in the world is on High Street in Sanquhar, Scotland . This post office has functioned continuously since 1712, an era in which horses and stage coaches were used to carry mail.
Unstaffed postal facilities
In many jurisdictions, mail boxes and post office boxes have long been in widespread use for dropoff and pickup (respectively) of mail and small packages outside of post offices or when offices are closed. Deutsche Post introduced the Packstation for package delivery (both dropoff and pickup) in 2001. In the 2000s, the United States Postal Service began to install Automated Postal Centers (APCs) in many locations both in post offices (for when they are closed or busy) and in retail locations. APCs can print postage and accept mail and small packages.
Notable post offices
- General Post Office Dublin (1818 inaugurated), headquarters of the Irish post and headquarters of the 1916 Easter Uprising
- First Toronto Post Office (1833)
- General Post Office (1864), erected on the site of the Black Hole of Calcutta
- General Post Office (1874) in Chennai, India
- General Post Office (1887) in Lahore, Pakistan
- General Post Office (1895), the headquarters of the Sri Lankan Post
- General Post Office (1903), headquarters of the Croatian post
- Istanbul Main Post Office (1905), home of the Istanbul Postal Museum
- James Farley Post Office (1912), America's largest operating post office, the main office for New York City. It bears the famous translation of Herodotus's description of the Persian postal system along its front facade: "Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds".
- General Post Office (1913), the main post office of Mumbai, India, and one of the world's largest (120,000 sq ft or 11,000 m²)
- Polish Post Office, the scene of intense fighting during the 1939 German invasion of Danzig
- General Post Office Building (1922), former headquarters of the Chunghwa Post and present home of the Shanghai Postal Museum
- Manila Central Post Office (1926, rebuilt after WWII)
- Taipei Post Office (1928), the headquarters of Taiwan Post
- General Post Office (1976), the headquarters of Hongkong Post
- Bandinelli Palace (1589), a former post office in Lviv in the Ukraine
- General Post Office (Washington, D.C.) (1842), the city's first "all-marble" building, patterned after Rome's Temple of Jupiter and now a 4-star hotel, The Monaco.
- Chief Post Office (1877), the former chief post office of New Zealand in Christchurch
- Central Post Office Building (1903), home of the Government of Sweden
- Buenos Aires Central Post Office (1908), now the Bicentennial Cultural Center
- The Fullerton (1919), a 5-star hotel in Singapore
- Old Main Post Office (1921), an enormous abandoned structure in Chicago
- Palazzo delle Poste (1928), the former post office of Naples, Italy, heavily damaged during Naples' 1943 uprising against the Nazis
- Central Post Office (1939), home to the Privy Council of Canada
- Postage stamp
- Dak bungalows, the former posthouses of the British Raj
- Freepost (also known as Business Reply Mail)
- "Going postal"
- Military mail
- Old U.S. Post Offices
- Penny Post
- Post office box
- Postal administration
- Postal code, ZIP code
- History of United States postage rates
- Poste restante (also known as General Delivery)
- Universal Postal Union
- Wanted poster (Post Office Wall)
- Private courier and delivery services often have offices as well, although these are not usually called "post offices" except in the case of Germany which has fully privatized its national system.
- "Canada Postal Guide - Glossary". Canada Post. Archived from the original on January 18, 2006. Retrieved 2006-10-08.
- United States Postal Service. "What's in a (Post Office) Name?" August 2008. Accessed 2 October 2013.
- Webster, Noah. American Dictionary of the English Language, "post-house". Accessed 2 October 2013.
- Harper, Douglas. Online Etymology Dictionary, "post office". 2013. Accessed 2 October 2013.
- The British Postal Museum and Archive. "The Secret Room". 2011. Accessed 2 October 2013.
- Harper (2013), "post". Accessed 2 October 2013.
- Xenophon credits Cyrus the Great of Persia, others credit his successor Darius I or the earlier Babylonian king Hammurabi or the Assyrian king Sargon II.
- "Derry store's postal kiosk a 1st in New England". Union Leader. December 11, 2011.
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