Dall’alfabetizzazione al digitale: così Poste ha cambiato la storia d’Italia

The role of Poste in the unification of the country, its influence over the development of infrastructure and information, its pedagogical role in being a depository of small savings accounts, its contribution to the country’s resilience during the world wars, to the point of stating that “the Italian postal service was decisive for victory in the Great War”. On our company’s 160th anniversary, we talked about this during a panel discussion with two historians: Giovanni Paoloni, Professor of General Archival Studies at the Faculty of Philosophy, Humanities and Oriental Studies at La Sapienza University of Rome, and Andrea Giuntini, Professor of Economic History at the University of Modena and Reggio Emilia (Unimore). Together, they edited several volumes of Laterza’s large collection Le Poste in Italia (The Post Office in Italy).

In these dramatic times, the role of communication is clearly emerging. Is it a historical fact, from your point of view, that postal communication was decisive in the history of our wars?

Giuntini: “Its role has always been very important. Communication often meant being able to win a war, to shift the fate of a conflict, and through communication, propaganda campaigns are also carried out, just like what is happening today between Russia and Ukraine. But that’s not all. In the old days, being able to find out who won the battle also meant changing the economics, resulting in a real gain. Generally speaking, wars and conflicts have always been fed by communications, the role of which is therefore decidedly central and the post plays a part that has always been decisive. In this sense, we historians can say that Poste in Italy was instrumental in the victory of the First World War. During the Great War, it is amazing to note the exceptional number of postal products (4 billion dispatches and parcels) that were moved between the country and the trenches and that represented at that time the only connection with the reality of what was happening”.

Paoloni: “If one thinks of the propaganda side, one has to think for example of postcards, which were the preferred means of communication between soldiers and their families during the various wars and provided the immediate idea of a conflict that involved everyone. We can compare this to what is currently happening with the current Russian-Ukrainian conflict. The most relevant element that emerges is that, in this war, the role of communication has allowed the local population to identify with Ukrainian army (and not only), and that could be a key element in the fate of this conflict. This same feeling of identifying with combatants is currently failing the Russians. Going back in time, I think, for example, of the relevance of the optical telegraph for revolutionary France, especially with regard to the exchange of information”.

How much influence has Poste had in Italy’s innovation and social transformation? Think, for example, of the extraordinary attention the company has always paid to hiring women and the growth and development of technology in our lives.

Paoloni: “On the role of women, I will say even more. Hiring women at Poste is not limited to call centres, but has also moved towards the real possibility, which has been given to women, of taking on important management roles in the company. This also tells us a lot about the real career opportunities that Poste has always guaranteed women, and in all this, Poste has certainly directed and guided change and transformation. With regard to innovation, there have been periods over the years when Poste has led this progress and periods when these processes have slowed down. But Poste’s innovative vocation has never been in question, so much so that today we can say that the company has played an active and fundamental role in digitalisation processes”.

Giuntini: “On the topic of women, it should be added that the history of gender finds elements of great interest in the postal and telegraphic sphere. For us historians, this has become a field of research and investigation of great value. The possibility of using the postal service from the very beginning also transformed the country with respect to, for example, literacy, thanks to the need to write a letter. Poste, therefore, also helped unify the language. It also had a certain relevance for emigration, because it was thanks to the post office that people were able to communicate with their families during years of fundamental historical importance for our country”.

How much has Poste contributed to the creation of a middle class in Italian society?

Giuntini: “Poste has been able to create strong loyalty among its customers, I am thinking, for example, of all those small savers who, throughout history, have entrusted their finances to Poste, which today actively competes with the banking system. As far as our country is concerned, the creation of a middle class, which took place in the second half of the 20th century, certainly saw Poste play a leading role, because it provided people with effective tools for modernisation and, therefore, social emancipation”.

Poste switched from the public administration to the private sector. In this transition, what kind of changes did it bring with it?

Paoloni: “From a historical point of view, we must emphasise the fundamental financial role that Poste has always played as a branch of Cassa Depositi e Prestiti and also, later, in this widespread function of being a depository of small savings accounts. In Italy, Poste was able to create a true culture of savings, the only entity to do so besides the Istituto Nazionale delle Assicurazioni, with the establishment of life insurance policies. We must not forget that Poste has also been very active in the field of technology innovation. It has done a great deal to improve our country’s telecommunications infrastructure and has always been receptive to technological systems, including the creation of a telegraph network covering the entire peninsula. In the twenty-five years following the unification of Italy, Poste, being independent of ministerial bureaucracy, was able to undertake a significant course of modernising communications infrastructure. Poste has been an important part of our network systems”.

Giuntini: “The postal service is the backbone of the communications system, and our country has always had a key role in postal history. Logically, there have been transformations and changes, but I would like to emphasise that the idea of how relevant the communications system is still remains. The great insight of Italian rulers, right from the moment of national unification, was to realise that no real development of the country would ever be possible without the postal service, a function, therefore, on the one hand of identity and, on the other, capable of indicating the real presence of a state. In our minds, the post office immediately represents the presence of the State in the community, in the same way as the police or Carabinieri do, or perhaps even more, in the sense that Poste was also a garrison where there were no law enforcement forces present. All this enters the collective memory of the people, making Poste something relevant and familiar”.

We have seen how, in many cases, the very names of newspapers derive from postal imagery. Just think, for example, of Corriere della Sera or Il Messaggero. What role has the relationship between Poste and information played for Italy?

Paoloni: “A fundamental one, news that ended up in the newspapers always travelled through postal channels. The same pieces that were published in newspapers were sent by mail, and with regard to meteorological observations, the postal service has always played an important role, as a means of conveying such information by sending telegrams, initially for the benefit of farmers. There is no doubt that it is within the structures and experience of Poste that radio and television services were also born”.

Giuntini: “The transport of the post became fundamental for all kinds of concessions and agreements, and this was because they were engaged in transporting the post and newspapers. And the same thing happened with rail transport, which allowed for the rapid movement of information, thanks to the fact that there was a sound organisational model to base it on”.

As scholars of the subject, can you imagine the future of Poste Italiane?

Giuntini: “I am in no position to give advice. I can only express a desire, hoping that Poste will always be ready and flexible in continuing to accept and embrace change, as indeed has been the case over the past 30 years”.

Paoloni: “As a historian, I cannot fail to note that Poste is a major presence in all segments of Italian society, and I therefore hope that this company is aware that it is conducting a precise daily battle to overcome those small or large criticalities that the postal sector currently presents”.