In the postal agreement with Austria it was now the Swiss Confederation, and not the cantons, that was responsible for the ‘transmission of correspondence’. Illustration by Marco Heer.
In the postal agreement with Austria it was now the Swiss Confederation, and not the cantons, that was responsible for the ‘transmission of correspondence’. Illustration by Marco Heer.

Tra la la, the post is here…

Switzerland’s first international treaty was signed with Austria in July 1849. It was an agreement on the regulation of postal relations.

Andrej Abplanalp

Andrej Abplanalp

Historian and communications chief of the Swiss National Museum.

On 2 July 1849, the fledgling federal state signed its first international treaty. The agreement concerned arrangements with the Austrians on cooperation in the postal system. According to the agreement, ‘regular postal connections shall be maintained between the Austrian Post Office and the post office of the Swiss Confederation [for the] reciprocal transmission of correspondence and other consignments, and for the carriage of passengers’. The agreement regulated matters such as how much had to be paid for letters and parcels. If a payment had to be made… In the 19th century, in many places the rule was that the recipient, and not the sender, had to pay for a postal item.
Postal agreement between Switzerland and Austria, 1849.
Postal agreement between Switzerland and Austria, 1849. Swiss Federal Archives
Article 6 regulated who had to frank items, and how.
Article 6 regulated who had to frank items, and how. Swiss Federal Archives
This agreement was negotiated by Benedikt La Roche (1802-1876). A Basel native, La Roche was elected Switzerland’s first postmaster general in 1848. The basic principles of the agreement, however, dated from the year 1847 – a time when Switzerland as a federal state didn’t yet exist. That sounds strange, but there’s a logical background to it. A year before the establishment of the federal state, the cantons carried on negotiations with Austria in Vienna on the regulation of postal relations. With the exception of Neuchâtel and Valais, they were fully represented and were led by Benedikt La Roche. La Roche represented not only the cantons of Basel-Stadt and Basel-Landschaft, but also Aargau, Solothurn, Bern, Friborg, Vaud, Geneva and Ticino. At the beginning of June 1847 an agreement had been reached, but the Sonderbund War intervened and the treaty was never signed. It was put on the back-burner.
Portrait of Benedikt La Roche, around 1860.
Portrait of Benedikt La Roche, around 1860. Museum of Communication
A few months later the conflict was resolved, but the world had changed. Now it was no longer the individual cantons that could haggle with Austria over postal charges, but a whole new state: Switzerland. Fortunately, the chief negotiator was still the same person, Benedikt La Roche. As a result, rapid agreement was possible based on the arrangements decided in 1847. The treaty became a reality in July 1849.
Post office sign of the Swiss Federal Post Office in Geneva, 1849.
Post office sign of the Swiss Federal Post Office in Geneva, 1849. Swiss National Museum
Austrian Finance Minister Philipp von Krauss was not particularly happy with the treaty. He considered the postage rate for letters too low, and too advantageous for Switzerland. He argued that the basis of the contract had been negotiated with the cantons in 1847 and that a good tariff had been offered at that time in an effort to encourage the cantons to make other concessions.
The postal rates agreed made Austria’s Minister for Finance furious. He felt Switzerland was getting a much better deal.
The postal rates agreed made Austria’s Minister for Finance furious. He felt Switzerland was getting a much better deal. Swiss Federal Archives
Benedikt La Roche-Stehelin handed in his notice just a few days after the postal treaty was signed. The differences with his superior, Federal Councillor Wilhelm Mathias Naeff, were too much. However, he decided to complete his job in the form of an assignment, and subsequently concluded another postal agreement with France and Belgium (November 1849). He also initiated negotiations with the Kingdom of Sardinia, and an agreement was reached in October 1850.
Federal Councillor Wilhelm Mathias Naeff was the superior of Postmaster General Benedikt La Roche.
Federal Councillor Wilhelm Mathias Naeff was the superior of Postmaster General Benedikt La Roche. Swiss National Museum
Switzerland’s first international treaties related solely to postal matters. It wasn’t until the end of November 1850 that the first non-postal agreement was signed – the Treaty of Friendship and Trade (Freundschafts- und Handelsvertrag) with the USA.

The first time…

There’s always a first time. In this series, we will be looking at historic Swiss firsts. The topics covered are very diverse: from the first zebra crossing to the first ever popular initiative. The articles have been produced in cooperation with the Schweizerisches Bundesarchiv (Swiss Federal Archives).

Further posts

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Swiss National Museum

Three museums – the National Museum Zurich, the Castle of Prangins and the Forum of Swiss History Schwyz – as well as the collections centre in Affoltern am Albis – are united under the umbrella of the Swiss National Museum (SNM).