At first, all mail was local, and so naturally was stored in a database, like most non-Internet mail servers of the day. It was what Dave Crocker called "rock mail" - I stick a message under a rock, and you know to look under that rock for your message.
The bigger we got, the harder that was, in the days where horizontal scaling by moving I/O to another machine was just as expensive (because the network was even slower than the disk). But we were sure that our distinction was important, and Internet-style queued mail was widely considered flaky (due in no small part to our own poor Internet delivery, no doubt). So we kept it, to the point of storing user mailboxes on Tandem NonStop machines that did multi-site replication with SQL implemented at the drive controller level.
Many of our scaling challenges were due to decisions that made sense early on and that we consciously refused to ditch; I wrote a bunch up here: