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The Mailpipe: New York

The Mailpipe: New York

"N.Y. Post Office Pneumatic Tube" c. 1912. View full size. G.G. Bain Collection.


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Of all the cool things I've learned on Shorpy (and they have been numerous), this is definitely one of the most interesting. I had no idea such a thing existed. Thanks Dave and knowledgable commentators!

Slight correction

Actually, $17,000 per year per mile was the RENT on the system in NYC, not the maintenance costs. As stated above, the system was not owned by the govmt.

New York Pneumatic Mail System

A brief history of the pneumatic system in New York.

(Robin Pogrebin, NY Times, May 7, 2001)

In the bowels of New York City a century ago, not only was there the whoosh of water through pipes and the whiz of subways through tunnels, there was the zip of mail moving through pneumatic tubes at about 30 miles per hour.

The tubes -- others snaked under Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago and St. Louis -- were put into use by the United States Post Office in 1897. In Manhattan, they extended about 27 miles, from the old Custom House in Battery Park to Harlem and back through Times Square, Grand Central Terminal and the main post office near Pennsylvania Station. At the City Hall station, the mail went over the Brooklyn Bridge to the general post office in Brooklyn.

In describing the system's effectiveness during a snowstorm, a 1914 congressional report of the Pneumatic Tube Postal Commission said: "New York Streets were almost impassable -- New York business houses nevertheless received their important mail on time! The pneumatic tubes carried the mails."

For the time, the system was thoroughly modern, even high-tech, a subterranean network for priority and first-class mail powered by pressurized air. Only a few decades later it was mostly a dinosaur, made obsolete by the motor wagon and then the automobile.

The pneumatic tubes were introduced by the post office to deliver mail in large urban areas. The system used pressurized air to move a mail canister through an underground eight-inch cast-iron pipe.

" 'Mail shot from guns' may be an apt description," said Post Haste, an internal newsletter of the post office in 1950, adding that the metal carriers resembled heavy artillery shells.

"Unaware that this network exists," the newsletter said, "the ordinary citizen of New York nevertheless benefits from the rapid transmission of his more important mail through these subterranean channels."

The newsletter also explained that the tubes were lubricated to facilitate the passage of the containers by sending perforated steel cylinders filled with oil through the channels.

"I still remember those canisters popping out of the tube," said Nathan Halpern, a veteran postal worker, in an internal newsletter. "They were spaced one every minute or so, and when they came out, they were a little warm with a slight slick of oil."

At its greatest expansion, there were more than 56 miles of mail tubes on the East Coast delivering as many as 200,000 letters per tube every hour. (Legend has it that a live cat was sent through as a test in 1896.) Western Union also used pneumatic tubes, linking its main telegraph office to some of the exchanges.

When the system was first installed, pneumatic transport was considerably faster than horse-drawn wagon, then the most common vehicle for mail delivery. In New York City, two pipes were used along each route, one for sending, the other for receiving. The pipes were buried 4 to 12 feet underground, though in some places the tubes were placed within subway tunnels, parallel to the 4, 5 and 6 lines.

Each two-foot-long mail canister had felt and leather packing on each end to create an airtight seal, as well as four small wheels, which helped prevent the canister from becoming lodged at a junction in the pipes. (Records from the early 1930's indicate that there had been at least three incidents of malfunction.)

Each container was labeled to indicate the destination of its contents. Special delivery letters were delivered within one hour; regular letters within three.
About $4 million was spent on the construction in New York City. The original contractor was the Tubular Dispatch Company, which built the original pneumatic prototype for Philadelphia in 1893.

Construction of the tubes began in the late 1890's and they were in operation by 1898. Before the end of the original 10-year contract, the pneumatic service was taken over by the American Pneumatic Service Company, which later became the New York Mail & Newspaper Transportation Company.

Charles Emory Smith, the former postmaster general, predicted in The Brooklyn Eagle in 1900 that one day every household would be linked to every other by means of pneumatic tubes. Around the turn of the century, there were even several proposals to build a system between North America and Europe.

The service continued in most cities until 1918, when the high costs of maintenance -- $17,000 per mile per year -- were thought to be impractical for the small volume of mail transported. When a post office moved, for example, the streets had to be dug up to reroute the tubes. And the pneumatic service began to pale next to the new technology of the motor-wagon, which could deliver mail two to three times faster than a horse-drawn cart with equal or greater volume and more than 10 times the volume of a pneumatic tube, while only slightly slower.

Subsequent improvements in the speed of the motor-wagon and its successor, the automobile, signaled the end of the pneumatic tube. In New York City, because of the high population density and a great amount of lobbying from contractors, the tube system remained in operation until Dec. 1, 1953, when it was suspended pending a review. Later that month, the post office ended the contract. The New York Mail Company, the owner of the pipes, made several attempts to sell the defunct system -- offering it to Con Edison and the United Parcel Service -- with no success.

Postal Museum


A "series of tubes." That's hilarious. Nicely played, Andy.

The tubes...

...carry metal cylinders that are pumped through the system. The gentleman in the center is leaning against one with his left hand on it. The mail was placed in the tubes as part of the sorting process.

So does that mean...

...that mail was delivered by a ‘series of tubes’?

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