The line associated with the United States Postal Service is well known: “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.” But what happens when those legendary couriers are replaced by a vast interconnected system of tubes?
It’s mostly been forgotten, but mail was delivered via pneumatic tubes in some urban areas beginning in the 1890’s. Congestion in city streets, with the mixing of cars and horse-drawn carriages, often delayed mail delivery; underground tubes could deliver letters quickly and efficiently. The pneumatic tube canisters, similar to the ones still used in modern banks, could hold up to 600 letters, and sped under city streets at about 35 miles per hour. In 1893, these mail tubes were installed in Philadelphia, with Brooklyn, Chicago, St. Louis, Brooklyn, and New York City following soon after, with over 56 miles of pneumatic tubing in total.
This service was put on hold during World War I, and only restored in New York and Boston after the war. By the middle of the 20th century, the increase in mail volume as well as the explosive growth of urban areas had made the pneumatic delivery system impractical as well as expensive, and it was phased out.
Several European cities used pneumatic mail delivery systems as well; such a system was in limited use in Prague until 2002, and was only closed at that time due to flooding. Berlin, Munich, and Paris all had pneumatic mail delivery, and Italy actually issued stamps specifically for the service; 23 pneumatic mail stamps were issued in Italy between the years of 1913 and 1966. (You can see excellent pictures of the stamps here.)
The most definitive pneumatic mail system in the United States was, unsurprisingly, the one in New York City. The pipes were buried about 6 feet below the city streets, and the workers who operated the tubes were known as “Rocketeers.” In its heyday, the system handled 30% of New York City mail, about 95,000 letters daily.
However, the temptation to send non-traditional items through the tubes proved too much for some. When the tube mail system had its grand opening in 1897, the Rocketeers sent a Bible wrapped in a flag, as well as a copy of the Constitution. They also sent a cat. Yes, that’s right, a live cat (the cat was fine, if a little disorientated.) In one documented instance, a sick cat was sent via pneumatic tube to a veterinarian. Kenneth Stuart, in an article titled “Pneumatic Mail Tubes and Operation of Automatic Railroads,” writes that “other animals that were reportedly shot through the underground tubes included dogs, mice, roosters, guinea pigs, and monkeys. And also: fish. At a 1908 demonstration convened to celebrate the opening of a new tube line from New York’s Broad Street Station, postal workers loaded a tube canister with ‘a glass globe containing water and live goldfish.’ To prove, basically, that they could. And they could. The makeshift tank, luckily for its inhabitants, was sent through the tubes without incidence.”
Michelle Young, writing for the Untapped Cities blog, notes that “In its full glory, the pneumatic tubes covered a 27-mile route, connecting 23 post offices. This network stretched up Manhattan’s east and west sides, from Bowling Green and Wall Street, all the way north to Manhattanville and East Harlem. Anecdotal stories indicate that the system may have extended into the Bronx, with sandwich subs reportedly being delivered via pneumatic tubes from a renown subway shop in the Bronx to downtown postal stations. The system even crossed boroughs into Brooklyn (using the Brooklyn Bridge), taking four minutes to take letters from Church Street near City Hall to the General Post Office in Brooklyn (now Cadman Plaza).”
Today, very few remnants of any of these systems can be seen, save for the pneumatic tubes in parts of Prague and the series of Italian pneumatic mail stamps. The reliability and flexibility of automobiles and human mail carriers won out over the shiny new pneumatic technology.