When Mail Delivery Was A Series of Tubes


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?


Pneumatic-tube-mail.pngIt’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.


Pneumatic-tube-mail-apparatus.pngHowever, 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.”


11237633933_8c65cc51e0_h.jpgMichelle 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.


The Illustrations of Frederick Richardson

Frederick Richardson illustrated books during the great illustration boom of the late 20th to early 21st centuries. He’s best known for his illustrations of L. Frank Baum children’s books. (Baum was the author of the Wizard of Oz books, though Richardson did not illustrated these.) He also worked with Frank Baum and Georgene Faulkner.

Richardson started his illustration career when he went to school at the St. Louis School of Fine Arts and the Academie Julian in Paris.

Richardson's rooster from a Mother Goose tale.

Richardson’s rooster from a Mother Goose tale.

After his education, Richardson taught at the Chicago Art Institute. Later, he created illustrations for a Chicago newspaper and helped record history with his illustrations of the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893. People were so impressed with his work that they sent him to the next world’s fair in Paris, the Exposition Universelle Internationale. He even published a collection of his newspaper illustrations in 1899.

From The Wee Wee Woman, available for purchase here.

From The Wee Wee Woman, available for purchase here.

After his stint in Chicago, he moved to New York City to make a career move to book illustration. The first book he illustrated was Queen Zixi of Ix, published in book form in 1906. This was his first break into the book publishing industry.

Coyote and persimmons, from a traditional Native American tale.

Coyote and persimmons, from a traditional Native American tale.

Richardson had a diverse illustrating style and worked with many authors to create pictures that fit the style and tone of their books.

Richardson even parodied Vincent van Gogh in a book called The Revolt Against Beauty.

When Richardson died in 1937, he was honored with a book of classic stories paired with his bright illustrations.

The Artist John Haymson

The artist John Haymson’s fascinating life fed into his amazing art.

Haymson was born in Vienna, Austra in 1902. It didn’t take him long to discover his love of art when at age five he drew a portrait of his tutor. He studied at the famous Vienna Academy of Fine Art and is best known for his watercolor pieces that show vibrant daily life. Some of his subjects include Venice, Italy, New Orleans, and Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco.

Haymson also studied stage and costume design and had the privilege of working as a writer for Warner Brothers. Soon after that, he started a studio in Manhattan and his popularity as an artist skyrocketed.

Haymson has lectured on art at many colleges, and he has also led many college tours to Mexico and Europe.

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We’re lucky enough to have a John Haymson piece in our possession. This signed piece is called “The Stock Exchange”, showing the Stock Exchange building in New York City. It’s the largest stock exchange in the world.

The building has also been the site of many notable economic events in history like the Wall Street crash of 1929 or the 1987 Black Tuesday.

This painting by Haymson shows his mastery of watercolor and showing how colorful and lively scenes of daily life can be.

If you’re interested in the painting, you can find it here!

The Scandalous Story of the 1891 $1,000 Silver Certificate

This $1,000 dollar silver certificate may look like an ordinary bill, but the woman on the left has drama surrounding her the likes of which you wouldn’t expect.

In June 2013, one of two existing bills sold for $2.6 million, a record price. The only other bill of this type known to exist is in the National Numismatic Collection at the Smithsonian.

The woman on the left looks like your typical Lady Liberty, but there’s more story to this woman who was the model for this patriotic purpose. Her real name was Josie Mansfield.

Josie was born in either 1842 or 1853, depending on the source. She started making a living in her teens by becoming an actress and showgirl in San Francisco. To make ends meet, she became a courtesan for the wealthy men of San Francisco through her beauty and charming personality.

She married an actor named James Lawler and soon after their marriage they moved to New York.

In New York, Josie met James Fisk. A brutal businessman, Fisk did such business dealings as betraying businessmen for control of the Erie Railroad and manipulating stocks. He also bought a theater to set up shows with scantily-clad women, which certainly created a reputation for him.

Josie had divorced James Lawler fairly quickly and Fisk himself supplied her with a nice house. Reportedly, the house had a walkway directly to Fisk’s office; Fisk had a wife at the time who lived away from him in Boston, so the affair between he and Josie had to be kept secret.

Here’s where the real scandal comes in. Josie had a number of affairs with both men and women, but eventually she fell in love with Edward Stokes, a business partner of James Fisk. Using Fisk’s love letters to Josie, she and Stokes tried to blackmail him for money. However, Fisk’s rather big connections helped him out when he took the pair to court. His judge friends rejected every lawsuit Josie and Stokes filed.

On January 6th, 1872 at the Grand Central Hotel, the broke and furious Stokes shot Fisk twice in the stomach. Fisk died within a few hours. Stokes served four years in prison.

Josie Mansfield, most likely sick of the drama, moved to Paris after the murder and married American lawyer Robert Livingston Reade, who was put into an asylum for alcohol and chloral hydrate addiction six years later. Josie lived the rest of her life in comfort on Reade’s enormous fortune.

You’re probably wondering where the $1,000 note comes in to all this. The engraver Charles Kennedy Burt designed the Lady Liberty based on a photo of Josie, putting a crown of stars on her head as embellishment.

So Josie Mansfield, a member of this infamous love triangle, found herself forever on the $1,000 bill. Her history and the history of the people surrounding her have been immortalized on this rare collectible.

Traveling with Art: The Flatiron Building, New York City

There’s so much to say about New York City and its history that we wouldn’t know where to start. Thankfully, this vibrant painting by an artist named Lin guides the way to a more directed discussion: it shows the Flatiron Building on the corner of 175 Fifth Avenue. This skyscraper, completed in 1902, gets its name from its resemblance to a cast-iron clothing iron.

If you had to pick a U.S. city for its architecture, New York City would win hands down. The city’s architecture gives a romantic view of city life with its skyscrapers and impressive skyline. And so many of its skyscrapers are known by name – the Chrysler building, the Empire State Building, etc.Flatiron Building001

And the Flatiron Building deserves a mention of its own. It was declared a New York City landmark in 1966, was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1979, and named a National Historic Landmark in 1989.NYSkyscrapers001

The building was constructed despite the decline of the nearby neighborhood at the time. Citizens insisted on calling it the Flatiron despite its given name, the Fuller Building, so-called after the “father of the skyscraper” George A. Fuller.

Originally after its construction, NYC citizens placed bets on how far the building’s debris would go after it collapsed from the wind. They thought that Daniel Burnham’s design would make the building susceptible to easily blowing over. However, its steel bracing was designed to withstand up to four times the amount of wind force than could be expected to ever pass through the area. The bets were off, and the Flatiron stayed.


The full painting by the artist Lin, available here.

Today, the building functions as an office building, although its unique shape creates odd, cramped offices, with walls cutting through rooms at angles. Also, a second elevator has to be taken from the 20th floor to reach the 21st, thanks to the floor’s addition three years after the rest of the building was completed.

It has its oddities, but the Flatiron Building has firmly rooted itself in NYC soil as an integral part of the city. Keep an eye out for its use or appearance in multiple TV shows and movies, like Godzilla (1998) and Spider-Man movies.