The Pneumatic Mail Tubes And The “Age of Speed”
Reading Howard Wallace Connelly’s highly entertaining 1931 autobiography Fifty-Six Years In The New York Post Office– A Human Interest Story of Real Happenings in the Postal Service (self-published) the following anecdote begins Chapter VI:
When the pneumatic tubes were installed at the General Post Office, October 7, 1897, we Supervisors were given a fine treat after the ceremonies were over. A rough hastily constructed row of steps (circus show style) had been erected facing the tubes. Senator Chauncey M. Depew was Master of Ceremonies. Probably over a hundred friends and Post Office officials were spectators. The first tube contained only a large artificial peach. The roar of laughter that greeted it was heartily joined by the Senator. A Bowery audience that had attended a political meeting at which he was the principal speaker, instead of trying to break up the show, took quite a liking to the speaker and a loud voiced man yelled, “Chauncey, you’re a peach.” Hence the laugh when the first tube arrived. From the second tube, a cat was taken. How it could live after being shot at terrific speed from Station P in the Produce Exchange Building, making several turns before reaching Broadway and Park Row, I cannot conceive, but it did. It seemed to be dazed for a minute or two but started to run and was quickly secured and placed in a basket that had been provided for that purpose. A suit of clothes was the third arrival and then came letters, papers, and other ordinary mail matter.
Hah-ha very funny. The postal officials must have had a ball putting a cat into the tubes. Can you imagine the public outcry if something like that was done now?
Connelly omits that the first parcel actually sent through the tubes was sent by Depew to the Produce Exchange Post Office which included a bible wrapped in an American flag, a copy of the Constitution, a copy of President McKinley’s inaugural speech and several other papers. The peach came later on the return trip to the General Post Office with each succeeding round trip other oddball parcels arrived from the Produce Exchange Post Office such as the cat and a suit of clothes.
The pneumatic mail service was an innovation that sped up delivery of mail and packages dramatically. A speed trial showed the efficiency of the system. The distance between the General Post Office and the Produce Exchange Post Office was 3,750 feet. A carrier filled with 600 letters was inserted into the tube and sent to the Produce Exchange Post Office. It arrived in one minute and a half. In the reverse direction, one minute and twenty seconds.
In a comparison to the old systems of communications conducted by The Tubular Dispatch Company (the manufacturers of the post office’s pneumatic tube system), a message was sent from their location in the Tribune Building to a banking firm at Broad Street. It required over four hours by mail, fifty six minutes by telegraph, thirty three minutes by special messenger on foot and by horse. The same message made the circuit by pneumatic tube in less than ten minutes allowing time for the messenger at each end of the route.
In his speech at the ceremony Chauncey Depew said, “This is the age of speed. Anything which increases speed aids to the sum of human happiness. Speed is rest; speed is developed. The old fogy who claims more peace and ease and longevity in the slow-going times of the past is ignorant of present conditions.”
The pneumatic mail service began full service to Grand Central Terminal later that month and was expanded to other parts of the city by January 1898. The service was in effect until 1953.
When the streets of New York are being dug up you can occasionally see remnants of the pneumatic tubes.
Click here to read the October 8, 1897 article that the New York Times wrote about the first pneumatic mail service.