October 7, 1897, was a celebratory day in New York City, unless you happened to be one unfortunate tomcat. On that date, the United States Post Office Department completed the first test of the city’s pneumatic tube system, which used compressed air to send cylindrical containers filled with mail through a series of underground networks. The first mail tube took three minutes to cover the 7,500-foot round-trip journey from the main postal building to the New York Produce Exchange; inside, it held a Bible wrapped in an American flag, as well as copies of the U.S. Constitution and President William McKinley’s inaugural address. Other test shipments on that initial day were more creative.
“The carriers were not only a complete success for the transportation of first-class matter, such as letters, but equally satisfactory for the carriage of packages of every description, including a full suit of clothes, a package of books, a live cat in a cotton sack and [a] dozen … eggs, etc.,” wrote Second Assistant Postmaster General W.S. Shallenberger in a report. Shallenberger was rather liberal with his “etc.”: The other items included two magnum bottles of champagne and a large artificial peach in a basket for New York Senator Chauncey Depew, who was serving as master of ceremonies. Seeing the shipment, one spectator called out, “Chauncey, you’re a peach!”
The pomp and circumstance of this opening ceremony, in which the privately owned Tubular Dispatch Company turned its tubes over to the government, marked the beginning of the mail system’s five-decade run in New York. After that one line opened in 1897, the city’s pneumatic mail network grew to contain approximately 27 miles of tubes, which shuttled millions of letters across Manhattan and Brooklyn every day.
On December 31, 1953, however, the Post Office suspended the service, suggesting in a statement that it was “obsolete, unnecessary and excessively expensive.” The tubes have lain dormant ever since.
The 56-year history of New York’s pneumatic tube system is interesting in and of itself. The technology continues to capture the public’s imagination, evoking nostalgia for those of a certain age and appearing in movies like Paddington and television shows like “Loki” and “Lost” as a symbol of an alternate future or place that is “other.”
But chronicling the history of New York’s mail tube system also offers a lens for examining overarching social and political trends, from an uptick in unionization and the threat of McCarthyism to the perennial question of whether and how the government should outsource certain services to the private sector.
New York wasn’t the first city to embrace pneumatic mail. London debuted its service in 1863, and Paris followed in 1866. In the U.S., Postmaster General John Wanamaker—best known as the founder of the department store Wanamaker’s—started pushing for the technology in his 1890 report to Congress. Wanamaker embraced new ways to move the mail throughout his tenure, advocating for free delivery in rural areas, among other measures. Urban areas were also ripe for innovation. “Cities were always a separate problem,” says Diane DeBlois, an independent historian specializing in philately, or the study and collection of postage stamps. “They tended, of course, to be the nodes and have a huge amount of mail.” Beginning with the establishment of the Post Office Department in 1792, officials “were always looking for a way to streamline the delivery of mail but also the handling of mail in the city centers,” DeBlois adds. (The department rebranded as the independent United States Postal Service in 1971.)
Wanamaker was no longer postmaster general by the time pneumatic mail arrived in Manhattan, but he played a key role in getting the system off (or under, in this case) the ground. In 1893—the year that Wanamaker left office—Philadelphia’s postal service became the first in the U.S. to adopt pneumatic tube service. New York soon followed suit, with Tubular Dispatch breaking ground on August 2, 1897, to great fanfare. The first circuit trip—tested via fake fruit and a flesh-and-blood feline—took place two months later and cost $184,000, or roughly $6.8 million today. The U.S. government gave Tubular Dispatch the green light to continue building, and the lines that were already under construction were finished and promptly put to use.
In New York, workers placed cast-iron mail tubes some 4 to 18 feet below the street, running the tracks on top of the subway in some spots and beneath it in others. The mail containers, meanwhile, were steel cylinders measuring 2 feet long and 8 inches in diameter. They weighed 21 pounds when empty and could hold around 400 letters as they traveled through the system at a speed of 30 miles per hour. The tubes themselves were kept slick by workers who periodically sent decoy projectiles full of lubricating oil through the lines. At peak times, operators could send a mail carrier out every 6 to 15 seconds, moving roughly 360,000 letters an hour in each direction. By the mid-1920s, 55 percent of the city’s mail was transported through the tubes rather than via truck or wagon on congested streets.
The engineer behind both Philadelphia’s and New York’s postal tube systems was a man named Birney Clark Batcheller, whose patented process eventually became the main pneumatic mail method in the U.S. Batcheller had his own business entity, which he used to make deals with the American Pneumatic Service Company, the conglomerate that came to own almost all of the country’s pneumatic mail assets.
The early days of New York’s tube service had some rough moments involving both the tubes and the companies that owned them. Batcheller’s patents were contested, albeit unsuccessfully, in early 1898, and the engineer sued Tubular Dispatch in 1899 for unpaid work. While proponents of the system testified that accidents were few, mishaps still took place. In February 1898, more than 600 letters were damaged or destroyed when a carrier opened up mid-journey, though 260 missives were quickly recovered and sent to their intended destinations. One of the lines had to be shut down in March of that year due to excessive moisture.
Despite these issues, the tubes continued to stretch across the city, with Tubular Dispatch opening additional lines in Manhattan and another contractor, the New York Newspaper Mail and Transportation Company, opening a circuit over the Brooklyn Bridge that connected the two boroughs on August 1, 1898.
Still, lawmakers in Washington, D.C. were skeptical. Congress halted all tube mail service from July 1, 1901, to June 30, 1902, by not appropriating funds for that fiscal year. “I am more sorry than I can express to see this system abandoned,” New York City Postmaster Cornelius Van Cott told the New York Times. While Van Cott acknowledged that moving mail via wagons would be cheaper, he called this comparison a “false economy,” explaining that the existing tube service was “much quicker” than the wagon system.
Van Cott was optimistic the service would be reinstated, and he was right. Following a report from the postmaster general, postal tube transport resumed on July 1, 1902.
The next year, the system experienced a fatal accident. Two workers searching for the source of a clog uncovered a crack in one of the tubes. Thinking the men had fixed the issue and left the area, their colleagues sent a test shipment that broke the damaged tube, pinning the pair to the ground. One man died from his injuries, while the other suffered a broken leg and a crushed side. Despite the tragedy, the pneumatic mail service continued to expand. The companies that owned and ran the tubes consolidated under one entity, the American Pneumatic Service, which owned all the tube systems in the U.S. except for Philadelphia’s.
“[Having a monopoly provider] is really normal when it comes to the various kinds of private contractors that do business” with the Post Office, says DeBlois. As such, the American Pneumatic Service boasted about its position instead of shying away from it. The conglomerate was more than happy for the government to buy it out, making the surprising claim in a 1918 congressional report that the department would be able to run the system more efficiently.
That report also explored whether the government should buy the tubes and their associated operation and maintenance outright—a question the Post Office has grappled with more than once. “It’s very common to have these debates,” says Lynn Heidelbaugh, a curator at the Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum. “Where should the resources of the Post Office Department go? Should they go into building fleets and maintaining infrastructure? Or should that be through contracts with private companies who are doing this work and doing that maintenance during that building?”
Ultimately, the report recommended that the U.S. buy out the conglomerate, even though it would cost the government an additional $312 per day. Postmaster General Albert Burleson had other ideas. He minced no words when describing his dislike of the service. In his 1917 annual report to Congress, he’d declared, “The rental paid for the pneumatic tubes is exorbitant, unjustified and an extravagant waste of public funds.”
Burleson added, “All ... reports with one exception show an inevitable drift toward the abandonment of the tubes because of the advent of the automobile. While all other kinds of transportation facilities have been greatly improved during the past 15 years, the pneumatic tubes have been at a standstill.”
The postmaster general was almost evangelical in his critique; he called the tube system an “incubus” and reportedly sent a copy of his annual report to every member of Congress, attaching a personal letter asking for their “careful consideration,” according to the Times.
Burleson’s stance was not a popular one, and he was attacked by Congress, the public, the press and—unsurprisingly—the American Pneumatic Service. The postmaster general, however, was known for his political fervor, and ultimately, he won: Congress didn’t appropriate funding for pneumatic mail, defying the recommendations of the 484-page congressional report and shuttering all mail tube systems in the U.S. on June 30, 1918. Service was only restored in New York in 1922 and in Boston in 1926, partly due to public complaints about the number of mail vehicles clogging the streets.
The tubes’ reopening again proved controversial in Washington, with Senator Kenneth McKellar, a Democrat from Tennessee, calling the decision “dangerously near a brazen steal of federal funds.” Still, the tubes continued carrying the mail. When breakdowns happened, maintenance workers repaired the system at no small personal risk. One icy day, a worker had to pick his way over a 12-inch catwalk alongside the cables of the Brooklyn Bridge to remove a blockage with denatured alcohol—an ironic choice of material during Prohibition. Another construction worker accidentally drilled through a tube and, thinking it was a gas pipe, promptly lost his finger when he stuck it in the hole to prevent gas from leaking.
In 1938, an uptick in laborers unionizing likely played a part in New York’s decision to take direct control of its pneumatic mail system. In February of that year, workers at the New York Mail and Newspaper Transportation Company sought union representation. They hoped to earn higher wages, as they worked 60 hours each week, while Post Office employees worked 44 hours. The company resisted, saying the pay bump would cost an additional $135,000. Management also challenged the union’s right to collectively bargain but lost.
As a result of the failed negotiations, the company shunted some of its employees over to the Post Office, which assumed responsibility for paying the workers who operated the tube system, as well as providing the power to run it. The private company kept the workers who performed maintenance on its payroll and continued to own the pipes directly.
For those workers, clearing blockages in the pipes didn’t always involve scrambling across the Brooklyn Bridge. If mail got stuck, so-called Saturday afternoon Grunters were called upon to get things moving again. A four-person team would go out on Saturdays, when the tubes were less busy, to track down leaks in the pipes, which affected the air pressure inside and created blockages. One of the men, the Grunter, would grunt into the tube while two of his colleagues listened from the other side. The fourth man used a stopwatch to determine how long the Grunter’s echo took to make it to them. Doing so helped them locate the leak. Alternatively, workers in Philadelphia fired a pistol into the tube and listened for the bullet’s echoes.
The costs of the pneumatic tube system remained high, and its continued funding proved controversial. On April 28, 1950, the line connecting Brooklyn to Manhattan was cut off after the reconstruction of the Brooklyn Bridge. In 1953, Postmaster General Arthur Summerfield shut down all of New York’s tubes for good. “One of the things that we soon came upon was the apparent excessive cost of handling mail by the tube system,” Summerfield said in his annual report to Congress, later adding that “the cost of that operation … could be practically eliminated.”
Rather than canceling the contract, Summerfield conducted a test in early December 1953 to see how New York’s mail would run without the tubes. The letters made it to their final destinations with ease, said Summerfield in a press release. “The mail can be satisfactorily handled by the addition of two trucks at a yearly cost of about $25,000,” the postmaster general explained. “These two trucks will adequately replace the tube service, which now costs the government a total outlay of approximately $1,000,000 a year.”
Summerfield canceled the contract on December 31, 1953, ending the pneumatic system that Wanamaker started more than 50 years prior. “It’s interesting to see that the bookmarks of it beginning with Wanamaker and ending with Summerfield,” says Heidelbaugh. “Both are very forward-looking, very much into technology for speed, for considering the customer.”
She adds, “They very much characterized their administration by the number of things that they experimented with.” In Summerfield’s case, that interest in looking for new technology dovetailed with a willingness to move away from technology increasingly rendered obsolete.
The closure of New York’s mail tube system reverberated beyond the end of 1953. In February 1954, Senator Joseph McCarthy—then on the cusp of losing the unchecked power he’d wielded over the Senate during his hunt for communist influences in the U.S.—said he would consider holding public hearings about Senator Hubert Humphrey’s support of the tube postal service. McCarthy suspected “something worse than stupidity was involved” in the approval of a ten-year contract signed in 1950. But the planned hearings never took place, and political fighting around the tube system soon faded away. Though the New York Mail and Newspaper Transportation Company attempted to sue the city for breach of contract in 1957, the effort failed.
Today, most of the pipes lie dormant under the streets of New York. (Some have been dug up and destroyed in the intervening decades.) Aside from an apparently failed attempt to house fiber optic cables in the tubes in 2001, the system lives on only as part of the city’s history—a remnant of a technology that many at the turn of the 20th century thought would be a cornerstone of a halcyon future.
Pneumatic tubes still hold appeal today, in part because they conjure up wistfulness for a bygone era and vision of the future. New York’s pneumatic mail system encapsulated that vision, even if it didn’t quite come to pass. “Anything which increases speed adds to the sum of human happiness,” said Depew, the senator who presided over the city’s first successful test of the tubes, in 1897. “Speed, with electricity, with the telegraph, with the telephone, gives to the busy man a vast multiplication of power.”
He added, “When the system is complete throughout Greater New York, a message or a parcel can be delivered to any part of the city in less than 20 minutes. … The one pregnant and overwhelming fact, dispelling all the doubts connected with the pneumatic tube and its possibilities, is that the pneumatic tube is a howling success.”