Bombay, India

This colonial-era post office, in the Victorian Gothic style, dates from the 1880’s and is today the Central Telegraph Office in Bombay (Mumbai), India. The monument to its right is the Flora Fountain, built in 1864, dedicated to the Roman goddess of flowers. The post office above was replaced in 1913 by the post office below, said to be a paradigm of Indo-Saracenic architecture.

The new building was modeled on the Gol Gumbaz in Bijapur by architect John Begg in 1902, completed in 1913, and still serves as the general post office for Bombay today. (The Gol Gumbaz, which inspired the new post office’s soaring dome, is a remarkable domed mausoleum built in 1659 by the architect Yaqut of Dabul.)

The dome can be seen more clearly in this later view, and it has palm trees besides, always a plus in a post office.

Memphis, TN

In 1885, the city of Memphis witnessed the completion of this unlikely but delightful Italian Renaissance post office, designed by James G. Hill. In 1929, a moron named James A. Wetmore “remodeled” the structure, demolishing the towers and obliterating the original.

Ogdensburg, NY

Just across the St. Lawrence River from Canada, in northern New York State, the Odgensburg post office stands at 431 State Street. It was built between 1867 and 1870, designed by Alfred B. Mullett, for federal postal, customs, and court facilities. The Classical Revival building is built of sandstone and limestone.

This early postcard (I love the sky) shows the post office with its original dome, which seems to have been removed sometime around 1910. The building was refurbished in 2003, and is still  home to the post office.

Racine, WI

For a time, Racine, Wisconsin, on the shore of Lake Michigan, was home to this very vertical post office. The post office was gone by 1930, replaced by a box, but Racine can still hold its head high as the birthplace of malted milk and the in-sink garbage disposal.

PO Racine WI

Pneumatic Mail

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It’s not a postcard, but it is a favorite image, showing the pneumatic mail department in the basement of an American post office. The practice of loading mail into canisters and shooting them through tubes with compressed air dates back to the nineteenth century. A pneumatic line linked the London Stock Exchange and a telegraph company in 1853, and there was a pneumatic telegraph and mail system in London soon after. By 1909, there were more than 40 miles of pneumatic tubes running under London, and pneumatic mail in Birmingham, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, Glasgow and Dublin.

In 1865, the German post office in Berlin began pneumatic mail service. It was known as Rohrpost, my favorite translation for pneumatic mail — you can hear it go by. The German post office opened systems in Hamburg and Munich as well. In 1898, Rohrpost carried 2.3 million pieces of mail.

The French opened pneumatic mail services in Paris in 1874, and in Marseilles and Algiers in 1910. Vienna introduced pneumatic mail service in 1875, and Prague went “online” in 1889.

In 1907, the Italian post office began testing systems in Rome, Milan and Naples, and alone among nations issued postage stamps for pneumatic mail, including examples bearing the images of Dante and Galileo:

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Official stationery for pneumatic missives included the French petit bleu and the German Rohrpost Brief and Rohrpost Karte, which you can see in detail on the Buispost website.

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In the United States, the city of Philadelphia introduced pneumatic mail service in 1893, followed by Boston, Brooklyn, New York City, Chicago and St. Louis. In New York City, 30% of first class mail traveled from post office to post office via pneumatic tubes, and mail ran across the river to Brooklyn via tubes on the Brooklyn Bridge. The containers in the New York tubes carried mail at an average speed of 35 mph, and each container could hold up to 600 letters.

Pneumatic Post Cylinders

Postcard from the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, San Francisco, 1915

In John J. Floherty’s Make Way for the Mail (1939), he described the process:

“At the sending end of one of these machines, the scene is not unlike artillery in action. The gun crew, working like beavers, place the cylinder projectiles in the breech of these great pneumatic guns with barrels several miles in length. A turn of a wheel, the pull of a lever, a hissing clatter of the working parts and a seven inch shell loaded with mail is shot to the mark at a distant sub-station.

“As one of these projectiles may be dispatched every ten seconds, hundreds of them are continually in flight beneath the streets of the great city. Ten million letters were dispatched recently through the tubes in nearly twenty-eight thousand projectiles in one day.

“During bad weather, when ice, sleet and snow make the streets almost impassable, or when great congestions of traffic result from unforeseen events, the advantage of this tubular system is dramatically apparent. Another advantage of the tube system is that robbery of the mails while in transit is impossible.”

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Eventually, pneumatic postal systems succumbed to competition from telecommunications, and, in Europe, to the hazards of war and flooding. But if you wish to re-live their history and view their artifacts, visit these sites:

Buispost site in the Netherlands

The Pneumatic Post of Paris

Stamps of Distinction

Fargo, ND

There are many reasons to love Fargo, North Dakota, but to the list, which includes the film Fargo, I would like to add their post office, built circa 1887, shown in this postcard from 1905, at 1st Avenue North & Roberts Street. Right around this time, the building was renovated, a third floor added and the bell tower removed.

Only the entrance columns survived. This building served as the Post Office until 1930, when it was replaced by the lot-filling box below.