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

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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.

 

Mankato, MN

Ah, Mankato, Minnesota. I love the roof, and the walls of buff-colored Mankato stone. Designed by William Martin Akin and built in 1896, it was later dumbed down by James A. Wetmore — who was never happier than when designing a horizontal, faceless box — in the 1930s.

Princeton, NJ

This post office began its life in 1896 as one of a pair of Princeton dormitories — Upper Pyne and Lower Pyne — located just outside the campus gates. The buildings were named for Moses Taylor Pyne (1855-1921), one of Princeton’s benefactors. Architect Raleigh C. Gildersleeve modeled them on Tudor-style houses in Chester, England, and designed them with space for shops at the street level, and dormitory rooms on the floors above.

Directories show that the Princeton post office was operating in Lower Pyne as early as 1903, and remained there through 1934. The postcard shown dates from about 1912.

The postal history of this site, however, pre-dates the building of Lower Pyne by almost a century. The town of Princeton was on the first post-road between New York and Philadelphia, and received mail weekly as early as 1720. By 1791, Princeton had its own post office, and as early as 1804, that office was at “the old post office corner,” i.e., the corner of Nassau and Witherspoon Streets.

Major Stephen Morford, a veteran of the Revolutionary War, lived in a house there, where he and his family kept the Princeton post office for 30 years. Major Morford was the postmaster, then his son William, and, from 1824 to 1834, his oldest daughter Frances Witherspoon Morford.

Major John A. Perrine was the next postmaster and kept the office in the same spot, but in 1841, Robert E. Hornor was appointed and moved the post office to a building he owned. The office followed postmasters from house to house for the next 60 years or so, until it again found a home at the corner of Nassau and Witherspoon, in the newly built Lower Pyne.

Images of Upper and Lower Pyne appear in at least two novels, one by Princeton alumnus F. Scott Fitzgerald who in This Side of Paradise (1920) described the buildings as “aristocratic Elizabethan ladies not quite content to live among shopkeepers,” and in another by Walker Percy, The Last Gentleman (1966).

Of the man for whom Lower Pyne is named, Moses “Momo” Pyne, one could write all day. A wealthy member of the Class of 1877, he was elected to the Princeton Board of Trustees while still in his twenties, and didn’t miss a meeting for 36 years. His extraordinary generosity to Princeton was accompanied by acts of kindness, frequently anonymous, on behalf of faculty, students, alumni and townspeople. The grounds of Pyne’s nearby estate, Drumthwacket, were open to students, and included a woods, lakes, a deer park and formal gardens. One account maintains that even the black squirrels today roaming the estate and the Princeton campus were imported by Pyne, a unique reminder of his legacy.

Miracle of miracles, Lower Pyne still stands at the corner of Nassau and Witherspoon; it is the home of a jeweler, on the ground floor, with offices and apartments on the upper floors.

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My thanks to Eileen Morales at the Historical Society of Princeton and Terri Nelson of the Princeton Public Library. Sources include: History of Princeton and Its Institutions ( 1878 ) by John Frelinghuysen Hageman; A Princeton Companion ( 1978 ) by Alexander Leitch; and Wikipedia for Moses Taylor Pyne.