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:
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.
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.
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.”
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