By Nancy Pope, Historian and Curator
America’s postal service went underground 120 years ago today. No, it wasn’t on the run or trying to be a 19th century “hipster.” It was the first US postal use of a series of underground pneumatic tubes, using six-inch iron water pipes to carry mail underground between post offices and railway stations. Powered by pressurized air, canisters would fly between stations at 30 mph. Philadelphia started the trend with a tube line that connected the central post office at 9th and Market Streets with a railway station four blocks away at 24th and Chestnut Street (the post office still stands, but the train station was torn down in the 1960s).
Mail sent through the tubes moved between the stations in just two minutes, compared to 15 minutes the trip usually took by wagon. In attendance was Postmaster General John Wanamaker, who had made certain that the first test of the service would be in his hometown of Philadelphia. He placed a Bible wrapped in an American flag (1) into a tube that went flying out with a loud whish! Only a few minutes later the tube, with contents, was sent back on a return trip. The experiment had been a success. Postal officials and workers continued testing the tubes with a decreasingly iconic collection of items including postcards, newspapers, a pair of shoes, a loaf of bread, oranges, apples, a bunch of violets, and a laundered shirt.
Wanamaker was wary of the potential cost of building and operating the service, so the Post Office Department contracted with private companies to build and maintain the tubes, and then paid an annual rent of $3,450 for using them. In Philadelphia the tubes were constructed and owned by the Electric Pneumatic Transit Company. Payment for the service at first came from the appropriations assigned to the mail messenger service.
The Philadelphia service was followed a few years later by pneumatic tube construction and use in New York City, Boston, and Brooklyn. The first line in New York City was run between the main city post office and a branch office in the Produce Exchange and was operated by the Tubular Dispatch Company, not quite 4,000 feet away. While a wagon could carry dozens of mailbags between the two offices, the busy streets slowed wagons. But a pneumatic canister could carry 600 letters at once below the streets, making the same trip in a minute and 30 seconds. Chicago and St. Louis also used pneumatic tube mail service, but in neither city did the service obtain the reach and viability that it had did on the East Coast.
One of the most intriguing pneumatic tube routes wasn’t underground at all. In fact it ran between the Brooklyn and New York City main post offices across the Brooklyn Bridge. The 1.65 mile route was built and operated by the New York Mail & Newspaper Transportation Company after a couple of years of debate, court-ordered work stoppages and other delays. It operated from August 1, 1898 to April 28, 1950 when it was removed for construction on the bridge but never restored. This pneumatic tube service operated from 5am to 9pm Monday through Saturday, carrying 126,350 letters and 20,250 newspapers each day. The Department paid an annual rent of $14,000 for the service, which used cast iron tubes 8 3/16” in diameter. The tubes allowed mail that traveled by wagons in 30 minutes to speed across the bridge in 3 ½ minutes. By 1898 the system connected 21 local post offices in Manhattan to the main post office. As late as 1914, 30-percent of first-class letters sent through the city's main post office were transmitted by pneumatic tube.
By 1918 the Post Office Department began replacing its horse-drawn wagons with automobiles, which carried mail between railway stations and post offices even more rapidly than the pneumatic tube system. During World War I, the Post Office Department suspended the service to conserve funding for the war effort. After the war, it restored the service, but while post offices and business centers moved with relative ease, the underground pneumatic system did not. New York City continued using a portion of the pneumatic tube service into the 1950s, but by then it was basically obsolete. The Post Office Department suspended it in 1953, pending review, but never reinstated it.
(1) Wanamaker sent a message with the package reading, “First use of the pneumatic postal tube in the United States is to send through it a copy of the Holy Scriptures, the greatest message ever given to the world. Covering the Bible is the American flag, the emblem of freedom of 65,000,000 happy people.”