The Life of Pneumatic Tubes

Amelia Catalano and Alison Rhonemus

Pfft – just like that. So, E.B. White describes the efficiency of the pneumatic mail service in New York, only four years before its demise. White describes the process of conveying mail through pneumatic tubes as part of the miracle of New York. “The whole thing is implausible” and “reason enough to abandon the island to the gods and the weevils.” White contends. The system of cast-iron tubes used compressed air to transport 24 x 8 in steel canisters at 30 miles per hour between post offices. The modern day message in a bottle, “When a young man in Manhattan writes a letter to his girl in Brooklyn, the love message gets blow to her through a pneumatic tube – pfft – just like that.”

The first pneumatic mail tube operated by the U.S. Post Office in New York began carrying mail in 1897. The tube line ran from the General Post Office in Manhattan to the Produce Exchange in lower Manhattan. By August 1898 pneumatic service extended over the Brooklyn Bridge with transport from the church st po to the general post office in brooklyn taking about 4 minutes. Additions also included service to grand central and harlem. Eventually there were 27 miles of pneumatic mail tubes in New York, connecting 23 post offices. In 1918 Pneumatic Service was halted. New York began pneumatic mail service again in 1922 and continued until 1953. The pneumatic tube over the brooklyn bridge was removed during construction in the 1950s much of the rest of the city’s tubes remain intact although dormant, mostly unseen and unused.

Pneumatic New York has a secret life connected with Alfred Ely Beach, creator of an early New York Subway at Warren St and Broadway. In order to get his subway past the scrutiny of elevated line proponent, Boss Tweed, Beach describes his passenger subway train as a pneumatic tube system for the mails. To avoid an out and out lie in 1867 Beach constructed a 1000 ft tube that sped letters at 60 miles per hour. Eventually this first installation of Pneumatic New York or of Pneumatic mail in the U.S. Was sealed. Thirty years later pneumatic mail service began in New York. Today pneumatic new york bides its time underground, waiting for what the next phase of history will deliver.

Bibliography and credits
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New York Parcel Dispatch Company. (1869). Slotted pneumatic tube.

New York Parcel Dispatch Company. (1869). Entrance to Beach’s subway.

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P. 31 “It is a miracle that New York works at all. The whole thing is implausible. […] When a young man in Manhattan writes a letter to his girl in Brooklyn, the love message gets blown to her through a pneumatic tube–pfft–just like that.”


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