Friday, February 22, 2008

Pneumatic Mail Service

Speedy, door-to-door delivery -- that was the goal when many large cities in Europe, and a few in the U.S., began implementing pneumatic mail service in the late 1890s and early 1900s. While it never quite got to the door-to-door part, it was used for postal branch-to-postal branch transfer of mail.

Pneumatic mail service is when air is used to propel or, in the case of vacuum-driven systems, to pull mail through a series of airtight tubes. The tubes were similar, although a bit more primitive, to those you might see in banks that have drive-up windows, or in large factories and warehouses where paperwork must move from two distant points.

Mail or small packages were put into cylinders which fit snuggly into a network of pipes, almost always underground. Air or vacuum pressure would cause the cylinder to move through the tube from a location with high pressure to one with a lower pressure as it tried to equalize. At the remote location, a postal worker would remove the cylinder from the pneumatic tube, open it and remove the mailed items, and then process them by hand for the rest of their journey.

Although maybe not apparent to today's world of instant communications, PDF documents, and faxes, pneumatic mail offered the only real hope of quickly moving a letter through the mail at the turn of the century. The idea was simple ... install pneumatic tubes and route mail and small packages throughout the system.

The tubes were used in many large European cities such as Paris, Berlin, Munich, and Rome. In America, at least four cities had pneumatic tubes as part of the mail delivery infrastructure: New York, Philadelphia, St. Louis, and Boston. New York's tube service was in operation until the 1950s.

As one might imagine, the tubes were expensive to install. While they offered the benefit of moving mail to neighboring sub-stations quickly, the expense of laying and maintaining pipe made the system impractical except for anything other than high traffic areas. The once-futuristic dream of having door-to-door pneumatic mail delivery quickly faded once the cost of implementation was factored.

Surprisingly, a variation of the pneumatic mail system remained in use until as recently as 2002 in Prague, Czech Republic, and it was closed only due to flooding. It is unclear if the tube system will be restored to operation.

Italy is the only country to issue stamps to pay for mail delivery via their pneumatic tube system. This stamp, issued in 1945, is but one example of the 23 stamps (including varieties) issued between 1913 and 1966 by Italy. It features a portrait of Galileo and the phrase Posta Pneumatica as well as its denomination.

More detail about pneumatic mail, especially as adopted in America, can be found at the National Postal Museum.

Update: Special thanks to readers Blair and Pierre, who have noted that several countries, namely France, Germany, and Austria, offered postal stationery that was explicitly labeled for use with pneumatic postal service. While not technically stamps, the stationery was created solely for pneumatic mail. Thanks, readers!

1 comment:

Joshua McGee said...

For more in-depth coverage of the phenomenon of pneumatic tube delivery, I can recommend The Victorian Internet by author Tom Standage. If you get the book, you will even read the story of the poor cat who was sent through the system. He arrived scared -- but alive!