Then & Now: NYC’s Pneumatic Tube Mail Network

I’m often asked what my favorite weird/obscure fact about New York City was. Ironically, as the founder of Untapped Cities, this question frequently proves difficult because there are just so many amazing things about this city. So I went back into my memory archives, thinking what about New York City impelled me to create Untapped Cities. The pneumatic tube mail system is top on that list.

The first pneumatic tube mail system was installed in Philadelphia (sorry New York) in 1893. New York City’s came in 1897. Each tube could carry between 400 and 600 letters and traveled at 30-35 miles per hour. In its full glory, the pneumatic tubes covered a 27-mile route, connecting 23 post offices. This network stretched up Manhattan’s east and west sides, from Bowling Green and Wall Street, all the way north to Manhattanville and East Harlem. Anecdotal stories indicate that the system may have extended into the Bronx, with sandwich subs reportedly being delivered via pneumatic tubes from a renown subway shop in the Bronx to downtown postal stations. The system even crossed boroughs into Brooklyn (using the Brooklyn Bridge), taking four minutes to take letters from Church Street near City Hall to the General Post Office in Brooklyn (now Cadman Plaza).

The system, which was located 4 to 6 feet below the city streets, was created and owned by private companies, to which the city paid rent and labor. According to Kate Ascher, author of The Works, “The high operating costs of the pneumatic system ultimately proved its downfall. By 1918, the federal government considered the annual rental payments ($17,000 per mile per annum) made by the post office to be ‘exorbitant’ and endorsed a new alternative with greater capacity–the automobile–as the delivery method of choice.” In New York City, a successful lobby by contractors led to the reinstatement of pneumatic mail service in 1922. A complete stop didn’t happen until 1953. Paris’ system, which covered 269 miles, continued for an additional 34 years (but was more limited in what it could carry–the pipes were only 2 inches diameter).

Pneumatic Tube Mail Network NYC Kate AscherSource: The Works

And what’s left of the pneumatic tubes? Not much, if at all. The location of the tubes within a city’s underbelly basically guaranteed its destruction once no longer in use.  According to The Smithsonian National Postal Museum, “Installation of the tubes was problematic, with previously laid pipes for sewage and gas limiting the size and thus the amount and kind of mail a pneumatic tube could carry. Water table levels also presented difficulties.” Kate Ascher also notes that there was a time when remnants of the pneumatic tubes were still being found, but not often any longer.

Some additional fun facts about the pneumatic tube mail system:

  • According to this incredible article by Robert A. Cohen, the first cylinder tube to travel through the NYC system contained “a Bible, a flag and a copy of the Constitution. The second contained an imitation peach in honor of Senator Chauncy Depew (He was fondly known as “The Peach”).  A third carrier had a black cat in it, for reasons unknown.”
  • It had set hours of operation: 5am to 10pm on weekdays, and 5am to 10am on Saturdays
  • The size of the carriers in New York City was 24 inches long, 8 inches across
  • 95,000 letters were moved daily, about 1/3 of all first class letters
  • It took 4 minutes to get from the General Post Office to Grand Central using a tranverse tube that cut across Manhattan
  • It took between 15 and 20 minutes for mail to get from Herald Square to Manhattanville and East Harlem
  • It took 11 minutes to get from the General Post Office to the Planetarium Post Office, near the Museum of Natural History

Here’s where you can find remnants of the pneumatic tube network in New York City. Find out more about the pneumatic tube mail system and other fun facts about the anatomy of the city in Kate Ascher’s book, The Works

Get in touch with the author @untappedmich.

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