In 1898, miles of tube were laid underneath the streets of New York City in order to shoot canisters of mail around the city at 30 miles an hour between Post Office stations. The pneumatic tube mail system, which pushed brass canisters that could hold several pounds of mail each, were popular in Europe prior to their launch in the United States. But starting in the late-19th century, pneumatic tube systems would be an important part of mail delivery in Philadelphia (the first city in the US to start using pneumatic tubes), New York, Boston, St. Louis, and Chicago.
Pneumatic tube systems were not simply an efficient way to deliver mail and packages across cities with congested streets now packed with automobiles; instead, they were a symbol of modern life.
Cities across the country were clambering to install pneumatic tube mail systems. Sending mail in canisters pushed by air under the streets of a city was seen as the essence of being cosmopolitan and modern. Pneumatic tube systems were not simply an efficient way to deliver mail and packages across cities with congested streets now packed with automobiles; instead, they were a symbol of modern life. Pneumatic tubes represented a technological leap forward allowing us to connect instantly. In cities like New York, two people could exchange up to 12 messages in a single day, heralding in the notion of “instant messaging.”
In Waiting for Word, I explore the ways that “instant connection” through messaging technology had a powerful cultural allure, regardless of whether or not the system could actually connect people “instantly.” Instantaneous communication is still such a powerful concept in our own culture — it’s the motivator behind that feeling that we can’t leave the house without our phone for fear that we’ll be out of touch. At this moment in history, the majority of people on the planet have a mobile device that allows them to be reached (and reach out) at all times.
Being able to reach out and connect instantly, without the need to wait, is a dominant touchstone for our era. The seeds of this “enchantment of the instant” were planted back in the mid- to late-19th century with the launch of the telegraph and the pneumatic tube systems. Yet, this notion of instantaneous communication is a mythology that drives consumer attitudes more than it delivers a “wait-free” mode of communication. That is to say, the ways that this enchantment changes how we think are more powerful than the technological abilities of the system itself, whether that be text messages on a mobile phone or a pneumatic tube shooting messages around a city.
The era of the pneumatic tube system and the era of the mobile phone come together at a single site in New York City: the SoHo Apple Store at the corner of Prince and Greene Streets. I first encountered this store on my way to a conference at NYU, as I made my way through police barricades and thousands of people who stood in line for the newest release of the iPhone. The line for the new device, which was launching that morning, wrapped around six city blocks. Waiting for the latest iPhone was a powerful technique used by Apple to build anticipation and desire, which paid off in the blocks of people standing for hours to get their hands on the new device.
As I came across the store this past April, I noticed something different about the exterior of the building. Just above the front entrance hangs a metal sign with the Apple logo cut out; yet on the surface of the building, there was an old inscription, “Station A.” I had actually come searching for Station A — the “Prince Street Post Office” — not realizing that I would find the same Apple store from my previous encounter. In the former life of this building, it was an old Post Office station used to send pneumatic tube mail canisters across the city. The old Post Office station that used to send instant messages around New York was now the home to a glass staircase leading customers to the new form of instant messaging: rows of iPhones displayed on polished wooden tables. The Post Office station that once symbolized modern life had been gutted and replaced with the new symbol of modern life and instant connection.
I toured the city, going to each site of the former pneumatic tube mail system, retracing the routes that the tubes followed through New York. Just north of the SoHo Station A, the tubes would go up Greene Street, situated about four feet underground for most of the journey. At 3rd Street, the tubes made a left turn and then headed north underneath Washington Square Park.
I had to recreate the pathways of these tubes based on newspaper clippings and addresses from the archives. Detailed maps exist for the system; however, those have all been pulled from public access at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. After 9/11, any map or building schematic relating to New York City was removed and are no longer accessible to researchers. I came across one map that helped me create my final map (in concert with addresses listed in the extensive records of the pneumatic tubes in New York):
I then took these points and created a Google map, showing the Post Offices that still remain (in green) and the ones that have become something else (in red, such as the SoHo Apple Store). The yellow markers show the Post Offices that served as power stations that created the compressed air used to push the canisters around the city:
Many of these sites are still working Post Offices, though most have been renovated to create a uniform and recognizable customer experience once you enter the doors. One postal driver I spoke with at the Midtown Post Office laughed when I asked him about any of the old pneumatic tubes or pipes remaining. “No, this whole place has been redone. They’re even building new condos right above the station right now.” The city is constantly evolving and erasing traces of its past while it updates itself.
As I left the Apple Store and walked up Greene Street, there were so many manhole covers and street grates that led to underground networks that keep the city working, all out of site (from electrical systems to sewage, from internet cables to water lines). There’s an entire ecosystem of tubes under the city, and the pneumatic tubes sat alongside these systems, all designed to be out of view. This placement served two purposes. First, it was practical, allowing the messages canisters to be sent throughout the city without interrupting life above the surface. Second, by being out of view, it allowed the imagination to create a mysticism around the system that could be totally disconnected from the physical reality of the pneumatic tubes. For example, in a newspaper cartoon that advocated for extending the system, it shows a clunky mail car stuck at a bridge crossing while a missile-shaped canister filled with mail shoots through a tube under the river. The cartoon contrasts these by saying “What We Have” next to the mail car, and “What We Ought To Have” next to the mail-missile.
Technologies for instant communication don’t eliminate our wait times; instead, they function to give the public a sense of technological advancement. We are drawn to the myth of ever-accelerating connection speeds that will allow us to connect instantly. This myth reveals our desire for tools that bridge the gap between us and those who are geographically separated from us. These tools give us hope that we can stay intimately connected with those who are far away. As people move away from families and loved ones, as they switch neighborhoods or states or countries, they seek tools that will help bridge that gap. Such promises of wait-free communication and connection are powerful and help create an investment in these technologies.
We are drawn to the myth of ever-accelerating connection speeds that will allow us to connect instantly. This myth reveals our desire for tools that bridge the intimacy gap.
The pneumatic tube mail system was incredibly successful. It did connect people in ways that were unprecedented. While it didn’t remove the need to wait (waiting is always a part of sending and receiving messages, no matter how fast the technology is), it did provide a new way to send messages at speeds that made people feel like they were living in the future.
The entire pneumatic mail system was shut down in 1918, despite near universal claims that the system was helping all those who used it. It was expensive and the Postmaster General at the time didn’t want his department to front the costs of the system. He had President Woodrow Wilson veto the congressional bill that would keep the system alive. (This was during a time when this Postmaster General was also advocating for the segregation of the mail, that blacks and whites should be served differently by the Post Office Department!)
The New York system was revived in the early-1920s and lasted until the 1950s. The ability for automobiles to carry massive amounts of mail around the city, as well as the limited bandwidth of the tubes (each canister had a capacity that couldn’t be increased) were big reasons that the system was eventually terminated. The system was also difficult to fix. With pipes four feet underground, crews had to shut down streets as they dug down to open up pipes to do maintenance or repair. One other possible reason for its demise: the public lived with the system for so long (and learned all of its frailties) that it became another tool that was less futuristic than when it was first introduced.
The pipes remain dormant under the city streets now, out of view and a lost part of the history of message exchange in the United States.