When a young man in Manhattan writes a letter to his girl in Brooklyn, the love letter gets blown to her through a pneumatic tube—pfft—just like that. — E.B. White, “Here Is New York”
The Pneumatic Tube system was once an essential part of New York life. Cylinders containing letters, packages, or at least in one case a live cat, were shot through tubes by air pressure, at a rate of 35 mph, and these tubes ran all over New York from Harlem to the Lower East Side, from Canal Street to the Planetarium, even from Manhattan to Brooklyn itself.
Put into operation in New York in 1897 by the American Pneumatic Service Company, the 27-mile system connected 22 post offices in Manhattan and the General Post office in Brooklyn. The pipes ran between 4 to 12 feet underground, and in some places the tubes ran along the subway tunnels of the 4, 5 and 6 lines. At the height of its operation it carried around 95,000 letters a day, or 1/3 of all the mail being routed throughout New York city.
“I still remember those canisters popping out of the tube. They were spaced one every minute or so, and when they came out, they were a little warm with a slight slick of oil,” said Nathan Halpern, a veteran postal worker, in Underground Mail Road.
On at least one occasion the tubes carried not just mail, but a live cat. “The postal workers seemed as fascinated by the nearly magical tube system as everyone else and, at least once, even routed a luckless cat through the city’s tubes. He was a little dizzy, but he made it.” - Joseph H. Cohen, historian for the New York City Post Office.
But the New York pneumatic tube system wasn't to last forever. The tubes were expensive to maintain and were limited in the amount of mail they could deliver. At the turn of the century a new technological marvel took over the spotlight: the motor-wagon. Though most cities stopped using their pneumatic tubes around 1918, New York City, “because of the high population density and a great amount of lobbying from contractors” used its tube system until Dec. 1, 1953, “when it was suspended pending a review.”
The pneumatic tube that ran over the Brooklyn bridge was removed during a renovation in the 1950s, and the rest of the tunnels throughout the city (though still there, they were never dug up) fell silent. Even the buildings that housed their own mini pneumatic systems, such as the Waldorf Astoria, dismantled them in favor of other methods of communication.
But there is one wonderful New York location where the pneumatic tubes have proven quicker and more nimble then their modern-day electronic substitutes; the stacks of the NY Humanities and Social Sciences library. When one hands their paper slip to the librarian, they slip it into a small pneumatic tube and send it flying down past seven floors of books deep underground. The request is received, the book located, and it is sent up on an ever-turning oval ferris wheel of books.
So successful is the old pneumatic system in the NY Humanities and Social Sciences library that they installed a new system in the Science, Industry and Business Library on Madison Avenue in 1998.
Interestingly, the disused NY pneumatic tubes may end up serving a purpose once again, one remarkably similar to what they once did: carrying information. Randolph Stark, an entrepreneur, plans to run fiber optic cables through them. “If even a small amount of these tubes still exist, it’s a pretty valuable piece of property,” he said.
Know Before You Go
The Rose Reading Room on the library's 3rd floor reopens Fall 2016.