Brooklyn Public Library

Mobile AppDownload our Mobile App

eNewsletterSubscribe to BPL eNews


Mail on the Mind

Jan 2, 2013 12:35 PM | 1 comment

Mail is on my mind. Perhaps it's because of the holiday season, or perhaps it is because every day I walk by this:

This beautiful mail slot next to the Brooklyn Collection's offices always makes me wonder about the story of Brooklyn's mail service. Has sending and receiving mail changed through the years? 

It is commonly said  that we live in a culture of instant gratification, from texting to emailing to tweeting; we want an answer and we want it now. We look fondly on the "olden days" when, we imagine, life was slower and more relaxed. But was it really? Perhaps a look at the history of Brooklyn's postal service will allow us to test that steadfast belief. 

An article about the schedule of mail in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle from 1852 states that mail between New York City and the City of Brooklyn (remember Brooklyn was its own city until 1898) was dispatched three times a day, and once on Sunday. This means then, that a person in Brooklyn could send a piece of mail into Manhattan at 7am and expect it to arrive  within a couple of hours. But even this was not fast enough for the U.S. Postal Service.

Now you probably have heard of New York City's first "subway" the Beach Pneumatic Transit, which ran under Broadway from Warren Street to Murray Street in Manhattan and was built in 1870 (and is the origin of what is now known as the B/D line.) One could assume pneumatic tubes were all the rage, because soon after, the postal service got in to the game. In 1897 the pneumatic tube was introduced between Brooklyn and New York City. Using compressed air, a tube containing mail parcels running through the Brooklyn Bridge began pushing mail between the boroughs. 

27 minutes saved between NYC and Brooklyn! The tubes were working so well, petitions were created to extend them throughout Brooklyn.

By 1908 Brooklyn's pneumatic tube was extended to the Flatbush and Atlantic Ave depot. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle called it a "success" and said it "relieved congestion." But by 1916, with the appointment of a new Postmaster General, Albert S. Burleson, the tides turned. 

After his appointment, Postmaster General Burleson shut down the tubes for a little over five years. However, in 1921 -- the same year Postmaster Burleson retired -- the post tubes were re-animated and hailed once again for their "efficiency."

The pneumatic tubes were a hit! By 1933, it seemed like the pneumatic mail tube was the wave of the future for Brooklyn. Plans to build a connecting tube from Floyd Bennett Field to the Brooklyn tube depot at Atlantic were in the works:

But like most good things, pneumatic tubes came to an end. Citing high costs ($1,226,000/year to run the tubes versus $12,400/year for trucks) and issues of contracts and ownership between the City and private companies, the pneumatic mail tubes stopped running Brooklyn by the mid-1950s. 

In addition to bringing the mail more quickly than today, the pneumatic tube did something else amazing: it connected Brooklyn and Manhattan in a new way. Unlike the brash and overt subways and bridges, the pneumatic tubes quietly helped to solidify the newly formed New York City. Just as the circulatory system helps deliver blood and oxygen to the body, the pneumatic mail tubes delivered much-needed information to and between residents and integrated Brooklyn in The City. Additionally, the tubes exemplified the new era of technological advancement and innovative thought in post-war America.

The future was all around us--especially under our feet.


1/3/2013 1:18:56 PM #

Interesting read. I had no idea these existed in NYC.