The mail chutes of New York City
November 7, 2015 11:28 AM   Subscribe

 
I love old brass mailboxes in lobbies, and the glass chutes are adorable, but I almost never see them open for mail -- usually there's something closing the letter slots on the upper floors. I wouldn't want to use one of the slots, anyway. I vaguely remember a textbook law case hinging on whether an insurance premium had been timely mailed and therefore timely paid, when the insured party had deposited that premium envelope in a mail chute that wasn't properly emptied.
posted by Countess Elena at 11:37 AM on November 7, 2015 [2 favorites]


I still have a working mail chute in my building! although the box it goes to isnt emptied as much as the corner mailbox which becomes an issue with Netflix returns.
posted by The Whelk at 11:43 AM on November 7, 2015 [2 favorites]


I used one a few years ago at the Palmer House in Chicago. It had a great retro thrill.
posted by Miko at 11:44 AM on November 7, 2015 [3 favorites]


I vaguely remember a textbook law case

I feel like I remember a story like this too. But was it a case? A Sherlock Holmes plot? A Seinfeld plot?
posted by Miko at 11:46 AM on November 7, 2015


But what happens if mail gets stuck?

TALES of the MAIL PLUMBER
posted by JHarris at 11:48 AM on November 7, 2015 [7 favorites]


This insurance law case involves a mail chute but it doesn't seem to be about a stuck letter, just about whether the PO can be said to be responsible for mail while it's en chute.

Here's a great story about mail chute jams:
In 1995, a Brooksville, Fla. woman named Marguerite Grisdale Lynch received a letter from her husband 50 years after he had dropped it in a chute in a Michigan veterans hospital, and 19 years after he died. It was one of 21 letters trapped between the fourth and fifth floors, and discovered when the building was being renovated.

Another widow received two letters from the same World War II time warp -- one written by her husband to her, and another he had posted to a girlfriend with whom he was having an affair. Michael Schragg, postmaster in Marshall, Mich., who helped find recipients for some of the old letters, says the woman's daughter called postal officials to complain that the long-buried secret had upset her mother, who was in her 70s. "It's a good thing Dad is dead," Mr. Schragg says the daughter said. "Because when she found out, she'd have shot him."
posted by Miko at 11:49 AM on November 7, 2015 [18 favorites]


I had not realized until 45 minutes ago that I have a working mail chute in my building! Hence the post.

I'm going to put my rent in it and see what happens.
posted by Ragini at 11:55 AM on November 7, 2015 [6 favorites]


Miko, that's the case I was remembering, because I knew the insured party's argument did not carry the day. Laws may vary and change, but the life lesson remains: put your important mail in the postbox yourself. (In fact, I always open up the door or slot and peer in to make sure it fell.)
posted by Countess Elena at 12:04 PM on November 7, 2015 [2 favorites]


I am disappointed in the explanation of how the chutes get cleared. I prefer to imagine a slightly hangdog Harold Lloyd-ish young man threading himself into the chute and climbing up to the clot, startling passers-by as he goes.
posted by GenjiandProust at 12:28 PM on November 7, 2015 [10 favorites]


Fear of jams and my letter disappearing forever between floors is why I never use chutes. I do like seeing them in older buildings though.
posted by longdaysjourney at 12:33 PM on November 7, 2015 [2 favorites]


I'm going to put my rent in it and see what happens.

Too bad Nanowrimo's already started, I'm suddenly inspired to begin a light comic novella surrounding what I imagine to be the following events.
posted by JHarris at 12:44 PM on November 7, 2015 [2 favorites]


I'll see your Mail Chutes and raise you Pneumatic Mail Tubes (pdf at usps.com). Pneumatic tubes are not just mass-transit on Futurama. They used to actually do things. (And my bank has an office 30 miles from me with a two-lane 'drive-up teller' that still uses one.)
posted by oneswellfoop at 12:51 PM on November 7, 2015 [5 favorites]


I work in a facility that used to have an amazing pneumatic tube system for moving documents. Imagine a bunch of stations each with a grid of destination buttons. You put your document in a canister, push the proper destination button, and drop in the canister. The canister then zips to a giant machine in the basement that is basically a large rotating drum with slots, one slot per tube. Your canister comes out of your tube into a slot and a logic circuit rotates the drum to put that same slot, containing your canister, against the tube corresponding to your destination. A little door opens and WHOOSH your canister is on its way to the destination you selected. Networking nerds may recognize this as classic 10base-T star architecture but with physical canisters instead of data packets.

A renovation about 20 years ago resulted in that system being sadly dismantled.
posted by LastOfHisKind at 1:03 PM on November 7, 2015 [14 favorites]


Funny, because there was a Best Products near where I grew up that was newly constructed with a pneumatic tube system in about 1981. I think that's the only place I've actually seen one.

There's lots of office buildings here that have closed-off mail chutes, though, which is a damned shame.
posted by rhizome at 1:16 PM on November 7, 2015


One of those canister routing machines is featured as a puzzle in Grim Fandango.

Also, IIRC from reading The Puzzle Palace, NSA headquarters used to have a vacuum tube system as well. Considering that they had a large plant on site dedicated to burning documents every day, it must have been pretty elaborate.
posted by indubitable at 1:16 PM on November 7, 2015 [2 favorites]


Too bad Nanowrimo's already started, I'm suddenly inspired to begin a light comic novella surrounding what I imagine to be the following events.

At this point, I'm going to be genuinely disappointed if all that happens is that they deposit the check.
posted by Ragini at 1:26 PM on November 7, 2015 [1 favorite]


My 1960's mid-rise apartment building in Manhattan has one, complete with brass mailbox in the lobby. According to that 1999 article, there are fewer than 1000 left which I find surprising. Could they really be that uncommon? As the management company still insists on a paper check for rent, I put the envelope in that chute and have never had a problem. From now on, I will be feeling very retro-chic when I use it.
posted by AMyNameIs at 2:28 PM on November 7, 2015 [1 favorite]


JHarris: "But what happens if mail gets stuck?

TALES of the MAIL PLUMBER
"

Funny you should mention that...

When I was a maintenance worker at the World Trade Center, I would often clean rubbish out of floors that were under construction. Some times the demolition guys were a bit messy. SO they would break the glass on mail chutes. These were replaced with thin sheets of clear plastic. Often they would replace what was a single long pane of glass with two or more plastic sheets. Now this was a dodgy practice, since in theory the mail chute was post office property.

Anyway the seams between the plastic sheets sometimes intercepted the corner of an envelope. In a building as tall as the WTC mail would hit impressive speeds. So one jammed letter would quickly gather many letters, traveling near the speed of sound, into a densely packed arterial blockage.

Guess who found them? Yep, Splunge, Mail Plumber. Purely ex officio. I would see this and carefully extract the mail from the clog. I would then place it back in the chute via the official slot. I'm sure I broke a few laws doing that. But at least The Mail Went Through. (Picture Kevin Costner when you read that last part.) (Or maybe not.)
posted by Splunge at 3:16 PM on November 7, 2015 [52 favorites]


(And my bank has an office 30 miles from me with a two-lane 'drive-up teller' that still uses one.)

My bank also has one of these. I admit to a moment of anxiety every time I deposit a check, though.
posted by thomas j wise at 3:16 PM on November 7, 2015 [1 favorite]


These are pretty common in Canadian office buildings, even built into the 1980s. I've written and mailed letters just for the joy of hearing them go down the chute: Fft fft fft fft fft fft fft fft …


(now I think about it, I want that to be my sent mail sound.)
posted by scruss at 4:47 PM on November 7, 2015 [8 favorites]


(And my bank has an office 30 miles from me with a two-lane 'drive-up teller' that still uses one.)

My bank also has one of these. I admit to a moment of anxiety every time I deposit a check, though.


A local grocery store uses this for their drive up pharmacy service. The building was not designed with a drive up window in mind so the pneumatic tubes have to be at least 50 years in length.
posted by mmascolino at 5:05 PM on November 7, 2015 [3 favorites]


Interesting. Can you mail small children with these, too?
posted by notyou at 6:21 PM on November 7, 2015 [5 favorites]


Very small children, sure. If they can fit in a letter envelope, they can fit in the chute.
posted by Sys Rq at 7:02 PM on November 7, 2015 [1 favorite]


Mrs. Hobo once got a postcard she'd sent home from a hotel mail chute, years after. They found it when demolishing the building.
posted by rum-soaked space hobo at 3:24 AM on November 8, 2015 [7 favorites]


According to that 1999 article, there are fewer than 1000 left which I find surprising. Could they really be that uncommon?

Fewer than 1000 working ones. The building I regularly work in has one, but the slots are sealed shut and you're not allowed to use it. I imagine that's the norm for most chutes in the city. The building doesn't want the hassle of maintaining them and they say (not sure if it's true) the USPS carriers don't like the responsibility of opening them when there's already a working mailroom system.
posted by Mchelly at 5:00 AM on November 8, 2015


Fewer than 1000 working ones.

Depends on what you mean by "working" as well. The last build-out I did in Manhattan, we used the (retired) mail chute to run Ethernet cable. It was the perfect way to get data across floors without having to drill holes or whatnot. (That wifi was not a viable option should give you an idea of how long ago this was.)

In some way, the chutes were still serving their purpose, delivering mail, but of the electronic variety.
posted by aureliobuendia at 7:49 AM on November 8, 2015 [8 favorites]


the life lesson remains: put your important mail in the postbox yourself.

After becoming aware of mailbox vandalism, the life lesson is actually, deposit your important mail only at mail slots inside the Post Office.
posted by Rash at 9:11 AM on November 8, 2015


We have one in my building but I'm scared of using it. The mailbox in the lobby is great though, and it gets emptied every day by the guy who does the regular delivery, which I think is probably against regulations but who's gonna turn him in? no one
posted by poffin boffin at 10:15 AM on November 8, 2015


After becoming aware of mailbox vandalism, the life lesson is actually, deposit your important mail only at mail slots inside the Post Office.

The only real way to be sure is to surgically implant your message inside the body of a licensed courier, who will immediately rush to the destination, killing anyone who dares stand in their path.

There is an extra charge for this, however.
posted by GenjiandProust at 3:03 PM on November 8, 2015 [4 favorites]


I love mail chutes. Nearly all of the ones you see in the US were made by one company, the Cutler Mail Chute Company, of Rochester, NY. The eponymous James Cutler was the inventor of the mail chute (or at least, he patented it) and built quite a little empire off of that one idea. Which seems oddly specific, but I suppose that at the time, it would have been like holding the patent on Ethernet or something; every commercial building had one as a standard feature.

There are very few of them, especially the really nice prewar ones, still in operation ... I know of only one offhand in a public place: the Providence Biltmore Hotel in Providence, RI has a Cutler chute with the original, very ornate brass main box in the lobby, still emptied daily by the USPS (or at least it was a few years ago). They were also the last US hotel in which I saw actual stationery in the rooms, although I think that's no longer being replenished. I will admit to writing an actual letter, going down to the main desk for a stamp, declining their offer of taking it for mailing, and then carrying it all the way up to the top floor and dropping it in the chute just because. (It arrived on schedule.)

Sadly, even if you wanted to install a mail chute in a new building, I don't think you'd be allowed to. I don't think that they pass modern fire codes, which generally frown on vertical runs without firestops, and when they do permit them have a lot of requirements that a metal tube with a glass front wouldn't fulfill.

And the article finally loaded for me and I see it discusses both Cutler and James Cutler's patents. Ha.
posted by Kadin2048 at 3:21 PM on November 8, 2015 [9 favorites]


Funny, because there was a Best Products near where I grew up that was newly constructed with a pneumatic tube system in about 1981. I think that's the only place I've actually seen one.

I can confirm this. I worked in the warehouse at BEST in college. The sales staff would shoot up orders to the second floor where we would run around and pick up items then send them down the conveyor belt to the register.

I find it odd that people don't see pneumatic tubes that often. In Texas they are installed at almost every drive through bank branch location. A new Chase branch bank was built by my office, and they installed pneumatic tubes. Maybe it's a Texas thing?
posted by Benway at 3:30 PM on November 9, 2015 [1 favorite]


The thing about fire codes confuses me, because they're mounted alongside elevator shafts.
posted by ardgedee at 3:56 PM on November 9, 2015 [1 favorite]


Most of the bank branches here in Brunswick, GA also use pneumatic tubes to move documents and money between cars and tellers. I think they're probably the sole remaining common use of them. It feels like technology that should see more use than that, though. It's like email for physical objects! You'd think Amazon at least could find a use for them.
posted by JHarris at 4:01 PM on November 9, 2015


The thing about fire codes confuses me, because they're mounted alongside elevator shafts.

Elevator shafts are extensively regulated, as are other types of inter-floor vertical runs. (They have sprinklers and the elevator doors have to be specifically rated, among other things.) California's codes are available online and may be of interest (if you find these sorts of things interesting, anyway).

I don't think that it would be impossible to build a mail chute that would pass modern fire codes, but the old glass-and-brass ones sadly wouldn't fly.

Laundry and trash chutes have become similarly less-common than they used to be, for the same reasons.
posted by Kadin2048 at 6:13 PM on November 9, 2015 [2 favorites]


Both buildings I've worked at in downtown Chicago, both built in the early 70s, had working mail chutes. With the fantastic Mr. Zip decal informing us of the building's zip code.
posted by hwyengr at 6:45 AM on November 10, 2015 [1 favorite]


One other interesting note: For a while Donald Trump owned the Empire State Building. Or at least his company owned about half of it.

The main office for his company was on the 32nd floor.

So one day we are told by our boss that Trump was coming to visit. This causes an unprecedented cleaning job. We are cleaning the walls. We are cleaning the ceilings. Some of us are stripping years of wax from the floors with pure unadulterated ammonia.

And a few of us are told to make the mail slots shine. Well. The mail slots are pretty much black with oxidation. So six guys are given rags and some polish. I was one of them. We spent a week carefully rubbing the brass? copper? whatever. This was a pain in the ass job. Anyway, that floor had mail chutes that looked like the day they were made. Gleaming like gold!

He decided not to come by.

Occasionally we would walk by the chutes and kick them after that.
posted by Splunge at 10:59 PM on November 16, 2015 [3 favorites]


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