That Time People Sent a Cat Through the Mail Using Pneumatic Tubes

"The Cat in the Canister": It's like a Dr. Seuss story, only it actually happened.

Contents fragile! That white thing getting ready to be whisked away in a tube is, indeed, a cat. (Wikimedia Commons)

Before people relied on a theoretical series of tubes for the exchange of interpersonal correspondence, they used tubes of a more literal variety. Starting in 1897 and lasting until 1953, the New York City Post office moved mail across the city using, in part, an intricate system of pneumatic tubes -- tubes that were networked underground at some 4 to 6 feet below the city surface. Tubes that shot enormous canisters full of mail around the city at 35 miles an hour. Tubes that were operated by workers nicknamed "Rocketeers." At the peak of its operation, the tube system carried around 95,000 letters a day -- about 30 percent of all the mail that was routed through the metropolis.

New Yorkers of the Gilded Age knew an exciting technology when they saw one. And, when the tubes opened for tube-ing in the fall of 1897, the occasion was marked by the sending of canisters whose contents were appropriately epic: among them a Bible (wrapped, appropriately, in an American flag); a copy of the Constitution; and a copy of President McKinley's inaugural speech. The items that initiated the new delivery service, however, weren't entirely epic. Postal workers are nothing if not pranksters.

For that reason and others that seem lost to history, the pneumatic tubes of New York City's General Post Office, when they launched in 1897, ended up whisking away ... a cat. Yep. A live cat. A black cat. A probably quite indignant cat. As a general rule, it seems, humans will always find ways to join cats and series of tubes.

The cat kennel of the Gilded Age (Smithsonian/Postal Museum)

So how did the canistered cat actually get delivered? Let's turn to the postal worker Howard Wallace Connelly -- who, in 1931, self-published the autobiography Fifty-Six Years In The New York Post Office -- A Human Interest Story of Real Happenings in the Postal Service. Connelly sets the scene like so (paragraph breaks mine):

When the pneumatic tubes were installed at the General Post Office, October 7, 1897, we Supervisors were given a fine treat after the ceremonies were over. A rough hastily constructed row of steps (circus show style) had been erected facing the tubes. Senator Chauncey M. Depew was Master of Ceremonies. Probably over a hundred friends and Post Office officials were spectators.
The first tube contained only a large artificial peach. The roar of laughter that greeted it was heartily joined by the Senator. A Bowery audience that had attended a political meeting at which he was the principal speaker, instead of trying to break up the show, took quite a liking to the speaker and a loud voiced man yelled, "Chauncey, you're a peach." Hence the laugh when the first tube arrived. From the second tube, a cat was taken.
How it could live after being shot at terrific speed from Station P in the Produce Exchange Building, making several turns before reaching Broadway and Park Row, I cannot conceive, but it did. It seemed to be dazed for a minute or two but started to run and was quickly secured and placed in a basket that had been provided for that purpose. A suit of clothes was the third arrival and then came letters, papers, and other ordinary mail matter.

"Ordinary mail matter." Indeed. The cat was the first animal to be pulled, dazed and probably not terribly enthused about human technological innovation, from a pneumatic tube. It would not, however, be the last. Later on, a sick cat would be sent to an animal hospital in a pneumatic tube. (The ailing animal, apparently, "leaped from the open container and put up quite an effort before finally being captured.")

And according to Kenneth Stuart, author of Pneumatic Mail Tubes and Operation of Automatic Railroads, other animals that were reportedly shot through the underground tubes included dogs, mice, roosters, guinea pigs, and monkeys. And also: fish. At a 1908 demonstration convened to celebrate the opening of a new tube line from New York's Broad Street Station, postal workers loaded a tube canister with "a glass globe containing water and live goldfish." To prove, basically, that they could. And ... they could. The makeshift tank, luckily for its inhabitants, "was sent through the tubes without incidence."

Via Tom Standage