While I was staying at the Roosevelt in New York for a writers’ conference, courtesy of my dad donating his vacation points, I stumbled upon a U.S. Mail letter chute. It was showcased almost like a piece of art in between the various elevators in the hotel. I became curious about how this system was used, and how it came to be, so I did a little digging.
Turns out this letter chute evolved from collection boxes that were placed inside all sorts of businesses throughout cities like New York. While there were hundreds of them and their contents were collected several times a day, citizens still complained. One problem was that they could only be accessed during business hours, and on top of that, they weren’t locked, so anyone could either remove letters or even take the entire box away if they’d like.1 It wasn’t until 1864 that these boxes were required to indicate that they were not for secure letters. In the meantime, the letter box was created in hopes of steadily evolving the ever-growing need for daily correspondence.
In 1858, letter boxes went from being tin canisters to cast iron boxes fit over lampposts.2 These were now easier for everyone to use and were well received, although these boxes didn’t make it into New York City until 1860 when John Murray was contracted to install 1,600 of these boxes throughout the city.3 This was a huge improvement in citizens’ access to sending mail, and beyond that, “the contract called for Murray to supply and install 300 ‘medium size’ cast-iron lamppost boxes and 1,100 larger boxes that were 24 inches high. Murray also agreed to relocate 200 medium-size lamppost boxes that he had recently installed in the city. By Nov. 14, 1860, the postmaster of New York reported that 574 cast-iron collection boxes had been installed, from which mail was collected four times daily.”4 Packages could now be dropped off in these larger boxes.
It wasn’t until 1889 with the Doremus model that there was a more secure and weather resistant letter box.5 Around this same time, James G. Cutler had created a mail chute letter system, which was patented and subsequently installed throughout New York, all while the Doremus box was perplexing citizens. It was often referred to as the puzzle box,6 which is probably another reason the Cutler chute remained popular in office and apartment buildings—it was both more functional and more attractive than the Doremus box.
New York City’s Municipal Art Commission was tasked with beautifying the streets of the city and rejected several designs because they were unsightly, including the Doremus box.7 It is so interesting that these letter boxes went from being purely functional to serving a design purpose as well. This need for beautiful letter boxes in New York probably came about because of Cutler’s creation of the mail chute, which is the version I discovered inside the Roosevelt. These were created for “hotels taller than five stories and apartment houses with more than 50 residential apartments.”8 While this “mail chute system might have born out of functionality . . . Cutler infused the mailboxes themselves with elegance. His catalogue offered lobby boxes furnished with gleaming brass fittings and elaborate detailing. He also had the foresight to collaborate with the leading architects of the day to allow the design of individual mail boxes that would match the grandeur of specific buildings.”9 This certainly ties in with New York’s beautification ideology, and is likely why the Roosevelt featured this mail chute as essentially a piece of art. The beauty of these functional items is probably why there are 900 of them still active in New York today.
When these chutes were installed, their contents were collected once a day and were imperative in a time when people were sending out several letters a day, as that was the most popular method of communication. Cutler invented this style of chute in 1883, and was able to have a monopoly on these for the next 20 years.10 Over the course of that time, he manufactured about 1,600 of these chutes.11 These were being installed in office buildings and skyscrapers around the same time as the Doremus model was being introduced in other public areas. The Doremus model was not as simple as the Cutler chute, though, which let gravity do all the work.
Unfortunately, even though their design was so simple, there were still problems. When letters grew bigger, these chutes could become clogged, causing letters to never be delivered. “In the mid 1980s . . . [when] it was eventually tracked down and cleared, the resulting avalanche of undelivered mail filled 23 sacks”12–meaning that an undeterminable number of families weren’t able to receive possibly vital news for what could have been decades. As of the 1990s, these chutes were no longer installed in any new buildings, as fire codes outlawed them.13 Despite all of this, the chutes that are still in existence are checked daily, occasionally the building’s “super will go up and drop something heavy down there to clear”14 the chute.
It’s interesting to see how much these devices changed in such a short period of time. When compared to now, it seems that mailbox designs vary from neighborhood to neighborhood and house to house. Even though most people have resorted to digital communication, we all still rely on the postman in one way or another.
1.“Mail Collection Boxes: A Brief History,” United States Postal Service, last modified March 2017, https://about.usps.com/who-we-are/postal-history/mail-collection-boxes.pdf/.
4. Annual Report of the Postmaster General, 1860, 516.
8. Luke Spencer, “New York City’s Mail Chutes are Lovely, Ingenious, and Almost Entirely Ignored,” Atlas Obscura, last modified November 3, 2015, http://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/new-york-citys-mail-chutes-are-lovely-ingenious-and-almost-entirely-ignored/.
11. “Cutler Mail Box & Chute,” Smithsonian National Postal Museum, accessed September 23, 2017, https://postalmuseum.si.edu/exhibits/current/customers-and-communities/serving-the-cities/overcoming-congestion/cutler-mailbox-and-chute.html/.