They seem like marvels from another time, and for the most part they are: many mail chutes were made over a century ago and shuttered decades ago. Yet remarkably, hundreds of these vintage mail routing systems are still operational in cities from New York to Chicago. The majority trace back to an era of newly built towers erected in the early days of the skyscraper, often adorned with Art Deco design details.
The principle of these chutes is simple: drop a letter into one from any floor of a tall building and it falls to the ground level where it can be picked up by a United States postal worker. This was particularly useful in an era when large buildings had so many occupants they were sometimes considered entire mail districts unto themselves.
Adding a bit of fun (and presumably a practical way to see if mail is getting stuck), many of these chutes were made with glass facades, allowing occupants to watch mail shoot down from upper levels. Elegant brass details also made the chutes look highly designed, aesthetically fit for lobbies and offices of fancy commercial buildings.
Such mail chutes were the brainchild of James Goold Cutler, an inventor from upstate New York who patented his creation in 1883. In addition to metal and glass elements, he also introduced an elastic cushion to limit damage in tall buildings (in which deposited items might drop dozens of stories before coming to rest on the ground floor).
In developing the design, Cutler (wisely) communicated with the United States Postal Service to ensure his chutes would comply with their needs and requirements. Once his patent ensured he would be their primary builder for decades to come, he worked with a number of architects to design structure-specific chutes. Some of Cutler’s designs were also made for buildings in other countries, including Canada.
In recent decades, a combination of higher mail volume and fire safety requirements has forced the closure of many vintage mail chutes. They’ve had other issues, too — in one case, a clogged chute built up a backlog of mail, that, when cleared, added up to more than a dozen sacks’ worth of materials. While their numbers have dwindled, working chutes can still be found in many American cities, carrying missives from upper floors for pickup at ground level by the USPS.
For more on these metal marvels, check out Art Deco Mailboxes: An Illustrated Design History by Karen Greene and Lynne Lavelle, which is filled with a wonderful array of examples from architectural history.