By Jesse Robitaille
A postal history relic dating back to the golden age of early skyscrapers, the mail chute remains an integral part of many buildings’ iconic stories.
A logistical godsend for late 19th-century letter writers and postal carriers alike, mail chutes came on the scene in the 1880s alongside taller office and residential buildings plus the first modern skyscrapers. As urbanization brought more and larger cities to Canada and the United States, and with mail as the main form of communication, postal officials on both sides of the border sought ways to accommodate fast-growing mail volumes.
“Mailboxes and their chutes were once as essential to the operation of any major hotel, office, civic, or residential building as the front door,” wrote Karen Greene and Lynne Lavelle in their 2014 book Art Deco Mailboxes.
For more than a century, these often-elegant chutes were widely used by their building’s residents, allowing people to forgo searching for a mailbox or a post office and instead drop their mail into one of the slots, found on each floor. From there, gravity carried everything down into the lobby’s receiving box, where posties collected the mail as part of their daily rounds.
Still used in historic buildings on both sides of the border, mail chutes extend from the top floor down to the lobby. Many chutes are comprised of a mostly glass enclosure, allowing people to see the plummeting postal items and postal workers to find and remove any blockages. The design has remained largely unchanged since its inception in 1883, when architect and businessman James Goold Cutler, of Albany, N.Y., received a patent for his “letter box connection.”
Within a year of the patent, the world’s first mail chute was installed in the since-demolished Elwood Building in Rochester, N.Y., where it stood at the “Four Corners,” the heart of the booming city.
“This arrangement enables the numerous occupants of office-buildings, hotels, tenement-houses, and other places where large numbers are congregated to secure the prompt delivery of their mail-matter within reach of the carrier or collector without the labor and annoyance of visiting the receptacle,” reads Cutler’s 1883 patent, U.S. #284,951. “Another and great advantage is that it enables the sender to deliver letters of value directly into the official sealed letter-box without the interposition of servants, messengers, or others of doubtful reliability.”
The patent specifies the receiving box should be “made of metal” and “distinctly marked ‘U.S. Letter Box.’” Its door, which “must open on hinges on one side,” should also be at least 79 centimetres above the floor. To protect mail from damage after falling several floors, the receiving box also includes an “elastic cushion to prevent injury to the mail,” according to the 1921 American Architect Specification Manual.