Following a Parisian trail

Yesterday my parents gave me something they had found in a local shop: a copy of Fodor’s guide to France, dating from 1958. It has some nice turns of phrase, ranging from this comment in the section on dining out:

Wine-labeling was established by law at the end of the 19th century and is one of the few laws that Frenchmen take very much to heart.

to this piece from the chapter on shopping:

haute-couture

Then I came across a throwaway line in a paragraph about post offices:

There is a special fast letter service within Paris by pneumatic tube, delivery guaranteed within three hours of mailing. Ask for a ‘pneu’ form, costing 100 francs, or use one sheet of ordinary airmail stationery and an airmail envelope.

This intrigued me. As a child I had seen pneumatic tube systems in banks and building societies, and even in the occasional large shop; they allowed excess cash to be moved safely from the tills to the back office, in the days before credit cards and the invention of the ‘cashback’ concept enabled your customers to take the excess cash away for you.

But I hadn’t realised that pneumatic systems operated on such a scale in quite a few cities. The Paris network was the largest, incorporating, at its peak, over 400km of tubes. It featured in Truffaut’s 1969 film Baisers Volés (Stolen Kisses):

It operated for more than a century until it finally closed down in 1984, as reported here by the New York Times. To give some historical context, that was also the year in which Apple introduced the Macintosh.

Prague’s pneumatic post system wasn’t as large as the one in Paris, but continued operating (just) into the 21st century. And didn’t it have some beautiful control panels?

Hlavní-panel-2

Molly Wright Steenson’s 5-minute Ignite talk is a good way to find out more.

Even though pneumatic tubes are now little used for the delivery of messages, they still exist in many locations for garbage collection – most famously on Roosevelt Island – and some companies, like Envac in Sweden are promoting them as the rubbish-collection model of the future. Our system in the UK does seem a bit primitive in comparison…

But, gosh! How did I arrive here from the haute-couture catwalks of Paris in the 50s?

I guess I just got sucked into it.

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© Copyright Quentin Stafford-Fraser