From Here To There

On the corner of a street in our county town stands an old department store.

No-one knows how it makes any money.

It is stuck in or around the 1950s. Push the glass doors and walk in, and you will observe a men’s tailoring department neatly crammed with old men’s suits and cobwebs, and an attendant who carries with him an eerie gothic air. Venture to the women’s section and you will find items none of us have seen for many years: those rain hoods you used to see, which tied so neatly over a blue-rinse, and twin sets fashioned from fabric which garners an electrical charge.

Maddie and I visit the uniform department. It sells all her school’s accessories, hung neatly on rail after rail or folded spotlessly beneath the glass-topped mahogany counters.

But it does do to arrive with cash. For a card means a trip to the small cash office where staff industriously work with machines which seem almost beyond their ken. When the exchange is done staff spend an age producing a hand written receipt, outlining every item in slow, deliberate copperplate.

It is almost Dickensian, but in a Miss Havisham kind of way. Established in 1875, it is spotless, yet there is the sense that dust lies thick everywhere.

And yesterday, The Times announced it is soon to be put up on the market.

We’re all devastated. But it’s an institution! chorused voices in cyberspace; and someone observed wryly, yes: but people don’t shop in institutions.

The short paragraph in The Times observed that this is the last department store in the country to be still using the Lamson Tube.

Invented by Scottish inventor William Murdoch, the pneumatic tube works like a straw.

You make a fan suck or blow down a pipe, creating changes in pressure which propel the small capsules inside along them. Shop attendants put cheques and notes requiring change into a capsule, Β and it would whistle off to the accounts office, where someone would supply change in a tube, shooting back to the waiting customer.

These days it sounds like a palaver. We are such an instant society. But in New York in the late 19th century they were quite the thing. Efficient, speedy, cutting edge. And not just in department stores: London’s Stock Exchange was linked to the telegraph station via pneumatic tube – about 220 yards away. Paris had 467 km of tubing weaving under the city, which lasted until 1984 when computers and faxes took over.

To name but a few.

The next logical step was a breathtaking prospect. What about a people tube?

You will see from the snatch of cartoon above- the March of Intellect by impish William Heath (1829) what some thought of that. A vacuum train straight to Bengal was the perfect overstatement to make one’s readers howl with mirth.

But the writers loved it. Jules Verne created a system inΒ Paris in the 20th Century (1863).Β And look at Albert Robida’s vision for the The Twentieth Century (1882):

The Great Exhibition at Crystal Palace featured a 550-metre pneumatic railway which would, had it come to fruition, have travelled under the Thames from Charing Cross to Waterloo. Digging started: but financial problems stopped play. And in New York’s American Institute Fair Alfred Ely designed a 32 metre tube which could move 12 passengers and a conductor:

Not so far fetched, then: but laying tubes cost money. No-one could make this magnificent vacuum travel idea pay.

Rather like my old department store: a lovely idea, but not financially viable. But both the store and the tubes are still standing. In 2010 Southwest Jiaotong University in China were working on a vacuum-travel model which could reach 620 miles per hour.

Let us see whether the two old ideas- the store and the people-tubes- are alive this time next year.

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49 thoughts on “From Here To There

  1. There was a department store in Johannesburg when i was a child and teenager that used the system. Then the big stores moved out to the suburbs and the building became something else.

    That is such a memory jerker for me. Thanks

    1. Bentalls: what a hallowed honeycomb of a place, Roger! It’s still packed with delights today, but it has made the jump to the 21st century. No sign of the Lamson tubes these days…

  2. You are really stirring the old memories today Kate.
    I too remember a store when I was a child with a lady sitting high up in the middle of the shop. Each department shot their metal capsule along to her containing the bill and the cash, and then she shot the change back. I had no idea it was called a Lamson Tube.

  3. For most of my childhood, my mother worked as an office manager in a thriving department store, and when I was a bit older I would spend a portion of my school holidays working in various departments there. I loved it and am really saddened by the demise of the wonderful old things, but I’m the first to buy something online, so I guess I’m a contributor to the change.

    1. So true, BB. The debate here in Berkshire is raging: this place is a piece of our history, yet it is not financially viable: the best we could do is preserve it as some kind of retail museum, I suppose.

  4. Yes, we have a shop like that Kate, which has a ‘department’ everywhere you look. The art department is on the stairs!
    We also have a co-op that has recently started using those tubes again, so they may be coming back rather than disappearing.

  5. When I was a kid, the large Department store downtown used the tubes and I always thought they were so cool. Drive-in Banks still use them for deposits and such.
    As to people tubes, I prefer to be beamed up, Scotty.

  6. Such a lovely dose of nostalgia, Kate . . . I can picture wandering around that shop while waiting for my receipt to be written.

    As for people mover tubes . . . yes, please!

  7. My parents’ bank still uses them for the drive up teller. Right along the cash machine.

    And of course there’s Jasper Fforde’s reinagined Britain in the 80s which used people tubes for express-style intercontinental travel.

    The department store, alas, I’m afraid may only survive in fiction.

  8. I worked for a company about twenty years ago that had two buildings o the opposite side of the street. We had a tube system to send items back and forth between the buildings.

  9. Kate, I also hate to see familiar places disappear. Bigger and newer does not always mean better.

    I’ve seen pneumatic tubes like the ones you describe used in banks at the drive thru. But I believe I’d get quite queasy if I were put in a people tube and shot 620 mph to a new destination.

  10. The store sounds wonderful.We have a couple of shops like that, no-one can figure out how they ever make any money.
    I’d totally forgotten about those pneumatic tubes – a shop in the town my granny lived in, where we used to spend our summer holidays, used to have one.

    1. They bring back memories for almost everyone, Tinman, don’t they?
      The store is a great place. We will miss it: if only because I do not know where Maddie’s uniform will come from henceforth!

  11. Dear Kate, I have good memories of being both intrigued and enchanted when my mom took me shopping with her to Jones Department Store back in the 1940s. I watched the clerks–mostly women–accept my mother’s money and then send it, magically it seemed to me, up to the balcony where the accountants made the change.

    One Question: Was there a pneumatic tube for humans actually featured in the Crystal Palace or was there just a drawing that was never realized? Peace.

      1. Dear Kate, thanks for the link. I went and read it and thought that the site–which historians think was lost in some 1911 work–would be an excellent addition to an Elizabeth George novel! Peace.

  12. We had a tube system in the first office I worked in in Durban. It would whisk things between the ground floor customer area and the clerical staff on the first floor. The ‘whooooosh -CLUNK!’ was a part of daily life, then.
    You don’t see dumb waiters these days, either. (As in hand-operated small lifts, not tonguetied serving men.)

  13. As a few others have mentioned, many banks still use the tubes for drive-up facilities. Sometimes I pick a branch just so I can use one, silly child that I am. Ah, Kate, the demise of our department stores, a mainstay of my childhood, from the venerable Marshall Fields downtown to the Sears store that had a lady holed up on the third floor, binoculars in one hand, a bull horn in the other, calling your license plate or model and color of car and telling you just where to park. My father told us it was the parking angel.

  14. Great post kate, I remember those tubes as a kid as was always terrifed that my little sister could get sucked down one of them..lol..don’t ask why I was wondering that, or how I thought I could get her into it..best left unsaid! And those plastic rain hats that tie so nicely under the chin…egads….

  15. BUY IT! You must save the Dickensian tube thingy, they had those in NZ too when i was a kid, i was transfixed – though i have to admit i never thought of stuffing my sister down one!.. silly me- and where am i going to buy my little transparent hood!? but if you can’t buy the whole place buy that mahogony counter with the glass and I bet there is a bank of tiny drawers for gloves, buy that! Come on Kate. We’ll pass the hat around! c

  16. In NYC, there is still a remnant of our very first subway, which was operated by pneumatic tube. The track is now part of the subway system, but it’s still there. And the NY Public Library still sends borrowing slips from the catalog desk to the stacks via pneumatic tube. It’s fun to watch!

  17. We have a couple such places near by; department stores complete with the Tube, It is sad to see such institution fade away, then, to be sold off as nostalgia and keepsakes does little to stop the tides of change. What might be the saddest part of these Dispersals is our collective inability to see the consequences. I would have thought Britain to be able hold out the longest but I guess one can only hold out for so long.

  18. Fascinating post about a fun subject Kate. I recall an ancient department store when I was a kid growing up in San Francisco that my mother frequented called the City of Paris. It never seemed to have more than a trickle of customers. It seemed stuck in time and the elevators were slow and creaky and they had the strangest smell like rubber cross pollinated with decay. After what Weebles said in her comment I was inspired to Google pneumatic tubes here in NYC. They seem to be very much alive and kicking:

    http://www.hammerlth.com/

    Part of me imagines that TH Hammerl is located on floor 7 1/2 — like the office that held the portal into John Malkovich’s mind in the film “Being John Malkovich”. The rest of me assumes it’s just a normal business.

  19. I’m glad to know the name of a Lamson tube! I have fond memories of departments stores very much like you describe. And I loved those tubes! Until just a few years ago we still had a few of the older department stores lending a little character unavailable in a mall…but they are now all gone! And the idea of people moving through tubes is kind of a startling thought. I don’t think it appeals to me, but I would never say never! πŸ™‚

  20. I still see them in auto-teller system in banks and in the local Costco (big bulk/warehouse type store). So they are still around and still heavily used. πŸ™‚

  21. I want one of these for our house. I can send things to MTM in bed while I am slaving away at my desk. Or vice versa.

    Oh. Wait. That doesn’t sound like a clean comment, does it?……

  22. I loved those tubes. Home Depot used to have them to send cash from the back to the registers. Not sure if they do anymore. And many banks had them at drive thrus.

    Sadly, we have to make way for progress, and institutions like your dept store end up fading away because they don’t make the shift to what is wanted or needed by their customers. I’m sentimental, so it’s hard to see some of them go.

  23. We used to have a Lamson tube where I worked for sending urgent mail between offices. Occasionally, on birthdays, it was also (illicitly) used for sending cake. Try doing that by e-mail!

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