You know those curious brass boxes in the hallways of old New York skyscrapers? Believe it or not they represent the public-facing element of a communications network that kept office buildings humming before email. And damn are they beautiful.

Atlas Obscura just posted an image-rich feature on the history of the technology. It turns out that the vast majority of old mail chutes were built by the Cutler Mail Chute Company of Rochester, New York, which patented a unique design with an elastic cushioned bottom that would ensure parcels didn’t get damaged when they dropped dozens of floors. Cutler built some 1,600 mail chutes during a 20 year period that included the Gilded Age. He enjoyed something of a monopoly thanks to his patent. Remarkably, about 900 of the systems are still operating today in New York City.

One of Cutler’s mail chutes in Manhattan’s Flatiron building.

As for why the mail chutes were so exquisitely designed, that was part of Cutler’s signature. Luke Spencer explains how Cutler worked closely with the architects of some of New York’s most famous skyscrapers:

[Culter’s] 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. Through the Beaux Arts movement to Art Nouveau to Art Deco, Cutler’s mailboxes became increasingly beautiful and ornate. The Cutler Co. worked with architects such as Daniel Burnham (the Flatiron), Shreve, Lamb & Harmon (the Empire State), Sloan & Robertson (the St.Regis) and Cass Gilbert (the Woolworth).

We’re used to celebrating the spires and lobbies of these skyscrapers. Let’s give those wacky yet beautiful mail chutes some credit too!

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Head over to Atlas Obscura for more on the unexpectedly fascinating world of mail chutes, including more photos of Cutler’s best designs.

[Atlas Obscura]

Photos via Luke Spencer / Atlas Obscura / Flickr


Contact the author at adam@gizmodo.com.
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