Thursday, January 22, 2015

belated christmas post

Sometimes Christmas cards come a little late in the mail. Maybe the cards were left on the coffee table in the rush to fill stockings. Or maybe they got held up as postal systems struggled against the tides of envelopes filled with glitter and Amazon packages being urgently delivered.

This is a piece of Christmas mail that was never sent, waiting in my drafts folder for Christmas week but lost in the rush. But, like all mail, better late than never! So a little bit of Christmas for your January, a gorgeous steampunk way for Santa to get around the globe (courtesy of Core.2 in their comments on a pneumatic tube Gizmodo article).

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Washington Post

Choosing which museums to visit in Washington D.C. is a monumental task, but I had no hesitation about heading straight to the Smithsonian Postal Museum during my time off, on a recent work visit to the capital city. Certainly one of the museum jewels of the city, the museum is housed in the majestic old City Post Office building and hosts never-ending postal amusements to be entertained by, from collecting stamps to writing postcards.

After making my way past the gilt postal desks in the entrance way and then security, I walked underneath the sparkling ceiling of stamps straight into the little Pneumatic Tube Service exhibit. You can find a picture on the right, a little dark unfortunately because of the low lighting. The capsule exhibited is one of the highlights of the collection (follow the links to find some great video footage).  There is a little text on the systems built and used in Philadelphia, New York, Chicago, Boston and St Louis, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

While this part of the permanent collection is small, I did find some other pneumatic traces elsewhere, such as a telegramme, and a plethora of links online (start with the special section on Pneumatic Tube Mail).

I loved this postal museum, where you can make your own stamp collection from donated stamps and cancel postcards in different historical periods. There is a movie which shows how post moves through the U.S. postal system, which reveals some of the wonders of how letters arrive at their destinations - I experienced the same kind of fascination watching this film as I did as a child watching how crayons were made on Sesame Street. And at the end of the visit you can send your favourite postcards with carefully chosen stamps at the museums' own postoffice. Researchers who want to know more can arrange to visit the museum library on specific days of the month or by appointment - next time!

Image my own.

Saturday, January 3, 2015


Last month I not only did a lot of travelling on planes but also trains. Sometimes the trains ran smoothly, according to schedules. Other times they stopped altogether, because of strikes, train journeys flashing on boards but never to run. During strikes travellers are reminded of the invisible human work that goes into getting them from A to B, C and D.

There is also of course much invisible human labour that either gets displaced by, or is involved in, the operating of pneumatic tubes. And in times of revolt (just as in times of breakdown), this invisible work also becomes more visible.

Several weeks ago, hospital workers in Malta took action against their working conditions during a strike. The Union Haddiema Maghqudin issued directives to laboratory technicians of the Mater Dei hospital in Malta to refuse to process essential and urgent blood tests. They were to do this by not accepting blood samples through the pneumatic tube system.

This meant that no blood results were issued and nurses and midwives were forced, according to Malta Today, to "abandon their wards" and take the samples physically to the laboratory, where they could "beg" technicians to perform the tests. The hospitals encouraged their staff to counteract the strike by continuing to send samples through the tubes, and if returned, to keep sending them in hope that the technicians accept the blood samples eventually.

It was a battle conducted through the tubes, with blood literally, flying back and forth. The hospital and newspapers both declared this a matter of life and death. The issue not only highlighted how integral the infrastructure is to patient care, but also the kinds of work both entailed in keeping it running, as well as the kind of work it replaced, nurses work on wards for example. In this case an infrastructure of connection become central to, and highlighted the disconnections between hospitals, governments and staff in which it was embedded.

Image my own.