The Pneumatic Tube

In Lebanon, PA, in the 1950s if you walked across Cumberland Street from the Haak Brothers department store, you’d find the J.C. Penney store, I think it was even in the same block, but certainly no more than a block away—the shopping district in Lebanon only covered about four or five blocks in total, from the State movie theater to the Colonial (or maybe the other way around). 

My recollection is that although I enjoyed going to Haak’s with my mother, I didn’t much care for Penney’s. The difference was Haak’s had items that interested me (i.e., toys! And an escalator, I loved to ride the escalator, though I think I called it an alligator when I was very young), but Penney’s mostly had clothing. And sewing supplies like fabrics and thread and needles. At least that’s how I recall it. I don’t think Penney’s became a full service department store until the following decade.

But there was one thing that fascinated me about Penney’s. When you made a purchase, you gave your money to a clerk behind the counter on the ground floor, and he would place it in a small container (along, presumably, with a sales receipt) and propel it along a tube that went up to the second floor. That second floor only extended over the back portion of the store and it was wide open with but a railing for a wall, so you could see what was going on from the ground floor. Up there someone would examine the contents of that container and then send it back down with the correct change.


Apparently that was a pneumatic tube transport, and systems like it (some considerably more complex) had been in use since the 19th century. I can’t find any images of the sort of system that Penney’s used to have, so you’ll have to be content this this one, which looks nothing like it.

Pneumatic tube system 500x500

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