EVERYONE of a certain age remembers the pneumatic cash dispensing systems that magically used to speed items in head-height tubes around old-fashioned department stores.
Everyone under that certain age wishes they had been able old enough to witness such a retailing marvel – how tame chip-and-pin and contactless payment is by comparison.
Recent Memories have been full of such curious devices, most of which were made by the Lamson company of Massachusetts. The idea was to connect the customer and the assistant at the front counter with the accounts department in the back office.
Loading article content
William Stickney Lamson patented the first of these convoluted communication systems in 1881. It was a “cash railway”: the counter assistant placed the money and a handwritten note detailing the purchase into a ball which they placed on the wire railway and it rolled off to the accountants dept.
The accountants did the sums, recorded the sale for stock control purposes, calculated the dividend and placed the change and receipt in the ball which they rolled back to front counter.
An early cash railway can be seen preserved in the Co-op in Beamish Museum, as Memories 312 told.
The cash railway was superseded by a pneumatic system, whereby pods were sucked and blown along airtight tubes. Previous Memories have told of pneumatic systems in branches of Doggarts and Co-ops all over the place. Now Charles Barker, the third generation of his family to run Barker’s department store in Northallerton, gets in touch.
“I started work in 1967 and our pneumatic system was old then, and my father said that before it they had a system of wires which carried a container to a desk in the corner,” he says.
“For the pneumatic system, we had a huge electric fan in the cellar. It would start up in the morning to create the vacuum in the pipes.
“Running around the store there must have been 20 pipes going to different departments. In total, there was probably two miles of pipes in the shop.”
The system looks more like a large church organ than a cashflow system.
And it did not always operate in a heavenly fashion. Pipes got blocked, and someone had to be despatched into the roofspace to unblock them with a flexible drainage rod.
“Our busiest day of the year was the first day of the winter sale and you could guarantee that there would always be some blockages,” says Mr Barker. “And then occasionally the young lads would put dead mice in the tubes to give the girls in the office a shock.”
The Barkers Lamson was removed in the early 1980s as electric tills were introduced and, with their capacity to store larger amount of sales data, were jingling the death knell of the pneumatics.
“I wish we’d never got rid of it because it created such a lot of interest,” says Mr Barker. “Children were absolutely fascinated by it. The kids would follow me about and watch as the carrier was sucked up into the pipes. It would have been nice to have kept part of it for novelty value.”
JOHN HESLOP emails from Durham City to add another cash system to our growing list: Wilkinsons in Newgate Street, Bishop Auckland (not to be confused with modern day Wilkos). It was just down from the Co-op and so only around the corner from Doggarts in the Market Place – this small town certainly boasted a wonderful array of cash contraptions.
The Wilkinsons one sounds like a pre-pneumatic Lamson Rapid Wire Cash Railway System.
“Each till had a separate cable to the office, with a cash container attached,” says John. “To we children, it seemed to work by magic!”
One thing, of course, leads to another, and John then digresses onto inkwells – you will remember Memories 314 pictured a china inkwell produced by the School Furnishing Company of Darlington.
“You said school inkwells became redundant in the first half of the 20th Century,” says John, “but had to use those messy nibs and inkwells throughout my infant and junior schools at Cockton Hill, Bishop Auckland, until I left in 1959. Only one person in our class, who was known as "Inky", was allowed to use a fountain pen – this may have been because he was the son of one of the primary teachers. I'd be interested to know if use of inkwells continued after I left.”
Did you use an inkwell at school?