A contraption from way back

The above contraption is rather famous in the little town I come from in South Africa. It’s not like there are pilgrimages there, but people do take visitors and kids to see it. This device is not used today but you can still go in to Birch’s and ask for a ‘tour’ and explanation of how it worked.

Birch’s is an old fashioned department store where you can buy clothes, sporting equipment, haberdashery, and school uniforms. Birch’s also produce graduation gowns, municipal robes, surgical scrubs, as well as clerical and legal robes for the whole country. They always preferred to call themselves an outfitters rather than a clothing store.

Back to how this contraption worked:

Say you were going to buy a school boater —- you would go to the millinery department (easily seen by the elegant gold script on pale wood above each department) be served by someone who would help you fit and select your hat and school hatband. They would tell you how much it was and write out a paper receipt. You would give them the cash, which they would screw into a little canister. They would then attach the canister to wires above their head and pull a little knob to shoot the canister across the shop to the cash department. Once the canister had whizzed across the shop on its little wire, it would be unscrewed at the cashier’s department, which was like a little island in the middle of the shop. The receipt would be completed, the receipt plus change popped into the little canister, and it would be shot back to the millinery department. Your assistant would then unscrew it and give you your receipt and money.

I would be interested to know how common these were in other countries, and, if possible, find out what they were called. Maybe they were, like Paternoster lifts, common at one time and then fell out of use.

Author: Janet Carr

Fashion, beauty and animal loving language consultant from South Africa living in Stockholm, Sweden.

4 thoughts

  1. Our ‘Internal Distribution System’ IDS was used for similar things! But in slow time brown envelopes collected a couple of times per day by messengers relaying documents between floors.

  2. Two of the newspapers I worked for in the 1980s had vaguely similar devices – except they were suction-powered! They connected the news room with the compositors. Once a story had been subbed, it was rolled up and put into the container, which was then shoved into the tube that then whisked across the building. One place was very blasé with health and safety, and scissors and even bananas or chocolate bars got sent!

    1. Ooh, they have still got those in the Government Offices and the Parliament here in Sweden. They are like glass tubes that you unscrew, right? Apparently you should never send cake ha ha!

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