I updated the Relics: Mail chute post with slightly better photos and a new photo taken at the Garland Building in Chicago. I forgot to take a photo of the lobby box, but will. Someday. I wonder what is under the white paint, although I suspect hallway mail slots weren’t as fancy as the lobby boxes.
As usual in the Midwest, summer has brought a relentless series of watches and warnings, including thunderstorms, severe weather, flooding, and tornadoes. When a new watch or warning is issued or a current one is updated, one of my phone’s weather apps emits a submarine sound. Sometimes I feel like I’m immersed in Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea.
Not that long ago, before mobile phones, weather apps, and 24/7 cable, people got their weather news and updates from regularly scheduled radio and television news. Emergencies might warrant a crawl across the TV screen with a siren or very loud beeping. Basic, everyday weather news at 6 and 11 wasn’t enough for my dad, however. He tuned into his dedicated weather radio.
A weather radio picks up NOAA broadcasts that include arcane weather details you won’t hear on the 6 o’clock news, which you may not watch anyway because you get the news from trending topics on Facebook and Twitter. I hadn’t heard a weather radio broadcast in decades, but I remember a flat, tinny male voice, most likely not a “voice talent,” reciting a long list of current weather conditions and statistics in a monotonously soothing way. My dad could listen to this for long periods, as though he were a farmer whose livelihood depended on knowing weather conditions intimately and preparing for them. Our weather radio did come in handy a few times, such as during the Western New York Blizzard of ’77. We kept spare batteries on hand for all of our radios because we never knew when wind or ice would knock out the power.
Today I imagine a weather radio may be useful to boaters, campers, hunters and fishers, construction foremen, and anyone else whose life or work might depend on unexpected or sudden changes in weather conditions. A few years ago in Chicago, a horrendous thunderstorm abruptly blew in without warning, even breaking thousands of panes of glass at Garfield Park Conservatory. If I were out on Lake Michigan in a small craft, I would have wanted to know about those black clouds darkening the western sky, how conditions were changing, and how long I would have to row my boat ashore.
NOAA Weather Radio All Hazards (NWR) is a nationwide network of radio stations broadcasting continuous weather information directly from the nearest National Weather Service office. NWR broadcasts official Weather Service warnings, watches, forecasts and other hazard information 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. . . . NWR requires a special radio receiver or scanner capable of picking up the signal.
As I said, once upon a time, the voice belonged to humans — as it turns out, the updates were recorded by staff at local National Weather Service offices, nearly all of them male. Although the voices varied, they were reassuring in their lack of voiceover-style sophistication. Today, however, the voices are synthesized. “Tom” comes closest to my memories, but still he doesn’t quite evoke morning at the kitchen table, listening to the weather radio.
Of course weather radios aren’t truly a relic. Not only can you still buy them, but there are even a number of options in a surprisingly broad range of prices (my brief search showed roughly $25 to $60, or $75 with a lithium battery). Copy for my favorite says: “If you’re in an area prone to occasional violent weather (and what area isn’t?) this radio can be a lifesaver.” I’m tempted.
If you have a weather radio, here’s where you can find your local weather station. Chicago’s is KWO39 at 162.550, broadcasting from Romeoville in the southwest suburbs via a transmitter at the “Sear’s Tower” (someone needs to tell NOAA it’s now Willis Tower). You can find various weather radio streams online. The KWO39 stream is available online here. (I couldn’t get the one in Buffalo to work.)
Will your eight-year-old son or daughter wax nostalgic over iffy mornings and evenings or camping trips spent listening to “Tom” or whatever synthesized voice supplants him? For myself, “Tom” doesn’t evoke strong feelings or tempt me to buy that spiffy weather radio after all. I guess I’ll just have to keep feeling like I’m aboard the Seaview.
UPDATE 7/29/2016: After the skies turned dark again, I compromised and spent $4.99 on a weather radio iPhone app. Still not the same as the radio on the kitchen counter.
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A couple of years ago in “Please Mr. Postman,” I marked the prolonged passing of the blue mailbox, no longer needed in the age of text messaging, mobile phones, and social media. Before USPS started carting the Chicago boxes off to rust at the central office (where I saw what seemed to be thousands lined up, with nothing to do and nowhere to go), another type of mail collection method had fallen into disuse — the mail chute, or Cutler mailing system.
The first mail chute I saw and used was at 200 South Riverside Plaza in Chicago, at my first job. The chute ran down the wall across the hall from the word processing room on the 37th floor. People still used it then, in 1983. Walking past it, I would be startled by the sudden whoosh of an envelope falling down the chute, presumably on its way to a collection box. Sometimes, however, someone would ambitiously stuff, say, a 9″ x 12″ envelope into the chute, which had the same effect as some boxes do in trash chutes — it would “gum up the works,” as my dad might have said.
I don’t recall if the mail chute was still in use when the company relocated to 203 North LaSalle Street in 1986. A contemporary blend of glass, steel, and atrium. this building probably didn’t have anything as quaint as a mail chute.
The Flamingo, which opened in the late 1920s, has a mail chute, although it’s closed off on the floors. I have no idea where it may have ended, as it’s west of the elevators, while the mail collection box in the lobby is on the north wall across from the elevators.
Authorized by P.O. Dept.
Installed under the Cutler Patents
Note that it’s not just a mail chute and mail collection box, but the Cutler mailing system. Product pretentiousness isn’t a contemporary invention.
Find out more about the history of the Cutler Mail Chute Co. and the Cutler mailing system at the National Postal Museum site and, of course, Wikipedia. Added 2/19/2017: You can see more examples in New York City at Atlas Obscura and learn about why mail chutes were discontinued.
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