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Featured: Trade Literature

The National Museum of American History Branch Library houses the Trade Literature Collection, an extraordinary collection of over 430, 000 pieces of manufacturing and product catalogs comprising a broad range of American industrial output, from 1875 to 1950. Today's featured item is fairly typical of the collection as a whole: a straightforward catalog sent to the company's jobbers, distributors, and retailers: the " trade." But within its pages are some hidden nuggets that reveal an unusual path to a practical innovation.

The catalog is entitled “Lamson Wire Line Carriers”, from the Lamson Company, based in Syracuse, New York. Lamson was a pioneer in the development and manufacture of pneumatic tube systems of document delivery, used in offices, factories, and even libraries. This conveying system was devised by William Stickney Lamson, who was based in Lowell, Massachusetts. Lamson became impatient with the time-consuming process of clerks having to walk paperwork and money back from cash registers and front offices to the payroll or purchasing or other back office locations. He devised the “Ball system,” which consisted of a hollow ball that rolled on tracks. Money and paperwork were put in the ball.


According to the company history of one of Lamson’s subsidiaries, Lamson experimented with several ideas, some of which were more successful than others: “The first test, which involved wrapping notes and coins into a handkerchief and throwing it across the shop to the cashier, unfortunately failed.” The Lamson Company took this basic idea of office conveyance and greatly expanded it to include the pneumatic tube system, which, though not their original idea, they were able to manufacture and market successfully. They also devised the wire line carrier system which brings us to the catalog at hand. This conveying system included pulleys and hoists, tubes and baskets, and other related components to shuttle documents and cash from the cash register clerks to the back offices. It also encompassed larger containers for delivering parcels from the stock room to the cash register. Lamson’s system arose during the period when time and motion studies and efficiency experts such as Frederick Winslow Taylor were very influential in advocating what has been termed “scientific management.

Privacy was an issue back then as well: "In a store using telephones to connect the clerks and [credit] authorizers, the clerks often have to call out the customer’s name, with the amount of the sales check, so that other customers in that part of store can hear it. Put yourself in the place of the customer whose names is being called—you can not blame her for not liking to have it advertised about that her credit is doubtful, and you can not wonder if she does not like to have other people who may be nearby learn that she has an account in the store. It would be too easy for them to obtain merchandise by simply using her name. How much quieter and more dignified is the system of Lamson Carriers where the sales-slip is sent to the central desk, and returned authorized without the customer even knowing that her credit is being investigated!"

Later in the company’s history, it installed the pneumatic tube system in the original Headquarters building of the CIA during its construction. According to the CIA web site: “The system had more than 30 miles of 4-inch steel tubing. At that time, this system was one of the world’s largest.” From rolled up handkerchief, to hollow ball on tracks, to baskets with pulleys to 30 miles of pneumatic tube, Lamson conveyed the industrial ambition of efficiency. —Jim Roan

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