Somewhere in my kid-hood, I’m thinking between eight and ten years old, I remember Dad taking me along when he went to Pioneer Tent and Awning. It must have been 1954 or so. The large store was on Main Street at 6th in downtown Boise.
I had no idea what Dad was doing there but I discovered three things: One, the building had a very cool white horse on the roof. Two, on entering the shop the smell of leather and oiled canvas opened my nostrils as my lungs drew in as much of that heavy aroma as I could manage. And third, there were wires hanging all over the ceiling.
It was the strangest ceiling I had ever seen.
Just then a little jar zipped along one of the wires, whipped around a corner, and landed in what looked like an office on the balcony overlooking the first floor. I followed those wires back to the other end where each wire stopped at a different sales desk. Thanks to as much attention as a boy can muster in a new store it wasn’t long before I saw a clerk put papers in a jar, screw the jar to a lid attached to one of the wires, and pull down on a wooden handle attached to the wire with a short rope.
The jar flew with amazing force and was slamming to a stop in the office in no time! From then on all I did was wait for another paper with payment to be sent whizzing to the office to be processed. Yes, even at that age I deduced the wire system replaced having cash registers being responsible for collecting payments. Who would have thought of such a thing?
Writing this account, I learned the jars zipping around the ceiling were an early version of the pneumatic tubes banks now use to get cash and payments from our cars to the teller. Called Cash Carriers, the version in Pioneer Tent and Awning was a Wire Carrier. The mechanism the clerks used to send the containers zipping to and fro is called a catapult.
If you ask me stores should still have wires catapulting jars around the ceiling if only to keep kids busy while mom and dad shop. Like I said, this is for the kids. I promise I won’t be standing in your way gawking at the ceiling.
PS – I couldn’t help but give more information on Wire Carriers. Here is the Wikipedia link. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cash_carrier.
PPS – I tried to find a good video of a Wire Carrier in motion. Alas, dear reader, you’ll have to search for one yourself.
But I did find this most satisfying homily to The Rise and Fall of the Cash Railway. I am not the only child hanging on to the magic of those flying jars. Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Dylan Thomas and many others have paid homage.
The article also describes a fairly common disaster I had not thought of. It reprints a 1903 article from New Zealand involving a proper patron bringing her “big handsome dog” into a large dry good store during the Christmas rush. The dog had been trained as a pointer and was perfectly behaved. Then the patron’s cash went zipping to the cashier.
I can only imagine if our completely undisciplined dog Flip had joined my Dad and I at Pioneer Tent and Awning …