Tuesday, October 28, 2014

High Wire Act

by Connie Cortright

A couple weeks ago, the topic of this blog was moving people on operator-run elevators in department stores. Today it'll be about moving money in these same large stores. Money was "wired" from one location to another in a department store during the early half of the last century. I remember seeing this happen when my parents took me shopping in our small town in Wisconsin.


What am I talking about? A cash carrier, or sometimes called cash railway, was a system of pulleys and wires running close to the ceiling in a large store sending and receiving cash payments.


A salesman in the shoe department would put a $20.00 bill in a small round container along with the sales receipt. The cylinder would be hooked up to the overhead wire system and a lever pulled to send the payment up to the cashier location on an upper floor. The cashier would then place the customer's correct change into the cup and pull the lever to send it back to the salesman who would give the change to the customer.





The small cylinders were able to go from one location to another by a complex system of pulleys and wires powered by gravity (from upper floors to lower floors) or a catapult (from the lower sales floors to the upper floors). I remember watching the basket come hurtling at high speed down from the cashiers office toward the saleman's counter wondering if it would crash. It would stop with a loud bang, but never spilled the change all over the floor.

This system was developed for several reasons. The main one was for security of the store's cash. Most, if not all, transactions in those days were with cash payments so the amount of cash in the till by the end of the day was a high value. The owner of the store prevented robberies by making it known that all cash was located in a secure location far away from the sales floor, far away from a would-be robber. Fewer people handled the cash in the department store, preventing embezzlement by the employees.

I think most kids, including me, who saw this system in the stores, wished they could pull the lever, sending the money holder upstairs. Very aptly stated online:

"When I was about 4, Harold Williams was the manager. One day he picked me up and let me pull that thing and send it on its way. It would be like a kid launching a rocket today. I never had such a thrill." Harold Belyau, 70. Abeline Reporter-News website

Another type of system for carrying cash was the  pneumatic tube system, which was similar, but used round pipes between the sales floor and the cashier room. The tubes were either filled or emptied of air, thus causing a vacuum sending the cash container up or down in the tubes.

The pneumatic tubes could also be used for practical jokes as seen in this online account:

"The pneumatic cash system was always good for a prank, especially in the old store where the office was in an open balcony. A feather from a feather duster could be carefully placed in the carrier so that when opened it would spring out at a startled cashier. The screech sometimes made customers forget what they were shopping for. It was also possible to create the same result by filling the canister with cigarette smoke. Deceased insects and spiders were also known to take the ride."

Did you ever see these types of devices long ago?

Information from this article found on the website The Cash Railway Website

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Touching History in a B-17

by Terri Wangard


            When I decided to write a World War II story for the distant German relatives who received care packages from my grandparents after the war, I needed a way to bring an American into their lives. That didn’t require much thought. He’d be an aviator shot down in Germany. That meant he needed to be on the crew of a four-engine, heavy bomber. Either the B-17 Flying Fortress or the B-24 Liberator. Easy choice. The Liberator has been called the Flying Boxcar, Flying Coffin, pregnant cow. No thanks. So the B-17 Flying Fortress it is.
            Learning about the Fort is simple enough. They were tough, durable airplanes, capable of bringing their crews safely back to base despite horrific damage from ground antiaircraft fire and from enemy fighter planes. Their wing span stretched 103 feet, and measured 74 feet from nose to tail. The nickname Flying Fortress came from the many machine guns located in the nose, top turret in the roof, ball turret underneath the plane, waist windows, and tail. Their cost varied from nearly $250,000 down to $125,000 as the learning curve improved production.
Ten men, later nine, comprised the crew. The pilot was the plane commander, joined by the copilot, navigator, bombardier, flight engineer/top turret gunner, radio operator, ball turret gunner, one or two waist gunners, and the tail gunner.
If you’ve seen the movie Memphis Belle, you’ll have a Hollywood version of a B-17 crew. The men spoke to one another in normal voices while flying. They appeared unfettered by the extreme cold in the unheated, unpressurized plane with open waist windows. Temperatures of minus thirty were common. And they breathed normally without face masks at altitudes over 10,000 feet.
All wrong.
The best way to experience a B-17 is to fly in one, so I did. Aluminum Overcast was noisy. Standing face to face with someone, I saw his lips move, but couldn’t hear a word he said. No way could the pilot turn to his copilot and say something without using his headphones, and expect the copilot to hear him.
Since we flew in summer, we were grateful for the open window keeping the plane from heating up like an oven. And we didn’t fly high enough to require oxygen. For films and television shows, the actors take dramatic license and go maskless so the audience can read their emotions rather than stare at a face covered with an oxygen mask and not be able to recognize who was who.
Moving around in a B-17 requires one to be a contortionist. The airplane was built as a weapon, not for comfortable flight. Passages are low, narrow, and unpadded. To get out of the nose section, where the bombardier and navigator work, you must get down on your hands and knees to get into the crawl space leading up to the cockpit. And, yes, it is for crawling. I did not duck low enough and banged my head. No blood, fortunately, but it would not have surprised me.


Aluminum Overcast takes off, and I'm inside!

             Aluminum Overcast was delivered to the Army Air Force on May 17, 1945. The war in Europe was over. The war in the Pacific didn’t need B-17s. The new airplane was flown to a storage depot in Syracuse, New York, joining 228 other new unneeded B-17s and 33 combat-weary planes. These surplus warplanes were put up for sale.
            After eighteen months, Aluminum Overcast was sold for $750 to a Texas company that quickly resold it for $1,500 to Universal Aviation Company in Tulsa, Oklahoma. It changed hands several more times for increasingly higher prices. Several years were spent as a high-altitude camera platform in a photo mapping role. It spent time as a cargo plane hauling dressed beef to Puerto Rico and returning with undressed cowhides. It served as a sprayer and fire eradication bomber.
            In 1978, Dr. William Harrison of Tulsa bought the work-weary plane for $75,000 and began restoring it to its original purpose. He and his partners donated Aluminum Overcast to the Experimental Aircraft Association in 1981 with the provision that the plane would be maintained in an airworthy condition. From its home with the EAA in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, Aluminum Overcast now maintains a busy schedule flying around the country to air show and carries passengers for short-duration flights.
            Was the flight worth the ticket? Yes. That’s as close as I’ll come to living history.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Going up?

by Connie Cortright

How many of you have ever ridden in an elevator manned by an operator? I can't remember doing that even when I was a little girl. The days when elevators were manually operated in department stores have long passed into history.

During the 20s and 30s, department stores in the downtown areas of cities catered to the wealthy customers. The floors of the stores, walled off into a myriad of departments, were often crowded and dark, filled with dark furniture holding the products for sale. Today, we'd probably feel like prisoners in a store looking like this.

One sample item would be displayed behind a glass case with the remaining inventory stored in the wooden drawers behind the counters or in a storage room. If the buyer didn't like the pink colored blouse displayed in the cabinet, she'd ask for a green blouse in her size and a clerk would go retrieve the product she requested. How could you decide on which one to buy if you couldn't see all the options?

Can you imagine shopping like that today? I'd probably never buy anything. Waiting for a clerk to help you would be so time consuming. Back then a shopping trip would take an entire day of browsing and searching the department store to see if a customer could find an item to buy. Who has time for that?

During a shopping trip the customer most likely would have to travel between the many floors of the department store in the elevator. The operator in the elevator would ask him what he was looking for and know exactly on which floor that item was located. The operator would then close the outer door of the elevator manually and also the inner mesh door and lock them. Then he would push the elevator handle clockwise slowly to start the elevator rising and announce as each floor passed: "Men's Haberdashery and furnishings, 5th floor, going up, Lingerie 6th floor..."

When the handle would be rotated 90 degrees, it would be going at the maximum speed. As he approached the floor the buyer requested, he'd push the handle forward again to slow it down. He had to gauge where to stop the elevator so that the customer wouldn't have to step up or down to exit the elevator - there were no automatic stopping points for him to use. If he was off by even a half an inch, the misalignment could present a tripping hazard for the customer.

The elevator operators in many department stores were often females during World War I when the lack of available men forced store owners to turn to women. The owners realized that women were cleaner and neater, so continued to hire them even after the war. These women often attended employer-sponsored "charm school" to learn how to keep the clientele happy while operating the elevators. They had to be able to tell customers exactly where each piece of merchandise was kept so the items could be found quickly.

Most elevator operators were uniformed, with some even wearing white gloves while working. Those days of formality have long ago left our culture. Now today, we are usually more concerned about time when we are out shopping. The opulent department stores of the early last century have been replaced by bright, open shopping malls or box stores, where a customer can choose an item in the smallest amount of time and minimal interference of a clerk. Not the good ol' days by a long shot.

Which way would you prefer to shop?

Information taken from: How Efficiency Killed the Department Store and The Vanishing Under Appreciated Elevator Operator