A few years ago, a woman living in Berlin, named Angela Erdmann, 62, received a postcard.
It had been written by a 20-year-old man, out for a nature walk.
And a whole lot of people, all around the world, heard about this piece of mail.
What made Angela’s postcard “noteworthy,” was that it had been mailed, in a sense, 101 years before, by a grandfather she’d never known.
In 1913, Richard Platz placed a card in a bottle, and tossed it into the Baltic Sea.
A century later, when a fisherman found the bottle in his net, near Kiel, the International Maritime Museum tracked down Richard’s grand-daughter Angela, and delivered his message.
Good job, museum guys, I think that’s pretty cool. Richard had passed away, in 1946, before Angela was born, but I’m sure he would have been delighted with this posthumous greeting.
(You can read more articles about this in The Guardian. One of the best newspapers, of course, and it seems to have made something of a specialty of stories about messages in bottle, a bit odd, coming from landlocked Manchester. See the P.S. I added 3/9/18 for the new record-holder.)
Even more poignant, was a message found in ginger beer bottle. A young soldier headed to the front in 1914, Private Thomas Hughes wrote a note to his wife (“Ta ta my sweet for the present, your hubby“), tossed it into the Channel, and died two days later in France. His wife died in 1979, having never received the letter, but it was fished out of the Thames in 1999, and delivered to his 86-year-old daughter, who’d been a two-year-old on the day he wrote it.
Notes in bottles were recovered from passengers lost when the Lusitania and the Titanic went down. A note from the latter ship, written by a 19-year-old who didn’t survive the sinking, washed up on a beach a year later, very near his home in Ireland. His parting thought was placed in a bottle his mother had given him on departure, containing holy water.
Reading these little stories, while stuck inside on a rainy afternoon, prompted a web-search, and here’s another news flash: there are an incredible number of stories on this theme, A Message in a Bottle, including frequent mentions in newspapers from the 1800’s.
The Victorians, those speed maniacs and travel enthusiasts, grabbed “Around the World in 80 Days” (1873) and sailed off to inspect their far-flung empires, diving into “leisure” with their usual industriousness. After all the explorations and invasions, came real terror – – they created Tourism. As these indefatigable Victorians roamed the globe on recreational voyages and journeys, with the same zeal they brought to missionary work and imperial exploitation, they were fascinated by the oceans’ complex network of currents, and constantly reported their “message bottle” findings in the newspapers.
The scientific ones are called “drift bottles” and supposedly this began in 310 BC with Theophrastus, who was curious to see if the Mediterranean flowed into the Atlantic. He was a Greek scientist, who’d studied with Plato and Aristotle. He did receive responses to some of his bottles, but always written in Phoenician, which he didn’t understand – – frustrated, he became a philosopher and vegetarian.
A century adrift, of course, is unusual, but there’s a never-ending stream of these stories:
- Last November, men clearing debris from a dam on Michigan’s Grand River found a message from a Marcia Polly, who’d mailed it on March 30, 1981 from River Junction. In 35 years, it had only traveled twelve miles. (Livingston County Press)
- August 2007. After a beachfront wedding, the newlyweds bottled up their vows and launched them into Lake Michigan. The couple who found the bottle, just a few weeks later, had also been married on a beach, on exactly the same date, 28 years before. (AP)
- A message found on the Likiep Atoll in the Marshall Islands in March 1994, had covered 3,000 miles since leaving Baja California in February 1993 (LA Times)
- One of my favorites, from the August 2, 1993 Palm Beach Post (Florida), was a bottle that beat air mail. Launched July 10th during a cruise off the coast of Cuba, the bottle was picked up near Fort Lauderdale on the 15th . The same person had also sent a postcard by regular mail from Jamaica on the 8th, to a friend in Florida, who received it on the 27th.
- In 2012, divers in Lake Huron recovered a bottle with simple note “Having a good time at Tashmoo” (a local park), written by two young ladies in 1915.
- A bottle found on Little St. Simon’s Island, Georgia, had traveled from Fernandina Beach, just over the line in Florida. It’s an hour and a half on I-95, but the bottle had taken about 36 years.
- A well-publicized Canadian entrant apparently traveled from 1985 Nova Scotia, to 2013 Croatia. Let’s think about that: across the Atlantic, south along the coast of Europe, then past Gibraltar, up the length of the Mediterranean, and into the Adriatic. “Mary – You really are a great person. I hope we can stay in correspondence. Your friend Jonathon. Nova Scotia ’85” (I don’t mean to be critical, Jonathon, but 1. this is a pretty tepid love note, and 2. this is maybe not the best way to “stay in correspondence”.)
- In 2011, a sailor cleaning up a beach on Hawaii found 4 origami flowers and a note dated 3/25/06, from Saki Arikawa, a student in Kagoshima, Japan, about 4,000 miles away.
ETC. Fan mail from a flounder? If anyone is interested, I’ll attach a few more of these tales, on the tail end of this piece.
“Bottle up” is synonymous with repression, keeping secrets, entrapment, and keeping things inside yourself. Like everything to do with Human Nature, sometimes the motives for creating these bottles seems confusing or even self-contradictory. I guess for some people, casting out unsigned messages may be a chance for confession and washing away regrets. Some Jewish folks practice Tashlikh, an atonement ritual during the High Holy Days, based on the book of Micah: “You will cast all their sins into the depths of the sea”. Bits of bread are tossed onto flowing water, by people symbolically ridding themselves of sins and regrets, and clearing the decks, to do better in the new year. And I think some people employ the bottles in a similar way, sometimes.
But that’s getting awfully philosophical, and I want to talk about whiskey and wine now. Especially Port, because the name seems appropriate, and the port bottles have always been made for export, so they’re good and sturdy. I have a dark green one I’m going to be using.
Seen through the bottom of a glass, darkly.
Modern messages, based on my scientific survey, are almost inevitably found in bottles that used to contain some form of alcohol.
“Late one night, while polishing off a bottle of furniture polish/champagne/rum / gin / whiskey / spar vanish / Sterno….
…a Thought came to them
…they were Struck with a Plan …
… It Popped Into Their Heads….”
On the rare occasions I’ve helped empty such a container, I too have suddenly had some original thoughts and plans.
Thoughts which were deep, complex, and brilliant, but also kind of fluid, even watery somehow. And often forgotten as soon as I’ve had a cup of coffee and shared my thoughts with someone sober.
And maybe some of these genius ideas, are best kept bottled up, like glassy-eyed, dysfunctional genies. And, like lawyers, best dropped into the sea.
And while we’re drowning things, here’s another Message in a Bottle, that needs to be tipped into the vasty deep, securely fastened to concrete blocks – – that horrible song by The Police.
But the actual message-in-a-bottle concept is almost universally appealing, and goes back a long, long time.
I guess it would be a stretch to mention the Dead Sea Scrolls, since they weren’t placed in the water?
It mostly seems like innocent fun. And the bottles are still sometimes used in scientific studies of ocean currents.
A Shilling for Your Thoughts
And that brings us to an even older bottle than Angela Erdmann’s.
On November 30, 1906, George Parker Bidder dropped a bottle into the North Sea.
Tragically, he then waited, disconsolate, for a response,until he passed away in 1954, aged 91, a bitter and disappointed man.
No, don’t be silly, that’s crap, I just made that up.
He was actually a highly respected marine biologist, who launched over a thousand special research bottles that day. He was at the Marine Biological Association in Plymouth, founded in 1884, which still exists, and imagine the thrill, when they received one of G. P. Bidder’s self-addressed postcards, after more than 108 years!! The bottle was found by a Marianne Winkler, on one of the North Frisian islands, two years ago. The 1906 card promises a shilling reward, so someone at the association went onto Ebay, to get one for Frau Winkler.
Perfect, somehow, that the finder of a 108-year-old message, was a retired postal worker.
The previous record-holder in the Guinness Book of World Records listed a bottle found 2013, off the Shetlands, after almost 98 years at sea, launched by the Glasgow School of Navigation in June 1914 (They only offered sixpence reward, but there was a war on, for heaven’s sake.) Out of 1,890 bottles, 315 have been returned. So far.
Hard to believe, but the exact same fishing boat hauled in the previous record holder, in 2006.
And that bottle was from the same 1914 batch.
Bowling Balls & Rubber Duckies
But the articles sometimes mention all the other crap that’s tossed in the oceans.
June 8, 1990 Wall Street Journal summarized a national beach sweep, which found nine messages in bottles. Also a staggering 860 tons of debris, including 605 hard hats, 164,141 plastic cigarette butts, 18,251 balloons – altogether 1,895,502 plastic pieces.
From an April 23, 2006 article in the Seattle Times, I learned that bowling balls, up to the 12 pound version, will float. (I know that 16-pounders sink, because my barber, Eddie, confessed one day, that after a really bad tournament, he crossed the highway to the old Kingdom Road Bridge, and dropped his ball into the canal.)
Cargo ships have lost loads of hockey gloves (34,000), bathtub toys (29,000 including yellow ducks), and the famous Nike Sneaker Tsunami, where currents took the left shoes to one beach, and the rights to another. Less amusing, in fact horrifying, was the discussion of beautiful seabirds who died with stomachs full of plastic bits, including an albatross who’d eaten a Bakelite tag from a WWII Navy plane.
A garbage patch in the Atlantic, running from Virginia to Cuba, in some areas has 250,000 plastic bits/square mile.
There’s an amazing guy named Chad Pregracke, who started Living Lands & Waters, which for ten years has been coordinating volunteer efforts to clean up American’s waterways. Over nine million pounds, including 78,000 tires, 268 TV’s, 13 hot tubs, 13 prosthetic limbs. And 105 bowling balls (I’m going to ask Eddie about that, he may have an anger management issue). And this organization now has the largest collection of Messages in Bottles, 78.
Quid Pro Quo
So why am I advocating for throwing more stuff into the sea? Well, I have a proposal to float by you.
Here’s the deal. I’ve run across articles about people who’ve made the Message in the Bottle into a daily ritual – a crane operator at Boston harbor, a guy named Harold Hackett on Prince Edward Island, etc. Personally, I’ve never done this before, and this will be my first bottle. And it’s glass, not plastic, so should it break, it will be polished into “sea glass” or eventually, back to sand. And when I toss it in, I’m going to also find a least a couple of things to fish out. OK? Deal? Bottle goes in — then a tire, shopping cart, old bike, that snowmobiler who went through the ice last winter, whatever, will come out. Back to my soggy blog.
The urge to post a letter has been steadily waning in our society, in a culture of email, texts, snapchat, and twitter – offering immediate gratification and instantaneous “feedback”.
“The Village Post Office” 1873
The Stamp Act
The decline in letters has been going on for many years. As Stephen Fry pointed out recently, the American Revolution started in part, because colonists didn’t like paying taxes on stamps.
And if you think about it, who wouldn’t resent that, especially because there were no mailmen, so what was the point. Every day, people would come home and ask, “Any post, was there, perchance?” and there never was. You had to wait for the town crier to come around, yelling random proclamations and plague warnings. The entire colonial era was pretty frustrating.
(Quick digression: Ben Franklin, our first Postmaster General, used drift bottles to study the Gulf Stream, but I cannot figure out how to work that into this article. Also, Aladdin and I Dream of Jeannie, just couldn’t find a niche for Barbara Eden, sorry.)
But writing a message in a bottle, now, that’s different than regular mail. Like mailing a postcard from Italy or Canada, you don’t know when, if ever, anyone will receive it, and that’s OK. It’s rarely anything urgent, although there are a few stories of rescuing survivors stranded on islands, etc. But generally, as you read countless stories of these bottles, most are very mundane.
“Hi! We’re throwing this bottle in the water. Let me know when you find it, Bob.”
Although, if you think about it. . . Bob is a perfect name for a floating bottle.
People also find confessions, vows, suicide notes, farewells to the recently departed, voodoo spells, and love notes.
It’s not a deep or original thought, but I do keep thinking of blogging as akin to these bottles – – random messages drifting along. We toss out our opinions, float our proposals, and cast our half-baked ideas upon the water.
I just received a little notice from WordPress, telling me my site was launched two years ago, and by coincidence, this is my 100th post. I haven’t written that much, really, and certainly nothing of significance, but you never know when some unknown person, anywhere in the world, might read it.
Pretty cool. A message in a digital bottle, a life-raft of stories, adrift indefinitely. Or at least, until I pull the plug on my subscription.
The popular bloggers, O Captain! My Captain!, commanding respect, send forth their fleets of incisive thoughts, and they circulate among all the smart folks. Tall ships on a digital Gulf Stream.
Others, like me, stick our soggy thoughts onto a virtual bowling ball, sometimes with digital chewing gum, when we can’t find the dratted duck tape, and toss them into the Sea of Anonymity, and watch them sink without a trace. But who knows. Perhaps years from now, stranded on a desert island (deserted, but with wifi), someone might peruse the useless, moist musing I’m scribbling right now.
Sometimes, it feels OK to let your mind wander, ideas wash over you, and just see where your drifting thoughts take you.
You’ll be gratified to learn, that this “bottle mail” exists in a digital fantasy world, too. A website where messages are written, bottled, and wash up on a virtual reality beach, to be opened and read at random, called digitalbottles.com (seriously).
Metaphors, Tangents, Digressions, etc. SETI, METI, YETI
I’m sure you’ve experienced this – – you see or hear about something, or read something, and immediately begin to see connections and parallels everywhere. Messages in bottles,in myriad forms, began to appear everywhere.
The Sunday NY Times had an article about scientists sending signals out into space, to see if any aliens respond.
SETI is the listening program, trying to detect aliens’ signals.
METI is the broadcasting program, where we send out signals.
YETI is the Abominable Snowman, who never writes, and has nothing to do with any of this, I just liked the alliteration.
Marconi sent his first transatlantic message on December 12, 1901, and apparently by now, our radio signals are 200 light years out. My grandfather talked about seeing TV for the first time, at the 1939-40 World’s Fair (where his mother was working), but broadcasts started in the ’20’s. In Carl Sagan’s book “Contact“, the aliens re-broadcast Hitler’s opening speech from the 1936 Olympics, because that was the first TV signal strong enough to break through our planet’s ionosphere. Hopefully the aliens are watching other stuff, too, of course. It seems like a Nazi speech was a bad start, but pretty much anything we broadcast could be worrisome, and annoying to our neighbors — war movies, opera, soap opera, “reality TV,” politics, all of it. I especially worry that the cooking shows, stuffed with scenes of us eating our fellow creatures, will give them bad ideas.
When my parents were in college, during the Late-Medieval ’70’s, NASA sent out Voyager I, and like them, it’s currently drifting along in interstellar space. Carl Sagan helped choose the content for an info disc inside the spaceship, recorded onto a gold-plated platter: words, diagrams, landscapes, magnified DNA, music (Bach, Johnny B Goode, Indian raga, gamelan, etc.). “The spacecraft will be encountered and the record played only if there are advanced spacefaring civilizations in interstellar space. But the launching of this bottle into the cosmic ocean says something very hopeful about life on this planet.”
A couple of weeks ago, the cover article in the New York Times Magazine was called “What If We’re Not Alone“. I read about the Arecibo Message, some rhythmic noises blasted into space in 1974. Last year, the European Space Agency sent a similar, more complex, time capsule off toward Polaris, as an interstellar radio message.
Personally I think this “What If We’re Not Alone” is exactly like watching a scary movie, when you want to yell at the idiot walking into danger. I don’t remember being asked, if I thought it was a good idea, to attract the attention of alien life forms. Stephen Hawkins has commented, that any creature capable of traveling to Earth, most likely would be bad news for humans.
“Gee, the storm knocked out the lights, and the electric fence around the research facility next door, so I’ll just go down the stairs of the haunted house to the dark, creepy cellar to look for the fuse box, I’ll call out loudly for the last three people who came down and didn’t come back up, I’m sure the hideous hissing/scraping/growling noises are just the furnace acting up…”
When Stephen Hawkins and Elon Musk tell you, it might not be a good idea to bother the neighbors, you really ought to listen.
But who knows.
Part of the attraction of these things – – blogging, tossing bottles in the sea, or inviting alien death rays — is that it appeals to our curiosity, and our love of gambling.
You just toss things out there, and see what happens.
P.S. 3/7/18 NY Times “After 131 Years, Message in a Bottle Found on an Australian Beach” Megan Specia
Wow! The article points out that when the bottle was launched, Grover Cleveland was President, and Queen Victoria was close to celebrating fifty years of rule. The bottle was tossed from a German ship, on its way from Wales to Indonesia, on June 12, 1886 and was found this January. The message was a form from the German Naval Observatory in Hamburg, asking that it be returned, as part of their study of ocean currents.
The folks in Hamburg hadn’t received one of these messages for a while.
84 years in fact.
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