I was, unfortunately, cleaning again. I had a surly demeanor, I was knee-deep in halloween candy wrappers, it was not the best of times. But I happened upon this book we had kept from 2002-2007 for letterboxing (see photo of a page on right). I realized it has been too long since we partook! Clearly, we needed to relive again this, and I quote from Letterboxing North America, “intriguing pastime combining navigational skills and rubber stamp artistry in a charming “treasure hunt” style outdoor quest”.
Let me take you back to the sodden peat moors of Dartmoor, England, 1854. According to Atlas Quest, another letterboxing site, James Perrott wanted to prove he had been to a spot deep in the moors. In soaking wool and leather, the man had a realization. Like many explorers- Shackleton in the south pole, Neil Armstrong on the moon -he wanted to leave his mark. It occurred to the Victorian guide that he could leave his business card for others to find and prove they too had made the arduous journey, not to mention the advertising potential. He left a glass bottle with his card there and encouraged others to do the same. Thus the prototype letterbox was born.
the first letterbox
People began leaving self-addressed letters and postcards there and at other remote locations on the moor. The next adventurer could correspond through the postcard. The hobby became known as letterboxing. Clues were exchanged, some cryptic. Letterboxers had names, and they named the sites as well. A compass was required equipment. A map was helpful, as 4-digit numbers were given to refer to the map-grid coordinates. An example from Have Feet Will Travel:
Dartmoor’s Lost Unicorns No. 5-Hero, 5377, 8473, Have Feet Will Travel, FP 205 degrees. Cross 18 1/2 degrees. Large chimney on farm 241 degrees. Tip of dead tree 315 1/2 degrees. Tip of pointed rock 70 degrees and 9p away. Under rock on edge of clitter.
A peculiar culture developed among select outdoorsy, mildly eccentric, somewhat competetive British adventurers. Eventually people hand-carved rubber stamps and left their mark on a book at each site to prove they had been there. The creator of a site also left a unique stamp there so that a letterboxer could use it in their letterboxing book, like ours above, to display their letterboxing prowess. Over more than a century, the hobby grew from a couple of sites on the moor to…wait for it…15. Even in the 1970’s, letterboxes was still confined to the Darmoor moors and still numbered under 50.
Then a 1998 article in Smithsonian Magazine blew the quirky hobby into an international sensation. The internet of the last century was employed for exchange of clues and locations. Today there are numerous websites and organizations. Here’s another website, useful for newbies. There are countless letterboxes hidden around the world now, and participants range from children to the elderly. I guess I have to mention that geocaching also exists. You can have your GPS, smartphone generation. We’ll see what works better on the moors and other isolated area with the hidden boxes – my bet is on the tools that can withstand the mud and lack of wifi. Call me a Luddite, but count me in with the muddy 19th century Brits and their compasses and map grids.