A message in a bottle can make friends out of strangers, lovers out of the lonely, or give the dead a final chance to speak. Messages in bottles prove that people from different backgrounds can get along, if given the chance.
People have been sending messages in bottles for centuries for all kinds of reasons. Some seek love, friendship, or scientific data about ocean currents, and others hope to raise awareness about plastic pollution. Some send messages in bottles as jokes or hoaxes, and still others send them in memory of lost loved ones. Many of the oldest messages in bottles were sent out of simple curiosity by regular people.
The reasons go on, but the impulse is always the same: To reach out in hopes of making a meaningful human connection. Today, maybe more than ever, we need these powerful reminders that we all have more in common than we think. The power of a message in a bottle to make friends out of total strangers is the closest to magic we can get.
A Brief History of the Message in a Bottle
Many stories circulate online claiming that Theophrastus, an ancient Greek philosopher and scientist, sent the first messages in bottles around 300 B.C. The story, sadly, is not true. No one seems to know where the story came from, but there is no evidence to support it, as discussed at length in my post on the myth of Theophrastus sending messages in bottles.
In truth, the first messages in bottles were sent by ocean scientists in the 18th and 19th centuries. Amazingly some of these bottles are still being found today, and they are among the oldest messages in bottles ever found.
In those early years of ocean science, bottled letters were the best available means to study ocean currents. Nations and businesses wanted desperately to know how water moved around the ocean. This knowledge enabled them to improve shipping times, and to better plan and strategize naval operations. As the world’s population grew, it also became necessary to understand how waste discharged from shore and vessels at sea would move around and impact human and marine life.
In short, the early history of bottled notes is largely the history of ocean science and the study of currents.
But then, the concept of the message in a bottle with all it’s potential for drama, romance, and adventure took hold of the imagination of artists beginning in the 19th century. Since then, the idea of the message in a bottle has become part of popular culture in the western world. It captures our anxiety about loneliness, our longing for love and connection, our fear of being lost or forgotten, and so much more.
The Message in a Bottle in Pop Culture
Over the years, writers, musicians, and artists have tapped into the powerful imagery of the message in a bottle. Sting’s song explores the need to connect in a disconnected world where what we have in common is loneliness. Nicholas Sparks’s book taps into the romantic potential of bottled notes and their ability to commemorate lost loved ones. These impulses – to connect, to love, to memorialize – are so deeply human that they are in each of us. Far from being a flippant gesture, sending or finding a message in a bottle can be one of the most significant experiences of a person’s life.
Stories about messages in bottles have enchanted us for centuries. Edgar Allen Poe and Charles Dickens wrote popular stories about messages in bottles. Their stories are driven by the otherworldly power of bottled messages to connect people in the unlikeliest ways. For some reason, messages in bottles just drive us wild!
In music, Sting has good company: Zac Brown Band, for one, explores the idea of a message in a bottle in “Let it Go.” So does Jordan Zevon (son of Warren Zevon), in his song “Too Late to be Saved“. The rapper Ty Dolla $ign has a song called “Message in a Bottle,” as well. In it, the character drinks more and more, eventually “textin’ my ex, thanks to the…message in a bottle”. That’s an experience, I would hazard to guess, that many people can relate to…
Me and Paula Pierce with her father’s message in a bottle, estimated to be 35 – 50 years old.
Hooked by a Message in a Bottle
As for me, I found my first message in a bottle in 2007, and was immediately hooked. Since then, I have found over 80 more, traveled to meet the senders in person, and spent years researching the history of messages in bottles. I have learned how people send messages in bottles, and even why they send them. This site shares what I have found.
I have learned about some amazing messages in bottles over the years, including strange hoaxes and a whole slew of myths about bottled notes. Today, many of the hoaxes and myths continue to circulate online–even among reputable sources like NOAA and National Geographic—that is the emotional power of messages in bottles. Messages in bottles feel so close to magic, and the hoaxes and myths just seem so…well…cool. We want them to be true, and that is another interesting thing about messages in bottles. They highlight the way that us humans will believe something to be true whether or not there is evidence.
These little bottled notes are powerful–every bit as intoxicating as the spirits they held before they became time capsules. And I’m hooked.