Why Do People Send Messages in Bottles?
We have been sending messages in bottles for hundreds of years, and these mysterious bottled letters continue to intrigue us. They loom large in popular culture, too. There’s the Police song, “Message in a Bottle”; the Taylor Swift song by the same name; the Nicholas Sparks book, “Message in a Bottle,” and the movie starring Robin Wright and Kevin Costner. There are businesses that make message-in-a-bottle gifts and invitations–you can even send a message in a bottle “virtually” to a random recipient online!
So, what do we hope to get out of sending these messages? For some, like Ake and Paolina Wiking, the answer is love. Many, like John E. Freeland, send a message in a bottle because they want a penpal. Some hope their bottles will be found, like activists who use MIBs to spread awareness of issues like ocean litter. Others hope their messages in bottles will never be found, and use them as a sort of “confessional,” entrusting apologies and farewells to the ocean. Some will send a message in a bottle to say goodbye to loved ones, or even to send them on a final journey, like these folks.
In stark contrast, some send them simply as a joke. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, message in a bottle hoaxes were enormously popular, like this one and this one. Messages in bottles powered the efforts of early ocean scientists to study currents. Some motives remain a mystery forever–like when a message in a bottle is found after the sender has passed away.
One thing’s certain: these bottled notes go on some wild adventures in the high seas, and lead to friendships, romance, and reunions that never could have happened any other way.
So, Why Send a Message in a Bottle?
Here’s what real-life message-in-a-bottle senders say:
“Over the six years since he found the bottle, Clint asked me more than once if I knew why my Dad had started this hobby with the bottles. I really didn’t know, but as I turned up more information about it, I think it had to do with his life growing up in a small town in Iowa in the pre-Depression days of the 1920’s and 1930’s. He was always interested in people from far-away places, but people didn’t often travel that far away from their homes in those days. When he did start to travel later in life, it was a friendship kind of thing that developed as he was able to see the world and enjoy meeting and talking to people and learning about their lives, and he enjoyed telling them about his life, as well.”
“What compelled us to toss the bottle into the ocean?” Carol said, “It was a spontaneous gesture really. But I suppose romance—of the sea and of sharing our love. Seemed like a way to honor our happiness and offer our wish that others might experience it as well. Ed and I walked into the surf together, hand in hand, and tossed the bottle. Honestly, I expected it to surface 20 yards down the shore. What an adventure it ended up taking.”
“We went on a cruise to Bermuda during the summer and I tossed a bottle over. We were warned not to do that, but I have a problem following orders. I guess that’s why I hated the Army so much.”
Another time, he said:
“I like throwing bottles off cruise ships because it’s a forbidden act. Getting away with it makes me happy.”
“I was getting married and thought it would be a unique way to put my hopes on paper and share them with whoever might be the finder.”
“On the cruise to the Caribbean I joined in with an art tutor who was both interesting and very attractive. So I drew a few pieces as memories of what I had experienced in the past in the Caribbean and other places like Madeira. Hence the “street sledging” guys! I guess we must have been about a days’ sail out of Madeira when I finished with the art group and was wondering what to do with the sketches. Having just drunk the last of the bottle of water, I suddenly, without any real reason, decided to send them over the side.”
“When we sent the message it was really to see how far it would travel. When we threw it over board we said that someone we don’t even know is going to come into our lives just by a message in a bottle. As time goes by you seem to forget about it till you hear that knock on you door—then all them memories come flooding back into your head on the day it went over board…Life is so short. If you want to do something in life, don’t let it pass. Just get up and enjoy your life.”
One of the most surprising reasons people send message in bottles is to advertise a product. Seems ridiculous, right? But…what if your product already comes in a bottle? What if you want to advertise the “foreign export” version of that product, to spread your message to distant shores? It starts to make a bit more sense. Enter advertising genius and Managing Director of Guinness Exports Ltd, A.W. Fawcett. It was his idea to drop 200,000 messages in bottles advertising Guinness into the ocean throughout the 1950s. The first “drop” of 50,000 bottles happened in 1954. These used regular old bottles and weren’t flashy. But by 1959, they had stepped up the game, using specially embossed bottles and fancy printed material inside (like the Neptune Scroll pictured here).
According to Guinness historian David Hughes, “The whole operation was carefully worked out so that the ocean currents would wash the bottle sup on the shores of those countries they were aiming at”; in other words: Guinness hoped the
bottles would spread their advertising to particular countries, and dropped them in strategic locations.
A letter from Fawcett to his employees at the time survives, in which he describes the process of making and sealing these bottles in painstaking detail: how to put a cork in the bottle, then a layer of sealant, then the cap, then tape, then a lead-based wrapper. Now that is how you send a message in a bottle!
Fawcett speculates that sealing these bottles so thoroughly will enable them to live “at least 500 years” at sea. That may seem crazy, but folks are still finding them, almost 60 years after they were dropped. He notes, “The longer time goes on without hearing from anyone, really the better the ultimate publicity value.” Who knows how long they will continue turning up? Read more about the Guinness messages in bottles here.
A Million Reasons Why People Send Messages in Bottles
In the end, I really think there are just about as many reasons why people send messages in bottles as there are people. Even those who send messages for roughly the “same” reason – to commemorate love, like Janet, or Ed & Carol – always have their own, unique twist.
I see each message in a bottle like a fingerprint: a totally unique extension of the author. No one else can create your message in a bottle–only you can. And that’s the same for every message in a bottle author I know of.
It’s strange, really, and lovely. On the one hand, a message in a bottle can reveal how much the author and finder have in common – which is always a lot. On the other hand, what an author puts into a message in a bottle sets them apart and highlights their uniqueness. The same is true of the finder: how a person responds to finding a message in a bottle reveals much about their character.
Ultimately, this list of reasons why people send messages in bottles will continue to grow over time, and I will never be able to capture it all! If you have ever sent a message in a bottle, won’t you drop me a line and tell me…why did you send a mesage in a bottle?!