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World’s Oldest Messages in Bottles Keep History Alive

What Does “Oldest” Mean?

You’d think it would be a pretty straightforward task to identify the world’s oldest messages in bottles. But “oldest” can mean two things when it comes to MIBs:

  1. Oldest in terms of date sent (i.e., a 1849 MIB is “older” than a 1900 MIB, even if the 1849 MIB is found after a week, and the 1900 MIB is found after 10 years)
  2. Oldest in terms of time passed between the sending and finding of the MIB. In this case, the 1900 MIB found after 10 years is “older” than the 1849 MIB that is found after only a week.

When people talk about the oldest messages in bottles, they use only the second meaning of “oldest” here: time passed between sending and finding of the MIB. So that’s the way I’ll use the word in these descriptions of the world’s oldest messages in bottles.

World's Oldest Messages in Bottles - Steve Thurber's 107 year old find

Why the World’s Oldest Messages in Bottles Matter

Aside from being flat-out cool, why should anyone care about very old messages in bottles? What good can they do for us?

First, they illuminate the history of ocean science, and remind us that science is a process, not a product. We didn’t just wake up one day and know everything we know about surface currents – we learned it by tracking drifters, particularly messages in bottles. Scientists from the most venerable research institutions in America, Germany, Scotland, England, and elsewhere have used messages in bottles to track real ocean currents for almost two centuries. We have developed technologies that built on what they taught us. But the heart of ocean current research will always be anchored in the history of messages in bottles.

Second, forget science – these bottled notes remind us who we are and who we were. From a message in a bottle sent by friends on a trip to the fair found after a century, to a 101 year old bottled letter sent by a young German man on a nature outing in the innocent days before World War I, these bottled messages give the dead a voice and remind us of where we have been, what we have come from, and inspire us to think about who we could be.

These messages in bottles are worth our attention, in my biased opinion.

How the World’s Oldest Messages in Bottles Got Older

Here’s a question: How come people keep finding older and older messages in bottles?

Not all that long ago, the world’s oldest messages in bottles ever to be found were just a few decades old at most. Of course, there was the odd myth here and there of much older messages in bottles. The myth of Chunosuke Matsuyama comes to mind. But as for real, verified messages in bottles? Few survived more than a couple decades. But then, Andrew Leaper discovered a 98 year old message in a bottle that changed the game. What happened?

Prior to the 20th century, bottles were made of various glass types and strengths. Often their mouths were irregular, making watertight sealing difficult. But in the late 19th century and early 20th century, bottle makers invented all kinds of fascinating gizmos aimed at making their bottles stronger, more uniform, and easier to seal. 

Also in the early 20th century, scientific interest in ocean currents blossomed in Europe and America. Suddenly, marine researchers began stuffing bottles with notes by the thousands and tossing them out to sea. Many were made to sink and follow sub-surface currents. These bottles were heavy-duty, built and sealed to withstand the punishing ocean environment. It was a case of convergence: At the same time that bottles became stronger and more reliable as watertight vessels, scientists were using them in increasing numbers to study ocean currents.

Throughout this time, the fad of sending messages in bottles continued among normal folks. The fad blew up in the 19th century after the idea was popularized by Edgar Allen Poe and Charles Dickens. Some of the oldest messages in bottles ever found come from normal folks, out on walks or cruises.

World's oldest messages in bottles - The 108 Year Old Bottle Marianne Winkler Found from Scientist George Parker Bidder

The second-oldest message in a bottle ever found, at 108 years old, was found by retired German postal worker Marianne Winkler. Photo: Winkler Family.

List of the Oldest Messages in Bottles Ever Found

I have collected here the world’s oldest messages in bottles that have been verified, and the stories behind them. Sometimes, very little is known about such old messages in bottles; other times, surprising troves of information are available.

Enjoy this journey through the past! And let me know if there is a story you think I should include here.

  1. This 132 year old message in a bottle is the oldest ever found.
  2. 108 year old message.
  3. 107 year old message in a bottle.
  4. 101 year old message in a bottle.
  5. 98 year old message in a bottle.
  6. 88 year old message in a bottle.

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