History of Letterboxing

Adventure, treasure hunting, navigating and records of achievement all combined to create a fun, family friendly hobby of letterboxing. This hobby is enjoyed by thousands of people, seeking only to find boxes from clues and put their stamp of achievement on the log book. Some were born into this hobby, following parents to these “treasures” and some came upon the discovery of this with an Internet search, but how did letterboxing begin?

Back in 1854 James Perrot, an avid hiker, decided to place a bottle along the banks of Cranmere Pool in Dartmoor, England, a very wild almost inaccessible area. Perrot left his “calling card” for future visitors so they could contact him and were told to leave their calling cards as well. Because it was such a challenge to get to the location of the letterbox, they were quite proud to reach it and could record the achievement and leave calling cards. Although not many people took James Perrott’s calling cards, later in 1888 the bottle was replaced by a tin box and visitors left postcards with their addresses for other visitors to mail them back. If someone visited in the same day as another, they’d only leave their own postcard and mail postcards from other days.

By 1905 more people were coming to find the letterbox, so they put in a logbook instead and decided to replace the tin box with a zinc box. Then on July 22, 1907 John H. Strother wrote his suggestion that a rubber stamp be used instead, similar to the stamps for postmarking letters or stamping addresses on envelopes. He said this would also prove that cards had really come from Cranmere. Because of his suggestion, it was done and letterboxes are now known to contain a log book and rubber stamp.

James Perrott’s letterbox was the only one until forty years later another was place in Belstone Tor. Then another forty-four years after that a third letterbox was placed at Ducks Pool. Finally within 122 years there were fifteen letterboxes in Dartmoor.  In 1976 Tom Gant designed a map to show where all fifteen of the boxes were and this increased the popularity of letterboxing because it wasn’t quite so hard. Suddenly within the next year the number of boxes tripled. In the 1980s there were thousands of boxes and letterboxing became a very popular hobby. People began to want to be able to be distinguished from others so they created descriptive names and unique stamps to mark letterboxes they found. Some people even carved their own elaborate stamps.

After all this time, people sadly began to ruin the sport by destroying historic places to place boxes and marking locations of others. Godfrey Swinscow quickly came in to save the hobby by speaking with the officials in Dartmor, coming up with three rules. His rules stated that boxes could no longer be sited in any historic places, boxes should not be placed anywhere dangerous where injuries could occur and they could not be sited as a fixture with cement or any other building material. Letterboxing continued to grow in popularity.

There continued to be more boxes placed and the 100 Club was formed to recognize those who found at least 100 letterboxes.  Though no meetings or such took place for this club, members had access to the official clue book.  Godfrey was technically the president of this club, though it technically didn’t exist and was more of just an achievement. Because no fees were required and no meetings held, nearly 14,000 members were part of this club by March 2006.

Until April 1998, letterboxing was mainly a hobby exclusive to Dartmoor. April 1998 was when the Smithsonian magazine published an article in the USA about this hobby. Many people liked the idea of the treasure hunting type hobby and a few people then found each other through the Internet. These people began emailing and hiding boxes in the US, starting in Tennessee, Vermont and Oregon. Only a short time later, this hobby spread to Connecticut and Rhode Island by way of the EMS Store in the Crystal Mall in Waterford, Connecticut placing and listing clues for boxes for their customers.

Gradually Letterboxing North America (LbNA) was founded and by 2001 at least 1000 letterboxes were hidden around the entire US. Travelers began hiding boxes all around the world. In 2004 Ryan Carpenter began to create a logbook online to record all the locations found and planted, called Atlas Quest. From this came the online city search. Atlas Quest also grew into virtual letterboxing and message boards while the LbNA continues to support the original type of letterboxing known before it spread to the US. Currently there are about 20,000 letterboxes around North America with the best box locations being spread by word of mouth rather than online.

Now days most letterboxes do contain a log book, people create their own stamps and their own special names to use in the books. Sometimes this is a family activity and sometimes a die-hard individual who seeks to find every box. Most boxes are in England, with many in North America, and likely few in other countries. Hunters often only need a map, pencil and some basic navigational skills as well as their own personal stamp and inkpad. Most often the boxes are hidden in very remote or at least very interesting places. In England clues are found in special magazines, in America most are given on the Internet. If someone wants to get involved in this activity it is suggested to check out the LbNA website.