The Map as Address: Cryptic Letter Reaches Icelandic Destination

The sender didn’t have a name nor an address for his letter. So he drew a map instead.

Want to send a letter but don't have the full address? Why not draw a map of your destination on the envelope? As in this case, it just might work. 

A tourist back in Reykjavik from a trip to western Iceland wanted to send a thank-you note to a couple he met in the town of Búðardalur. But he didn't have their addresses, nor even know their names. Refusing to throw in the towel, he wrote down a detailed description of the couple on the envelope – a horse farm with an Icelandic/Danish couple and three kids and a lot of sheep – and drew a map of the area.

 The map shows Búðardalur, on the shore of the Hvammsfjörður, and the numbered roads connecting the remote location to the rest of Iceland. A red dot on the north shore of the fjord marks the site of the horse farm. The sender had another clue for the local mailman: The Danish woman works in a supermarket in Búðardalur.

The letter reached its destination. Which is nice, but perhaps not so surprising. Iceland's human geography played in its favour. It's a lot easier to find someone in Iceland, because there are so few other Icelanders to confuse them with. Cleveland, Ohio has more inhabitants than the whole of Iceland, which is home to a third of a million people. Over two-thirds of those live in and around the capital, Reykjavik. The remaining hundred thousand people are scattered in tiny, mostly coastal settlements across the vast, treeless island, which is about the same size as Kentucky. 

Búðardalur is a small town with a long history. It dates from the time of the first Norse settlement of Iceland, in the late 9th century. Nearby is the birthplace of Erik the Red, who discovered Greenland from there. His son Leif Erikson went even further west and landed in America, almost five centuries before Columbus. 

Despite its thousand-year history, Búðardalur has no more than 270 inhabitants. It's a service centre for the wider region, with a petrol station, hair salons, a pub/restaurant, a coffee shop, a health care centre, a liquor shop, a garage – and yes, a supermarket. With, if the letter is still up to date, at least one Danish employee.

But just how recent is the letter? It was stamped on the 29th of March 20-- (last two digits unreadable), so anywhere between half a year and a just over a decade and a half. Old enough, in any case, to have become something of an evergreen, surfacing at least twice on Reddit, here and here.

The map-as-address is a rare cartographic example of a fairly frequent postal phenomenon: cryptic addressing. 

A cryptic address goes against convention and common sense. Both dictate that a letter should be addressed as precisely as possible. Usually with the name of the addressee at the top and the largest relevant administrative unit – be it state, province or country – at the bottom. In between: as few lines as possible plotting a pathway between both, with the aid of a town name and post code, a street name and house number. 

By necessity or design, cryptic addresses leave out much of the required information. The letter-writer might not remember the entire address, but decide to take their chances anyway. And/or they might be reasonably sure that the mail delivery service will figure out the letter's final destination anyway. Another possibility is that they see cryptic addressing as a sport – a good-natured battle of wits with the postal service.

One such scribe is James Addison, a graphic designer based in Poole, who decided to test the problem-solving capacity of the Royal Mail by sending out envelopes using an acrostichon, a drawing of the building, or even an address rendered entirely in Morse code as directional clues. See this video and this article for more on his postal puzzlers.

Irishman David Curran is a kindred spirit. He runs a Tumblr blog called Me versus An Post – the name of the Irish national postal service – on which he details attempts to send mail in the weirdest ways possible, both by others and by himself. In the latter category are attempts including an address using a wheel mechanism, a jigsaw puzzle and a Moebius strip. As mentioned in this article in the Journal, Mr. Curran got his inspiration from a paper on Postal Experiments published in the Journal of Improbable Research, for which the authors, in order to test the limits of the U.S. Postal Service, sent a variety of unpackaged items to U.S. destinations, appropriately stamped for weight and size: “We sent items that loosely fit into the following general categories: valuable, sentimental, unwieldy, pointless, potentially suspicious, and disgusting”.

Third of a kind is Harriet Russell, a British artist who used the Royal Mail as an involuntary partner in her mail art project. Her envelopes contain addresses rendered as mazes, puns, wordplay, anagrams, etc. In 2005, she filled a book with the most curious examples. You can still order Envelopes: A Puzzling Journey through the Royal Mail online, but don't count on the computer-generated address label on your delivery to be as witty and clever as the contents of the book. 

The comments section of the Reddit thread figured out the likeliest location for the mysterious horse farm in western Iceland – here – and mentions quite a few other examples of the “and yet it arrived” trope (1). Here are a few notable ones – of which curiously many occur in Ireland.

  • On holiday in the Himalayas, my parents stayed with a shepherd who lived in a hut in the middle of nowhere. They asked for his address to send him a postcard when they got home. It was: The shepherd <Name>, Himalayas. A few months after sending it, they got a reply from him. 
  • I mailed four potatoes this past St. Patrick's Day to my friends. Worked liked a charm.
  • I sent a postcard from Tokyo to The Mumbles in Wales addressed to: The Black Mercedes, Residents Parking, then the name of the street. They put it under the windscreen wiper. It was to a lady who used to give me a lift to work before I moved to Tokyo. She was fiercely territorial about her parking space. 
  • Reminds me of mailing letters in Managua. They haven't had street signs since the 1972 earthquake, so if you want to address a letter you have to basically write directions on the envelope. 
  • I used to live on Ascension island, and one year my friend in England sent me a card addressed: Pauly, Ascension island. And it got to me. Which was especially odd because that year Royal Mail screwed up all the mail to Ascension island and sent it to Ascunsion in Paraguay. The only Christmas card I received was his. 
  • My Irish friend sent his mom a letter addressed simply to her name – a very common one in Ireland – and her county. Naturally, it was delivered without issue, and even arrived with a note from the postman asking how her son was getting on in America, ha! 
  • My friend's brother got a letter delivered to him in Ireland with the address: Your man Henderson, That boy with the glasses doing the PhD up here in Queens in Belfast, Co. Donegal. Inside was a note from his friend in Belfast that just said: If you get this, you live in a village. (More on that in this Guardian article). 
  • Our ship, the USS Spruance DD-963, had pulled into Helsinki for a visit in high summer, 1996. On duty days, I was one of the tour guides in dress blues for the local Finns who wanted tours of the ship of which there were many.I had an older couple who wanted to pose for a picture on the Harpoon deck, as we called it, where the two quadruple Harpoon missile launchers were located. I smiled, stood tall in the middle while one of the other tourists took the picture. Lo and behold, almost 7 months later here is that picture of myself and the couple, addressed and with postage as a post card. All they knew was the ship's name and put that on the right side, delineated in pen, and packed on the postage and addressed it to, US Sailor. That picture made it from Helsinki across the Baltic and Atlantic to Jacksonville, Florida and our ship's post office seven months later. It is one of my more treasured possessions from my time in the Navy. 
  • We used to do this in Ireland all the time, and would sit in the bar having competitions on how vague we could make it. Once, on holiday in Cork, we sent my uncle in Belfast one that said: To the big man with the ginger hair, who lives around the corner from Dan Boyle's and used to work at the mechanics - Belfast. Have a good one, we're all here gettin' steamin' without ye! He received it from the postman two days later! 
  • My mom got a letter addressed to The woman with the twin boys and the little blonde girl, who lives outside of (smalltown)
  • Reminds me of the anecdote about the post delivering letters to Albert Einstein addressed simply "Einstein, USA". 
  • There's an island in Denmark called Samsø. My mother's brother is one of the about 4,000 people who live there. His name is Hans-Jørgen, but he goes by 'Sjørn'. He is one of the few islanders able to repair boat motors, and has fixed hundreds of them on tourist boats. He doesn't like charging for his services, so he gets quite a lot of thank you letters, many addressed simply to: Sjørn, Samsø, Denmark
  • Reminds me of an old puzzle where an envelope was addressed:
  • Wood



    (John Underwood, Andover, Massachusetts)

  • 50 years ago my uncle wrote my great-grandmother with the simple address: Grandma Kinsley, Kansas. This is a town that had about 2,200 people then. The mailman approached my great-grandmother and said, "Mary, could this be yours?" It was. 
  • I worked for a few years teaching on the Navajo reservation. A few of my kids had addresses that were like: Three miles past the big rock off the dirt road 22 miles down Route 342-43
  • I once had a summer job where mail 'delivery' involved a canvas sack of letters, thrown from a train, as it passed, without slowing. Our address was: 1/4 mile past the wrecked blue Volkswagen. Stuff got delivered. 
  • My mom lives in a little village in Mexico and doesn't have a specific address, so I haven't been able to send her mail. I'm considering using this technique! 
  • There is an old story that a fan once sent a letter to baseball player Joe Garagiola, addressed simply: Joe the Catcher, Arizona, and it was delivered by USPS. 
  • When I was a kid, my dad's mailing address was simply: (Dad's name), Rural Route 1, Wabash, Indiana. 
  • I have an old envelope where the entire address portion is: Mr. Scott, Spokane, WA. It was delivered successfully. 
  • Here's a cool article about French people who would send letters to the BBC in WWII, simply addressing it as: BBC, London, Angleterre.
  • I used to work as a mailman in a 2,000-resident village here in Finland. Once I got a letter that said 'Paul' and the area code where I delivered mail. I asked one of my older colleagues if they knew this Paul's address. I immediately got the right address and knew where to deliver said letter.
  • (1) Several commenters mention the what3words solution to addressing problems, now apparently adopted by the Mongolian postal service, and that system's suggestion as the address for the horse farm: shapeless barber goalpost. See also #761.

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