Sunday School: Rocket Post and Tin Can Mail

Many people have heard of Tin Can Mail, BUT, have you heard of Rocket Post? In Niafo’ou (Tonga) around the turn of the 20th century, mail was delivered to the island of Tonga by ship. The water around the island was too shallow for the ship to get close to the island, so the mail was placed in biscuit tins which was dropped into the water and retrieved by swimmers, who carried the tins to shore. Around the 1920’s, rubber stamps were created and used to postmark the mail as “Tin Can Mail” to document its arrival method. These mail items are popular among collectors because of their perceived rarity. Eventually the letters and postmarks became a bit of a philatelic gimmic because Cruise Ships would purposely take passengers to witness the “mail system” and collectors from around the world would send their mail to Niafo’ou to get the special postmark. The practice of retrieving mail by Tin Can ended in 1983 when the airstrip was built on the island.

Rocket Post was the precursor to Tin Can Mail.  As early as 1897, ships bringing mail to wealthy plantation owners tied the mail in bundles to rockets and fired them from the ships.  It was not a very successful means of transporting mail and therefore it was a short-lived practice.  The rockets were not very consistent in hitting their target – they overshot the island, fell short and landed in the water, or combusted with their cargo mid-flight. Rocket Post was replaced by Tin Can Mail which was more reliable, as long as there were swimmers that could spot the tin.

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