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October 9, 2008 5:27 AM   Subscribe

Return to sender: Artist puts Royal Mail to the test - "To put them to the test, Harriet Russell concealed the addresses of 130 letters to herself in a series of increasingly complex puzzles and ciphers. Among the disguises she employed were dot-to-dot drawings, anagrams and cartoons. The answer, it seems, was very far indeed. Amazingly, only 10 failed to complete their journey back to her." Be sure to click the "more pictures" link to the right for more samples. Via one.point.zero.
posted by nthdegx (56 comments total) 35 users marked this as a favorite

 
Cool. More pix with this story. To get the rest, you apparently have to buy the book.
posted by beagle at 5:35 AM on October 9, 2008 [1 favorite]


After a while, wouldn't they start just delivering any weird mail to her address? It also makes sense that they would already know the answer to her "riddles" which would make solving them much easier.

I'd like to see it where each envelope is sent to a different address, see if that makes for a better test.

Probably wouldn't be as much fun though, or sell as many books.
posted by synthetik at 5:49 AM on October 9, 2008 [1 favorite]


Ruhspec'. Total ruhspec' for any community where a postal worker accurately solves crossword puzzles to do his/her job. I... err, wouldn't have figured that one out, specifically clue 5. :-| It's not just the sheer brainitude-ness of it all, but it's a heartwarming hey-I-can-play-your-game attitude.
posted by the cydonian at 5:51 AM on October 9, 2008


Reminds me of this story where the sender just drew a map on the envelope: "A map of Cornwall, Devon and Somerset was sketched on the envelope with a dot drawn in north Cornwall and an arrow saying "Somewhere Here"." (There used to be a picture online, but haven't been able to find it right now.)
posted by inigo2 at 5:55 AM on October 9, 2008


I don't know if "amazingly" is the right word. If you worked at the most boring place on the planet (the post office) doing the most boring job (sorting mail) and then a series of interesting post cards came through that tested your professional abilities in a fun way, you and your pals at work would find time to solve them. If she had addressed one to "The woman in a pink dress getting off the number X bus at Y Square on [date]"), I think someone might have been standing there waiting to deliver it to her just for the fun of it.
posted by pracowity at 5:56 AM on October 9, 2008


After a while, wouldn't they start just delivering any weird mail to her address? It also makes sense that they would already know the answer to her "riddles" which would make solving them much easier.

Ah, but these were delivered from various places. At least, picture five originated in the United States. So there were different people helping to figure out the puzzles/interpret the addresses in order to route the mail.
posted by inigo2 at 5:58 AM on October 9, 2008


This is similar to a check xkcd author Randall Munroe wrote after being frustrated with trying to explain the difference between $.02 and $0.0002 to a Verizon representative.
posted by anifinder at 5:58 AM on October 9, 2008 [3 favorites]


The Postal Museum in Ottawa had a wonderful exhibit of hand-illustrated envelopes when I was there a few years ago. More like what her grandfather did, but I'd think the workers would enjoy both.
posted by QIbHom at 6:13 AM on October 9, 2008


I'm always stymied by stories like this. LETTER GETS TO RECIPIENT 300 YEARS LATER! PUZZLES NO MATCH FOR MAIL BOFFINS! And yet if I haven't cleared every flake of snow from in front of my mailbox, I get a snarky note that my mail couldn't be delivered (so how did the note get there?).

Still, sounds like an interesting book that either my wife or I might enjoy (she likes postcards, I like puzzles).

I'm surprised the usual suspects haven't called her a christwhatanasshole for burdening postal workers with this....yet.
posted by DU at 6:18 AM on October 9, 2008


Nice story, thanks!
posted by languagehat at 6:26 AM on October 9, 2008


I thought the same thing as synthetik, I can picture the postmen saying "Another bloody prank letter for number 17". I'm curious to see which ones didn't get through, so I just ordered this one from the library. Looks like fun. The envelopes are lovely.
posted by jamesonandwater at 6:26 AM on October 9, 2008


(working link to xkcd verizon check)
posted by DU at 6:31 AM on October 9, 2008 [1 favorite]


My dad once got a letter addressed to "The man with the dogs, [town]", which is quite impressive considering it's a town of 13,000 people and he only had two dogs.
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 6:36 AM on October 9, 2008 [1 favorite]


Cerberus and Baskerville, I'm guessing.
posted by Phanx at 6:41 AM on October 9, 2008 [2 favorites]


Reminds me of the (possibly apocryphal) story of a letter with the following address being delivered:

Wood
John
Mass

(John Underwood, Andover, MA)
posted by djb at 6:42 AM on October 9, 2008 [15 favorites]


dammit djb, you beat me to it!
posted by nax at 6:43 AM on October 9, 2008


When I was in Basic Training they made us write home at least once a week. I would often make up addresses like, "Third White House On the Right," just to see if it would get there. Or send it close enough. Like to a neighbor, with instructions "Please give to my Dad."

All of them got there.

I also got clever while I was there and wrote 48 "love letters" to my then girlfriend. I found someone from each of the states. I had a them all written, and each letter would say, "I love you from Florida," "Thinking of you in Texas," etc. They would them have the postmark from that state (I took care of Georgia and Iowa).

I asked these people to mail them when they got home. After Basic Training was over and these people went back to the homes the letters started trickling in. We of course broke up.

6 years later when many of these guys were getting out, they came across these letters and dropped them in the mail. I think she said she ended up getting 35 out of 48. Like 13 right away, some trickling in over the next year or so, then the rest in a slurry at the end.
posted by cjorgensen at 6:43 AM on October 9, 2008 [6 favorites]


My dad once got a letter addressed to "The man with the dogs, [town]", which is quite impressive considering it's a town of 13,000 people and he only had two dogs.

Yes. Still, who else would know more about dog owners than the people walking up to front doors every day? There must have been something that made them think about your father as a pretty good candidate for the man with the dogs.
posted by pracowity at 6:50 AM on October 9, 2008


My wife often gets mail that's addressed a) to her maiden name and b) at her parent's address. It's around the corner from us and the mailwoman knows both families, although only from our mail. (I've often wondered what she thinks we're doing now that we've started Postcrossing.)
posted by DU at 6:52 AM on October 9, 2008


I worked at a company called oneNest that sold handcrafted gift stuff, mostly made by NGOs in developing countries. One time someone in Nepal sent us a package of samples addressed to One Nest, New York, USA. It was actually delivered to 1 West St. and the doorman looked up oneNest in the phone book and called us so we could pick up the package.
posted by snofoam at 6:54 AM on October 9, 2008


Well, at least they didn't dump the mail under a viaduct and set fire to it, which would have been the Chicago solution to the puzzles.
posted by aramaic at 7:06 AM on October 9, 2008 [9 favorites]


I've addressed mail to "The gray house with white trim at the corner of X Street & Y Road, Town, Zip" and had it delivered successfully. Sounds like the mail carriers are into their work, which is a fine thing. I like this story a lot; it makes the world a tiny bit more personal, also a fine thing.

Thanks for posting.
posted by theora55 at 7:37 AM on October 9, 2008


Contrast with this country, where a clearly, otherwise correctly addressed letter to me was returned to sender because only the last digit of the zip code was incorrect. It went to the adjacent zip code in my city, had the name of my city in the last line and still was somehow too baffling to decipher. Not that a machine made the mistake--it was covered with hand written comments and hand stamps by more than one person saying it was undeliverable.
posted by buzzv at 7:39 AM on October 9, 2008


There was a department in the post office in Terry Pratchett's novel Making Money that did exactly this, except the puzzles they solved were created unintentionally by terrible spelling and vague addresses like "by that one bakery near a pharmacy or something."
posted by ignignokt at 7:54 AM on October 9, 2008


@ignignokt, but it too Vetinari to sort out the really difficult ones.
posted by kalessin at 8:38 AM on October 9, 2008


Er, took, sorry.
posted by kalessin at 8:39 AM on October 9, 2008


Great story, thanks! Also, some of the comments to the Indie article are particularly miserable:

So that is why mail is often late, postmen trying solve inane puzzles. Ms Russell please get a life and let postmen get on with delivering mail from people who know how to write a proper address to the people waiting for their mail. Infantile.

Posted by Peersrogue | 09.10.08, 11:12 GMT


Sounds a bit twattish, is she following a long Ponsonby family tradition teasing the hired help, asking the maid to clean the toilet and leaving aa series of clues as tio wyhere the wire brush is. Jolly spiffing sport wot wot!
Amazing how ones connections can get one a publishing contact for any old dross. 3 Huzzahs for the good old Bwitish class system!

Posted by Bitwize | 09.10.08, 11:34 GMT


posted by patricio at 8:41 AM on October 9, 2008


The audio recording re that XKCD/Verizon billing issue has me simultaneously laughing, crying, and convulsing in sympathy.

Who among us, my fellow prisoners, has not endured a phone call like that?
posted by rokusan at 9:06 AM on October 9, 2008


The puzzles they solved were created unintentionally by terrible spelling and vague addresses like "by that one bakery near a pharmacy or something."

You now understand how street addresses work in Tokyo. Seriously.
posted by rokusan at 9:07 AM on October 9, 2008 [1 favorite]


I can't find it anywhere on the modern web, but here's the archive.org version; IIRC the story is some french eBay seller had some encoding issues with a russian email, causing him to hand-write an address full of kryakozyabry (the russian word for the gobbledygook you get when you don't transcode text properly).

Some intrepid postal worker managed to decode it.
posted by aubilenon at 9:15 AM on October 9, 2008 [1 favorite]


I love the surrealness to this, thanks for the link!
posted by Alexandra Kitty at 9:25 AM on October 9, 2008


Reminds me of the (possibly apocryphal) story of a letter with the following address being delivered:

Wood
John
Mass

(John Underwood, Andover, MA)


Quite possibly apochryphal I remember hearing the same thing as a kid but with a UK slant, did it happen with regard to either?

Wood
John
Hants

Reflecting the English town of Andover in Hampshire (which I assume is where the Mass. name comes from).
posted by biffa at 9:30 AM on October 9, 2008


I received someone else's mail the other week. It was addressed to [my street address], Cambridge ON. I live in Cambridge MA.

So not only was it the wrong town, it was the wrong freaking country. Congratulations!
posted by backseatpilot at 9:34 AM on October 9, 2008 [1 favorite]


These are fun. The only postal story I have is borrowed. A relation of mine used to live in the far North of Canada. When he wanted to write his mother in a particularly small, unusually named town in Ontario he wrote:
Loli, Wilno.
His mom received the letter a few days later.
posted by Popular Ethics at 9:59 AM on October 9, 2008 [1 favorite]


When my best friend and I left for separate colleges (back in the 80s when long distance calls were expensive), we used to write each other fairly regularly. She quickly got bored with the standard address format and began a tradition of changing the recipient's name, hiding the address in illustrations, making the part beyond city and state very detailed but non-standard ("The long-haired girl with the shirtless boyfriend at the end of the pink hall in the dorm next to the stadium," etc.). I gave it a shot, too, but she was definitely the more creative. It was fun and silly and as far as I know all of the letters got delivered.
posted by notashroom at 10:10 AM on October 9, 2008


apparently, back in the '50s or '60s, somebody wrote a letter to Hugh Hefner and on the outside of the envelope the only mark was the playboy bunny logo. (Today this doesn't sound like much of a stretch, of course.)

When the letter was delivered and Hef opened it, it was from a friend, and the text of the letter was "If you receive this, then you know you have arrived."
posted by djfiander at 10:23 AM on October 9, 2008


I first saw the xkcd check in an email, accompanied by a very tortured explanation that the check was for about two dollars. I wept.
posted by kaibutsu at 10:36 AM on October 9, 2008


When I lived in New Haven and wrote to people in the same city, I would end both their and my addresses with "City" instead of "New Haven," a fine old tradition I'd continue if I still wrote actual letters.
posted by languagehat at 11:03 AM on October 9, 2008


a fine old tradition I'd continue if I still wrote actual letters.
But it wouldn't work. All your letters are scooped up from your local mailboxes and sent directly to a sectional sorting facility, of which there is only one in western Massachusetts (Springfield). So once in the stream there, they would have no idea what city you're talking about.
posted by beagle at 11:11 AM on October 9, 2008


We are good friends with the people at [my street address] on [my street number plus one] and [my street address] at [my street number minus one] as a result of exchanging misdelivered mail, although I wish the people on [my street number minus one] would stop having heavy motorcycle parts delivered. I did appreciate them coming to pick up the pig roaster that got deposited in front of my door.
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 11:11 AM on October 9, 2008


This reminds me of Bill Bryson lamenting at the US postal system refusing to deliver mail with one digit off on the zipcode whereas in Britain, he got mail if it was addressed to "Bill Bryson. Writer. Somewhere in Britain." (I think they narrowed it down to his county, but I'm not remembering off the top of my head what it was.)

It's also a pretty awesome art project.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 11:21 AM on October 9, 2008


GAMES magazine used to (still do?) publish an "envelope of the month", being addressed to them in artful ways with a puzzle theme. Some were just art, others were real gotta-solve-them puzzles. I suppose that the various dead-letter offices (I think there are about a dozen nationally) where these may have ended up tended to recognize where it was supposed to go after a while. But very often things like crosswords were filled in from the clues, rather than just some sticker being slapped on the front.
posted by dhartung at 11:21 AM on October 9, 2008


The Annals of Improbable Research did something similar (though less artistic) with the USPS.
posted by jeffamaphone at 11:40 AM on October 9, 2008


Wow. I am buying this book. That is all.
posted by rokusan at 11:54 AM on October 9, 2008


But it wouldn't work. All your letters are scooped up from your local mailboxes and sent directly to a sectional sorting facility, of which there is only one in western Massachusetts (Springfield). So once in the stream there, they would have no idea what city you're talking about.

*cries*
posted by languagehat at 2:30 PM on October 9, 2008


My Uncle used to have a friend everyone called Cape Cod Bob. Someone who couldn't remember his address (or, evidently, his real name) sent him a postcard from overseas addressed to

Cape Cod Bob
Cape Cod
USA

And it got to him. I always thought that was pretty awesome.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 2:30 PM on October 9, 2008


Back when Ripley's was The Thing, folk would send submissions to him with similarly unlikely address concepts. Wish I could link to examples, but I fail.

Nice, by the way, that the NYCity cab cartoon managed to get out of the US. I'd been worrying about my countrymen until I saw that one.
posted by IndigoJones at 3:10 PM on October 9, 2008


The audio recording re that XKCD/Verizon billing issue has me simultaneously laughing, crying, and convulsing in sympathy.

Who among us, my fellow prisoners, has not endured a phone call like that?
posted by rokusan at 9:06 AM on October 9


That was very very sad. And I have never had to endured a call like that, thank god.
posted by Vindaloo at 3:31 PM on October 9, 2008


This wouldn't work in Brooklyn.

We keep getting mail for apartment 17 in our 2 apartment building.
posted by deliquescent at 4:24 PM on October 9, 2008


I used to live in Woodcock St, in the next suburb over there was a Woolcock St. At our street number in Woolcock St there was a Peugeot repair place. We had a steady stream of car parts, large and small, delivered to us while we were there.

In a book on Don Bradman I used to have there was a picture of a letter he received that was addressed with just a photo of him cropped to show only his eyes.
posted by markr at 4:33 PM on October 9, 2008


Her website

I too was reminded of the annals of improbable research. Also of the cameramail, where the artist mailed a camera though postal system asking postal carrier to snap pics.

The best mail hack I heard of was a friend of a friend mailed a box with jerryrigged clock parts a view port cut in with the address displayed. After a set amount of time the the mechanism with rotate showing a completely different address, like a viewmaster with a timer. Eventually the windings ran down, giving a final destination and a box covered in transfer stamps.
posted by MiltonRandKalman at 4:38 PM on October 9, 2008 [2 favorites]


It's a little depressing that every time one encounters a seemingly interesting story lately, it turns out that the whole thing was an elaborate ploy for a book deal.
posted by paisley henosis at 7:53 PM on October 9, 2008 [1 favorite]


I received someone else's mail the other week. It was addressed to [my street address], Cambridge ON. I live in Cambridge MA.

So not only was it the wrong town, it was the wrong freaking country. Congratulations!

Right continent at least (not Cambridge UK).
posted by ersatz at 7:09 AM on October 10, 2008


Fantastic. And I'll have to ask my postman about this - I live one street over from Harriet's old flat in Glasgow.
posted by jack_mo at 10:35 AM on October 10, 2008


I think I remember hearing that back when Richard Whiteley presented Countdown, he used to get fan mail addressed to "Dick, England" and "First Class Dick".
posted by knapah at 8:36 AM on October 11, 2008


So I got the book from the library (Toronto public library has it, if anyone's interested) and it is lovely. In addition to a note at the beginning from Royal Mail encouraging people to address their letters properly, it mentions that her mum kept envelopes with 270 different spellings of her childhood home's name and that her great-great-grandfather painted decorative envelopes. So she had quite an inspiring background for this project!
posted by jamesonandwater at 10:42 AM on October 19, 2008


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