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News, updates, and all kinds of goodies and stories from the postal world!

Blog > Tin can mail

On the remote country of Tonga in the South Pacific, there’s a very special island. It’s name is Niuafo’ou, but it’s most commonly known as Tin Can Island for the way mail was delivered and sent for many years.

The concept of Tin Can Mail started in 1882 in this island when William Travers, a plantation manager, found himself without a way to receive mail from the rest of the world. The island had no harbour and was very steep so ships wouldn’t go there. So he came up with the idea that mail could be delivered inside of the ships biscuit tin cans that would be thrown overboard when they were passing by! He proposed this to the Tongan postal authorities and soon mail started to be delivered this way. But, don’t think this was an easy feat! With strong sea currents and distances of over a mile, this meant that to retrieve mail they could have to swim up to 6 hours!

Eventually the Tin Can Mail became extremely popular and also a tradition and soon ships started to come with passengers just to watch this incredible way of mail delivery. In 1928, Walter George Quensell produced rubber stamps saying “TIN CAN MAIL” that started being applied to all outgoing letters – over one million and a half, Quensell claimed.

Tin Can Mail

This method of mail delivered continued for over 100 years and it only ended in 1983 when a small airport was built in the island. Nonetheless, the Tin Can Mail history will live forever with special Niuafo’ou stamps – created by the Tonga postal services -, and on the hands of many collectors who are lucky enough to have a letter with the “TIN CAN MAIL” stamp.

Oh, and if you want to learn more about Tin Can Mail, be sure to check this page where you can find a lot more details about it.

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17 comments so far

sonataca, United States of America
wow, nice idea
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sportyduck, Austria
that's really pretty cool :D
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okgurlatheart, United States of America
wow thats incredible!! Of course Id be mad if I swam 6 hours only to have junk mail. lol
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Serenosaur, United States of America
That's amazing!
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kela79, Finland
very cool!!!:)
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Felice1959, United States of America
Excellent mail trivia! I wonder how many of those tin cans got away?
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wunderland, Canada
Strange but true I guess :)
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azzucoloto, Brazil
The mail's journey was a real adventure! First, mail written in a incommon island for the age; second, it flies for some moments into a ship and then it's ready to travel aboard!!
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azzucoloto, Brazil
The mail's journey was a real adventure! First, mail written in a incommon island for the age; second, it flies for some moments into a ship and then it's ready to travel aboard!!
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TPL, Northern Mariana Islands
I lived in Nuku'alofa, Tonga in the 1990s and often heard the saga of Tin Can Mail. Also saw fruit shaped Tongan stamps including the rather famous banana.
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TPL, Northern Mariana Islands
Whoops, I posted the above comment from TPL our Library account. It was me not the Library who lived in Tonga. I am currently trying to interest Tongan friends in postcrossing.
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heyjude, United States of America
Hmmm - even though I thought I'd switched, that one went from TPL also. from heyjude.
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moonlessnite, Canada
I bet there are still a few "tin cans" floating around or stuck against a rock somewhere, that bears a lot lost love letter! How romantic. I would certainly loe to have a cancellation stamps from that place.
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geminiscp, Portugal
I would LOVE to receive some of those letters! They are amazing! :D

What a great story! :)
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pianista, Singapore
Thanks for posting this - very interesting!!! We must remember how fortunate we are to get our mail so conveniently these days. ;)
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mimicry, China
life like a can of letters.
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rodrigo_dvjr, Philippines
What a heroic way of receiving a mail! How I wish I could have at least one sample of this kind of mail!

I am just sad that this Tin Can Mail Delivery ended in 1983.
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