“Ascend the great staircase. Look up at the stars. See Shakespeare, Newton, Dante, and many others in gothic arched glory,” reads part of a clue guiding visitors through UT’s Hoskins Library building. This isn’t just any scavenger hunt, but rather an example of a complicated, eccentric and highly-addictive pursuit called letterboxing.
Letterboxing is a kind of treasure-hunting, half-sport, half-hobby, that involves using maps, clues and compasses to look for hidden containers. Once the letterbox container is found, the letterboxer inks a unique stamp found in the box and presses it into his notebook. Then he inks his personal stamp (most letterboxers carve their own unique stamps) and leaves his mark in a small book that is kept in the box. The letterboxer then reseals the box, returns it to its hiding place, and is off to seek the next letterbox.
Letterboxing can be traced back to 1854 in England, when a Victorian gentleman placed his calling card in a bottle and stuck it into a bank at Cranmere Pool in a remote part of Dartmoor National Park in Devon. Other walkers who found the bottle left their cards or a postcard that the next walker could send back to its owner. As late as the 1970s, there were only a few dozen letterboxes on Dartmoor, but by then rubber stamps had replaced calling cards and postcards. Since then, the number of boxes has exploded. There are now thousands of letterboxes hidden on Dartmoor and the hobby has spread internationally. There are more than twenty letterbox sites in Knoxville, and many more throughout the region.