A speck of land off the coast of Massachusetts was once the center of a worldwide industry. Nantucket Island was the home port for most of the ships that hunted whale for the essential oil that fueled lamps in North American colonies and Europe.
Ships like Melville’s Pequot described in Moby Dick began a three month trip sailing south along the coasts of North and South America, before crossing the treacherous straits of Magellan to follow the coast of Chile North, finally bending northwest into the prime whaling grounds of the Pacific Ocean.
The journey ended at a nondescript island where sailors filled barrels with fresh water intended to last for the duration of their hunt. Arriving ships placed under a prominent rock packets of mail from home intended for the sailors already in the area. After six months harvesting whale oil, a homeward bound ship stopped at the island to refill water barrels before the trip home. For men already away from home over nine months, opening mail packets with news of family and friends a world away must have been sublime.
Information moved slowly, and news of a child’s birth or the death of a loved one was a bit old by the time it was read, but the system did work. And today we can look back and might consider the whalers’ rock as the world’s first mail server!
E-mail is today’s instant letter, electronic payment has replaced most bills, and the Postal Service is in the news, losing fortunes.
I check the mailbox less often these days. What spills out are mostly piles of wasted advertisements. But I can’t deny there is still a tiny excitement in opening the box’s silver flap, feeling a little like a sailor lifting the whaler’s rock.

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