17th-century postmasters' trunk contains thousands of undelivered letters

One trunk. Three centuries. And some 2,600 letters -- 600 of which have never been opened.
The late 17th-century trunk in which the undelivered letters and postmasters' administration were kept. (©Signed, Sealed & Undelivered Team, 2015/Museum voor Communicatie, The Hague, Netherlands)
Listen6:04

It is a historian's dream -- and for an international team of researchers, an exciting but exacting task: to pore through the piles of undelivered correspondence from the late 17th and early 18th centuries.

The trunk belonged to a Dutch couple in The Hague, who served as postmaster and postmistress in the city between 1676 and 1707. It was donated to a postal museum in 1926, but its contents remained unexamined until now.

Luckily for us, the postmaster actually indicated on each letter why it wasn't delivered, whether that be 'dead', 'can't find the person', 'moved to London', 'missing', or 'refused the letter'.- Rebekah   Ahrendt , assistant professor of music at Yale

Rebekah Ahrendt is an assistant professor of music at Yale, and a member of the research team. Three years ago, while researching an 18th-century theatre troupe based in The Hague, she stumbled on a notice describing the letters at the museum -- which included several short transcriptions of them.

Yale assistant music professor Rebekah Ahrendt (©Signed, Sealed & Undelivered Team, 2015/Museum voor Communicatie, The Hague, Netherlands)

"I had read a piece about it from a 1938 notice, published in a French journal," she tells As it Happens host Carol Off. She then did some legwork to determine whether the trunk still existed and was still accessible. "When I finally figured out which museum it was in, and actually went into the museum and saw the materials, it was really breathtaking."

The research team has dubbed the project "Signed, Sealed & Undelivered." Written in six languages, the letters offer a glimpse into European life of the period -- across several cultures and classes, from aristocrats to mostly illiterate peasants who would have engaged professional letter writers to pen their messages.

This letter was severely burnt and needs treatment from conservation expert Jana Dambrogio (MIT) before it can be scanned. (©Signed, Sealed & Undelivered Team, 2015/Museum voor Communicatie, The Hague, Netherlands)

"One of my favourites is from a bassist who worked in a theatre troupe in Tours, in France," says Ahrendt. "[He] writes to an old colleague in The Hague looking for a better job. He went from Latvia to Hamburg, he went from Hamburg to Brussels, from Brussels to Paris, and then finally ended up in Tours. So it's quite amazing to us to think about people moving around such vast distances for employment at that time."

She explains that the letters didn't get delivered for any number of reasons. "Luckily for us, the postmaster actually indicated on each letter why it wasn't delivered, whether that be 'dead', 'can't find the person', 'moved to London', 'missing', or 'refused the letter', she says.

Unfolded letter (©Signed, Sealed & Undelivered Team, 2015/Museum voor Communicatie, The Hague, Netherlands)

At that time, she says, there was no "return to sender" service in operation. So anyone wishing to return a letter would still be required to pay the required postage fee.

Ahrendt explains why the postmaster couple kept all the letters sealed in the trunk in the first place. They were motivated purely by economics.

Gold wax seal (©Signed, Sealed & Undelivered Team, 2015/Museum voor Communicatie, The Hague, Netherlands)

"They kept very detailed accounts of them, and referred to the undelivered letters as their piggybank -- knowing that perhaps someday somebody would come and pay the price of the letter. We know that they had a very high mark-up as well. So the actual costs of handling the mail service were highly marked up in the letters."

The researchers do not intend to open any of the 600 letters that remain sealed, for fear of damaging them. Instead, they are investigating ways of reading the contents without having to open them.

"One of the methods that we're currently exploring is with a group at Queen Mary University of London. They are using X-ray microtomography to be read fragile documents -- or in our case, documents that are still sealed. Ink at that time had iron content, and so therefore X-rays can read it. We're very encouraged by the results...from our experiments, and are hoping to work together with programmers who can write algorithms, to then unfold the data that we've acquired from our imaging."

    

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