November 16, 2015

Re-discovered dead letter archive offers rare insight into 17th-century life



Courtesy of the Museum voor Communicatie, The Hague.

There’s mystery and romance in the idea of an unread letter, used as a plot device by such writers as Shakespeare, Colum McCann, and Martin Amis.

The recent rediscovery of a trunk of letters in the collection of the Museum voor Communicatie in the Netherlands promises to reveal details about the everyday concerns of people in France, Spain, and the Spanish Netherlands during the 17th century—concerns that were never relayed to their intended recipients.

The 2,600 undelivered letters, 600 of which have never been opened, were saved by the postmasters “because their recipients could not be found or would not pay outstanding postage costs,” explained Sharon Lacey at MIT Libraries.

“The trunk has been stored in The Hague’s Museum voor Communicatie since 1926. Now, an international team of experts from MIT, Yale University, University of Leiden, University of Groningen, and Oxford University is exploring each missive in a ground-breaking project called ‘Signed, Sealed, and Undelivered.’”

Researchers involved with the project are using techniques such as 3-D X-ray microtomography to capture the text of the letters without breaking their wax seals or undoing the complex folding—called “letterlocking”—that was used in place of the modern envelope. One of these researchers is Jana Dambrogio of MIT, whose pioneering study of letterlocking techniques was reported by Eve M. Kahn in The New York Times earlier this year.

The letters, in six languages including Dutch, French, Spanish, and Latin, were written between 1680 and 1706, and offer telling portraits of individuals from varying classes, and with different levels of education. As Daniel Starza Smith of Oxford University told The Guardian:

“Most documents that survive from this period record the activities of elites—aristocrats and their bureaucrats, or rich merchants—so these letters will tell us new things about an important section of society in 17th-century Europe. These are the kinds of people whose records frequently don’t survive, so this is a fantastic opportunity to hear new historical voices.”

Reporting for the Telegraph, David Chazin described one unopened letter addressed to a wealthy merchant from someone writing “on behalf of a woman who feared an unwanted pregnancy.” It reads:

“You can divine without difficulty the true cause of her despair…I cannot put it into so many words; what I ought to say to you is so excessive. Content yourself with thinking on it, and returning her to life by procuring her return.”

Aside from their historical value, the letters offer exquisite examples of the artistry once involved in routine correspondence. The Guardian featured a photo of a delicate paper cutout of a dove that was included with one of them. Sample shots and scans of the letters are also archived and available for viewing on the project’s website.



Kait Howard is a publicist at Melville House.