The 300-year-old linen-lined trunk is filled with over 2,600 letters that were mailed out—but never received—between the years 1680 and 1706. Historians are now taking a closer look.
The trunk, ignored for centuries, had been stored away by a Dutch postmaster in the Netherlands. The extraordinary collection contains letters from all manner of society, including aristocrats, merchants, lovers, actors, musicians, and even spies. At least 600 of the 2,600 letters have never even been opened. The trunk had been given to a postal museum in the Hague back in 1926, but it only recently came to the attention of researchers. An international team from Leiden, Oxford, MIT, and Yale are taking part in this project, called Signed, Sealed, & Undelivered.
“The letters that were in the trunk were a sort of postal piggybank, noted Yale music professor Rebekah Ahrendt at Yale News. “It just blew my mind.”
Ahrendt accidentally came across the collection while tracking a theater troupe that worked at The Hague in the 18th century.
The collection of letters was an effort by postmasters to profit from their business. Back then, recipients had to pay for received letters, so if the letters were undelivered, the postmasters were hoping to receive payment from anyone trying to find them.
“Somehow, these letters managed to survive all these years,” she says. “This collection challenges our notion of what an archive is because it was never intended to be one. It came together by accident.”
Some letter‐writers added enclosures, such as this coloured paper dove, which bears the French inscription don de piété (‘gift of piety’), symbolising the Holy Spirit. (Image and caption credit: The Museum voor Communicatie, The Hague, The Netherlands)
The letters themselves contain amazing stories, including some very personal messages, like this one described in Yale News:
Ahrendt describes a letter written by a woman on behalf of a friend who is an opera singer. The letter is addressed to a wealthy merchant in The Hague and reads: “I am writing on behalf of your friend and mine and she realised as soon as she left the opera company in The Hague to go to Paris that she had made a terrible mistake. Now she needs your help to come back to The Hague. I could tell you the true cause of her pain, but I think you can guess.”
D’oh! No wonder the letter was marked “refused.”
Other letters express concerns we’re still familiar with today, including parents worried about children, and wives angry at delinquent husbands.
The collection also contains unique letters sent between Huguenot family members, pointing to the emotional toll that displacement and migration could take in the early modern period.
The researchers don’t want to perturb the collection by opening the sealed letters. To find out what’s inside, they’re planning on using various scanning techniques, such as X-ray technology. [Yale News]
Top image by the Museum voor Communicatie, The Hague, The Netherlands