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300-year-old voices in a stash of unopened letters

Museum voor Communicatie, The Hague

More than 300 years ago, a soldier in Europe wrote to an actress in The Hague, Netherlands, recalling a previous fling and begging her to get back in touch.

“It’s half fan mail and half, we had an affair at one point and now you won’t speak to me anymore,” says Rebekah Ahrendt, a music historian at Yale University. “There are pleas, won’t you have me back and promises that our secret is safe.”

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Sadly for the soldier, the actress never received the letter. His bad luck is our good fortune, though. The missive is one of about 2,600 undelivered letters (including 600 that have never even been opened) that have recently come to the attention of researchers in Boston and beyond. They are now being analyzed and cataloged as part of a project, “Signed, Sealed, and Undelivered,” that transports long-ago voices — expressing many of the same concerns we hold today — into the 21st century.

The letters are known as the “Brienne Collection” and they all come from 1689-1707, a period in which Simone de Brienne and his wife, Maria Germain, were postmasters in The Hague. At the time, postal routes were privately controlled and a lucrative business; in one ranking, Brienne is listed as the 203d richest man in the Dutch Republic.

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Postage worked differently then than it does now. Recipients of letters had to pay in order to collect their letters. A letter from Paris, for example, cost about 12 stuivers in Brienne’s time, about equal to a nickel today. Given the payment system, postmasters worked hard to ensure that letters got where they were supposed to go.

“These guys were capitalists through and through,” says Ahrendt. “Undelivered letters represented potential profit but actual loss.”

Still, there were all manner of reasons delivery would fail. Recipients might have moved, died, or gone to prison. Or they might have looked at the sender and decided the letter wasn’t worth the stuivers. Or the sender might not have given the postal service quite enough to go on, with addresses equivalent to something like, “Mr. Good who lives on the big street.”

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Brienne held onto the undelivered letters, calling them his “piggybank,” in the hope that he might one day find paying recipients. Today the collection is kept at the Museum of Communication in The Hague, where a team of researchers, including Ahrendt, is working to conserve them and create an online archive of the collection.

They’re paying particular attention to the way the letters were folded. “It’s not like when you fold a letter three times and stick it in an envelope,” says Jana Dambrogio, a conservator at the MIT Libraries and participant in the project. “When these things are folded, some areas of the rectangle could have 8 or 10 folds in one spot.”

Museum voor Communicatie, The Hague

Dambrogio explains that intricate folding techniques were a form of security, a way of making it hard for prying hands to open letters without revealing their activity. Writers would cut off pieces from the page and weave them through the folded letter to create a kind of locking mechanism, which could be sealed with adhesive or wax. Dambrogio coined the term “letterlocking” to describe this technique.

The researchers are attempting to draw connections between folding styles and content, to see if there were particular kinds of messages that writers took extra means to secure. They’ve observed that love letters tended to be folded in a diamond shape. Many of the letters are from family members checking up on each other. Often they’re parents expressing frustrations with their uncommunicative kids.

“They’ll say, this is the third time I’ve written, you don’t write back, are you dead, this is your father, I haven’t heard from you in ages, your mother is worried about you,” Ahrendt says.

Other letters are pleas for money, requests for employment from traveling performers, and even yesterday’s catalogs: lists of books from publishers, or letters from textile or wire salesmen with little samples enclosed.

All these letters fell on deaf ears, which is a large part of what makes them so poignant now — as the first people, in some cases, to ever read the letters, it’s almost like they were written to us. With at least one letter, though, there’s reason to believe that the writer never expected his words would reach their intended recipient.

“It’s a husband writing to his wife, saying I haven’t heard from you in a while,” says Ahrendt. “Then there’s a postscript saying, I’ve heard on good account that you are dead.”

Kevin Hartnett is a writer in South Carolina. He can be reached at kshartnett18@gmail.com.

Museum voor Communicatie, The Hague

Correction: Simone de Brienne was the 203d richest man in the Dutch Golden Age, not the 25th. The example of “Mr. Good who lives on the big street” was given as a modern equivalent, not an actual address on one of the letters. Dambrogio and Ahrendt are researchers, not archivists. Clarification: The amount of 12 stuivers was the estimated price to receive a letter from Paris to The Hague.

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