A Postal Treasure Trove

The postmaster's treasure chest. Courtesy of the Museum voor Communicatie, The Hague.

The postmaster's treasure chest. Courtesy of the Museum voor Communicatie, The Hague.

In 1926, a seventeenth-century trunk of letters was bequeathed to the Museum voor Communicatie in The Hague, then as now the centre of government, politics, and trade in The Netherlands. The trunk belonged to one of the most active postmaster and post mistress of the day, Simon and Marie de Brienne, a couple at the heart of European communication networks. The chest contains an extraordinary archive: 2600 "locked" letters sent from all over Europe to this axis of communication, none of which were ever delivered. In the seventeenth century, the recipient also paid postal and delivery charges. But if the addressee was deceased, absent, or uninterested, no fees could be collected. Postmasters usually destroyed such “dead letters”, but the Briennes preserved them, hoping that someone would retrieve the letters – and pay the postage. Hence the nickname for the trunk: “the piggy bank” (spaarpotje). The trunk freezes a moment in history, allowing us to glimpse the early modern world as it went about its daily business. The letters are uncensored, unedited, and 600 of them even remain unopened. The archive itself has remained virtually untouched by historians until it was recently rediscovered. Our international and interdisciplinary team of researchers has now begun a process of preservation, digitization, transcription, editing, and identification of letterlocking formats that will reveal its secrets for the first time – even, we hope, those of the unopened letters.