Signed, Sealed & Undelivered: A 17th-Century Postal Treasure Trove Rediscovered

Interdisciplinary Research Team to Speak at MIT

For Immediate Release
March 7, 2016

The international and interdisciplinary team of researchers on the Signed, Sealed, & Undelivered Project will speak publicly for the first time as group about their work analyzing recently rediscovered early modern letters. “Signed, Sealed & Undelivered: A 17th-Century Postal Treasure Trove Rediscovered,” hosted by MIT Libraries, will be held Wednesday, April 13, from 9:30 a.m. to 12 p.m. at MIT.

The project explores a 17th-century trunk held by the Museum voor Communicatie in The Hague. The trunk is filled with an extraordinary archive: 2,600 letters, which were never delivered, including some 600 that have never been opened. The trunk’s contents remained virtually untouched by historians until recently rediscovered. They show history preserved at the time of the “Glorious Revolution,” capturing voices which might have never have been heard otherwise.

The letters are examples of a technique called “letterlocking” — folding and securing a writing surface to function as its own envelope. The team will describe their work preserving, imaging, transcribing, and identifying letterlocking formats in an effort to reveal the chest’s secrets for the first time.

A series of short presentations will give an overview of the project and explore the world of the early modern postmasters who collected the letters, historic document security techniques, and the applications of this work across the humanities. The event is presented in conjunction with Preservation Week at the MIT Libraries, held April 24–30, 2016, to highlight the importance of preserving cultural heritage materials.

Rebekah Ahrendt, Assistant Professor of Music, Yale University
Nadine Akkerman, Lecturer in English, Leiden University
Jana Dambrogio, Thomas F. Peterson (1957) Conservator, MIT Libraries
David van der Linden, NWO Veni Fellow and Lecturer in History, University of Groningen
David Mills, physicist, Queen Mary, University of London
Daniel Starza Smith, British Academy Post-Doctoral Fellow, Lincoln College, University of Oxford

Event Details:
Samberg Conference Center
Dining Room 5, 6th floor
Chang Building (E52), MIT

Light refreshments will be served beginning at 9:30 a.m.

Each attendee will receive locked letter models to take away.


Signed, Sealed & Undelivered
In 1926, a trunk of letters was bequeathed to the Museum voor Communicatie in The Hague, the center of government, politics, and trade in the Netherlands. The trunk belonged to two of the most active postmasters of the turn of the eighteenth century, Simon de Brienne and Marie Germain, a couple at the heart of European communication networks. The undelivered letters in the trunk were sent from all over Europe to recipients who would have also paid postal and delivery charges. Postmasters usually destroyed undeliverable “dead letters,” but the Briennes preserved them, hoping that someone would retrieve the letters – and pay the postage. The trunk thus 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. Learn more at

MIT Libraries
The Libraries are redefining the role of the 21st-century library, supporting teaching, learning, research, and innovation at MIT and globally. We connect faculty, students, and researchers to the best scholarly information available while also tackling complex challenges in information science, preservation, and scholarly communication.

Press Contact
Brigham Fay