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Blog > A treasure trove of lost letters

This week, we decided to highlight a lovely online exhibition we heard about from postcrosser OrangeSunshine. In 1926, the Dutch Postal Museum in the Hague received a fascinating donation: a trunk of around 2,600 letters from the seventeenth century, some of them still unopened to this day… This obviously got our attention, so we had to take a look!

The piggybank of letters
The Brienne trunk, Sound and Vision, The Hague (CC BY-NC 4.0)

It seems that the trunk was originally owned by the postmaster and postmistress of the Hague at the time, Simon de Brienne and his wife, Marie Germain. Inside of it were all the letters that the post office could not deliver, either because of indecipherable or non-specific addresses, deceased recipients or people that moved… or because the recipient did not want to pay to receive the letter, as was the rule at the time. The chest was called the “piggybank” (spaarpotje), because they hoped to collect the money eventually if the letters were delivered one day!

An undelivered letter
DB-0259, Sound and Vision, The Hague (CC BY-NC 4.0)

The archive has recently been rediscovered and pored over by experts of all kinds, who have been hard at work preserving and digitising the collection, and you can see some of the fruits of their labor in the virtual exhibition!

A folded letter
Opened Letter, DB-2146, Sound and Vision, The Hague (CC BY-NC 4.0)

One of my favourite aspects was learning about letterlocking (discussed more in room 4 of the exhibition). These intricately folded letters were intended to preserve the privacy of the letter-writers against the so-called “Black Chambers”. These where secret workers within the post office who would open, copy and reseal letters in order to spy upon the contents for the government! Other people used codes to write their private letters, making their contents unintelligible if you didn’t know the trick to deciphering them. You’d have to be careful to make sure that the coded nature of the letter wasn’t too obvious, or that would only draw suspicion…

We definitely recommend you take a look at the whole exhibition if you’re interested in this little piece of history. There’s tons of information there about who wrote letters and what they wrote about, and the materials and writing implements they used to do it, providing a fascinating glimpse into another era. If you check out the exhibition, we’d love to hear about what you think! What’s the most interesting thing in the collection from your point of view?

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32 comments so far

Cha13, United Kingdom
I was just thinking this letter sounded very strange! And I am French. I guess I haven't been able to decode it! Very clever!
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mounten, Italy
Interesting, nice caligraphy and a very tricky folding method.Great thank you!
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Flippie, Canada
I'm proud of The Dutch because I'm a Dutchy myself. Thank you for this information.
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Smarty, Netherlands
Wat een mooi verhaal, hoop dit binnenkort te kunnen zien, als alle musea’s weer open zijn.
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ALFAVIT, Russia
Good chest. Interestingly told.
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Starfishgalaxy, United States of America
Very interesting story-the trunk wrapped in seal skin for water proofing,
all the methods for letter hiding, the music, and the family portrait made for a well rounded tale!
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fmstrada, Italy
Just wow!!! 🤩 Thank you for sharing and thank you OrangeSunshine (who received one of my postcards 💙) for finding this for us! The whole exhibition is very interesting; I’ve always been fascinated by postal routes in the past, especially reading Mozart’s epistolary (he travelled extensively in Europe in the 18th century). This trunk is a real treasure, let’s remember that these letters are all personal messages (at that time the only way to communicate with distant people), it’s amazing how the postal network was effective, despite wars, epidemics... As these missives were never received, we have in our hands extracts of real life in the past: love, business, musical tours... Ancient writing! The materials needed to write and seal a letter (similar to our stationery collection to send postcards...). I’m just glad that we don’t need to fold paper in such a complicated way. Very interesting!!!!
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Alexander9179, Russia
This is a treasure, I can imagine what the queue is, lined up to buy it... This for the year adds in price from 10-500%...
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mysweetlife63, United States of America
Fantastic, I want to learn letter blocking!
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greenskull, Russia
I ❤❤❤ Postcrossing!
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Liudmila0304, Ukraine
This is a very interesting exhibition. As a child, my cousina and I came up with our own alphabet of characters so that no one could read our letters except us. Each character denoted a specific letter of the alphabet. Without a key, it would be impossible to decrypt :).
P.S. A chest with this letters was called the “piggybank”... Someday someone will find our postcards that was lost on the way in similar “piggybank” ... :)
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Tjoks, South Africa
Thank you for sharing this with us, so interesting!
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xiezongwei, China
I am a little scared about something without excietence.
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aarthu28, India
Thanks for sharing this one. Very interesting and spooky
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Gen24, United States of America
So mysterious...:o
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Knerq, United States of America
Very cool
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NIDUSKA, Finland
very interesting..
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HannyD, Netherlands
Pity all the museums are closed at this time because of the Corona virus. At least till April 6th.
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CorgiGirl, United States of America
Thank you - it is very interesting.
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3Meredyth, Australia
Fantastic! I always love watching people unfold their little letters in movies set in such times, now I know why!
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wwwera, Israel
Such an interesting exhibition! Thank you for bringing it to us, Nikki!

I wonder if someone can recommend me a book to read about Post service, how it was from the very beginning. So far I only read "Going Postal" by Terry Pratchett to the topic, but would like to read some non fiction :)
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lostresviajeros, Austria
Very interesting article this time! Pls more of these kind in the future!
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beesknees, United States of America
would love to see this chest
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AshJ, Ireland
Every Sunday, I visit a sort of a flea market in a small village near my town. Over the years I've purchased several lost postcards and letters there, usually dating to the 1970s-1990s, but some going as far back as the 1950s. I like collecting these sorts of things, and I often include them with my Postcrossing cards if the receiver expresses interest in such things. Thank you for sharing about this exhibit!
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Jesterday, Netherlands
Owww I would love to read these letters
Nice article!♥
This typo made me laugh:
"providing a fascinating glimpse into another ear" ... :)
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JudyAnn, United Kingdom
I've just ordered a book called '100 Letters That Changed the World'. Should be interesting!
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Annedread, Netherlands
A very interesting exhibit. The soldier's letter (Leendert van Muers to Marie van Muers, 1694) touched my heart, so sad to know it never reached his family... I hope he himself did!
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elos, Netherlands
Postal history: years ago I bought "The Englishman who posted himself and other curious objects" by John Tingey. . Still enjoy reading it every now and then.
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triplightly, United States of America
Thank you for this lovely story during a troubled time! My town was just hit by several earthquakes and a trove of old letters is just the thing to give my mind a bit of rest.
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stefbot75, Italy
maybe next century somebody will find some treasure boxes full of our expired postcards!!
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Stupsicat, Austria
This is a real treasure!
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kimmedims, Netherlands
Wow! Great exhibition! Truly interesting and great design!
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