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Sealed letter from 17th century read unopened thanks to scanning technology

Casket of postmaster Simon de Brienne

The time when we sealed our letters nicely has long passed. In the seventeenth century the world looked very different, of course. There were no registered letters yet, so a seal was for the recipient of a document the proof that the contents had not yet been seen by someone else. Centuries-old sealed letters still appear regularly and many of them are in museums. Breaking the seal is a shame, but viewing the contents is of course also interesting. Recently, for the first time, it was possible to read a sealed letter without opening it. This happened with a letter from media museum Sound and Vision The Hague.

Brienne chest

One of the showpieces from the collection of media museum Sound and Vision The Hague is the chest of postmaster Simon de Brienne. Letters that could not be delivered were valued by him in this. In total there are no fewer than 2600 letters, of which 575 are unopened. The nice thing is that they were written through a cross section of the population of that time, which gives a nice insight into how people lived in the seventeenth century. They contain valuable information about migration, music, press and communication, among other things.

Open sealed letters

The sealed letters remain deliberately closed. The way of sealing says something about the sender. This can be seen, for example, in specific folding methods and personal wax seals. Sometimes a letter was wrapped in another letter for lack of an envelope. The folded paper then formed the outside of the letter. The algorithm for reading unopened letters is a major breakthrough. Letters from the box were made available by the museum for research.

Scan technology

The research team was able to read the first unopened and folded letter using X-ray microtomography, an advanced clamping technology. Thousands of scans picked up the iron particles in the ink and made the letters visible. The letter was then digitally opened by a computer-controlled algorithm that put all the puzzle pieces together. It took four years to develop this algorithm. A real breakthrough!

Life in the Seventeenth Century

Reading the contents of this age-old letter gives us an increasingly clearer picture of the way people lived in the seventeenth century. The first letter to be ‘opened’ digitally was sent on July 31, 1697 by Jacques Sennacques to his cousin Pierre Le Pers, a French merchant in The Hague. This glimpse into the worries of very ordinary people from the past is rare. Usually only the correspondence of elites is stored and studied,’.

Are you curious about how researchers managed to open the letter? You can read all about it here.

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