Reading A Letter That's Been Sealed For More Than 300 Years — Without Opening It

Mar 2, 2021
Originally published on March 3, 2021 1:51 am

An unopened letter that was mailed back in 1697 but never delivered has been read by researchers who have developed a way to virtually "unfold" sealed letter packets without having to actually break the seal.

The new technique, described in the journal Nature Communications, should allow historians to learn more about "letterlocking," the practice of using elaborate slits, folds, creases and tucks to turn a flat sheet of paper with a written message into a tamper-resistant package.

Such security measures were an everyday part of life for centuries. "The envelope as we know it, the gummed envelope, wasn't invented until the 1830s," says Jana Dambrogio, a conservator with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Libraries in Cambridge, Mass. "And so before then, everyone letterlocked."

Letterlocking technologies varied greatly, with people folding and sealing their messages in hundreds of different ways. "They can make it look like it's less secure and have security hidden on the inside," says Dambrogio. "Or they can make something look very secure, but it actually isn't that secure on the inside, when you open the letter packet."

An example of an intricately folded letter. This practice was common hundreds of years ago to prevent tampering. Scientists have figured out how to virtually unfold and read some of these letters without damaging them. They've used their noninvasive technique to read undelivered letters that have been stored unopened in a postmaster's trunk for over 300 years.
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Letterlocking hasn't gotten much attention until recently, however, and in the past, archivists would open locked letters by simply cutting them. "What do we lose when we open the unopened?" asks Dambrogio.

She was intrigued to learn of a 17th century postmaster's trunk from The Hague in the Netherlands that contained 577 unopened letter packets. Back then, if a letter couldn't be delivered for some reason, workers would keep it around in case the intended recipient ever showed up to claim it and pay the postage.

Dambrogio and a team of researchers now say they've managed to read one of these unopened Renaissance letters, with the help of a medical scanner.

"It was originally designed to study teeth. It's this really high-resolution X-ray scanner," says Amanda Ghassaei of Adobe Research in San Francisco, who explains that the device can create a detailed three-dimensional X-ray image of a folded letter.

Because the inks used back then contain a lot of metal, says Ghassaei, the writing "shows up as a very bright region on the scan, kind of like the way that your bone would show up really bright on an X-ray."

The trouble is, the ink markings look all jumbled up, because many layers of folded paper are pressed close together and words appear to overlap.

"The challenge here was really to try to find a way to manipulate that data and actually virtually unfold it so that we could get it into a flat state," she says, "and actually kind of generate something that looks like an image of the letter if it had been opened and flattened. But in reality, we haven't even touched the letter."

Their first success, using a brute-force algorithm to study a partially opened letter, came at the end of 2016, recalls Holly Jackson, a student at MIT who has been working on the project.

"Since then we've kind of been refining this pipeline, trying to make it fully automated, fully generalizable to lots of different intricate folding patterns," says Jackson.

The unopened 1697 letter from the postmaster's trunk has an especially lovely folding pattern, says Dambrogio, even though the letter's contents make it clear that it's just an ordinary bit of family business, with one cousin writing to another to request a copy of an official death certificate for one of their relatives.

"In one sequence it makes an arrow shape, which folds in on itself and is sealed with a little piece of adhesive," says Dambrogio. "So it's quite beautiful and it's thrilling that we can read it without tampering with the letter packet, leaving it to study as an unopened object."

The work impressed Brent Seales, a computer scientist at the University of Kentucky in Lexington who has worked on virtually "unwrapping" ancient scrolls that are too fragile to be unrolled.

"They revealed the text, which was awesome. To do that without opening the letter is itself a sort of miracle, which I love," says Seales. "They were also complete about the technology of the artifact itself, because we can't forget that this stuff is embodied in physical form. And that's important."

He notes that the practice of sealing written documents dates back to the clay tablets used by the Sumerians, and it can put historians in a difficult position because to open something is to partially destroy it.

"There's this idea of the physical artifact that needs to be preserved and then the scholarly work that we would like to do, which is to know what it says," notes Seales. "How do you break that deadlock?"

Virtual unwrapping can provide an answer, he says, but its methods always have to be fully described and transparent, as they were in this case, so that others can follow the process step by step. "They told you in their paper what a letter says inside without ever opening it. You have to have some kind of trust in that. Because the artifact itself will never be opened," Seales points out.

Many, many unopened letters await further study, including hundreds in the Prize Papers, a collection of mail and other materials confiscated from enemy ships by Britain from the 17th to the 19th centuries.

Howard Hotson, a historian with the University of Oxford, believes that studying unopened letters and others that were once locked could perhaps "reveal patterns of trans-cultural, potentially global technological exchange, as sophisticated letterlocking techniques are passed from one country, sphere of activity, or continent to another during the long period in which these techniques were in use."

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

More than 300 years ago in France, a man wrote a letter. It was signed, sealed but never delivered. Now scientists have used a high-tech scan to peek inside without unfolding it. NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce reports on why they didn't just open it.

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: Envelopes as we know them today didn't exist until the 1830s. Before then, people would write a letter and then fold the sheet of paper up into its own neat, little package. This was an everyday part of life for hundreds of years.

JANA DAMBROGIO: And the most important thing is that people intentionally built in tamper-evident devices.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Jana Dambrogio is a conservator with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Libraries. She says security devices included combinations of slits, folds, creases, tucks.

DAMBROGIO: And there's so many ways. And they can make it look like it's less secure and have security hidden on the inside, or they can make something look very secure, but it actually isn't that secure on the inside.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: All of this is called letterlocking. It hasn't gotten much attention. In the past, if a scholar wanted to read a sealed letter, an archivist would just cut it open.

DAMBROGIO: That takes precedence, that opening to read words and text. And what we're saying is, what do we lose when we open the unopened?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Her group has been closely studying letterlocking and was intrigued to learn of an old postmaster's trunk found in the Netherlands. It was filled with letters from the 17th century. Hundreds of them had never been opened. So researchers started running sealed letters through a device that was originally designed to study teeth. It provided a detailed, three-dimensional X-ray image. Team member Amanda Ghassaei says the ink shows up as a bright region on the scan, but initially, it's impossible to read.

AMANDA GHASSAEI: Everything's kind of jumbled together. Many layers of paper are going to be pressed close together and, you know, words kind of overlapping each other.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: She says the challenge was to manipulate that data and virtually unfold it.

GHASSAEI: And actually kind of generate something that looks like an image of the letter if it had been opened and flattened. But in reality, you know, we haven't even touched the letter. All we've done is scanned it.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: In the journal Nature Communications, they show how a computer can do it. They describe one sealed letter from 1697. It turns out to be a message from a man in France to his cousin in the Netherlands, asking for an official death certificate for another relative. It's just a normal piece of family business. But Dambrogio says the folds are lovely.

DAMBROGIO: This one has the most beautiful pattern. In one sequence, it makes an arrow shape, which folds in on itself and is sealed with a little piece of adhesive.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: There are many, many other sealed letters that could be studied in the same way, like ones in mail packages that the British navy seized from enemy ships, for example. And the new technique impressed other scholars like Brent Seales. He's a computer scientist at the University of Kentucky who's virtually unwrapped ancient scrolls that are too fragile to be unrolled.

BRENT SEALES: They revealed the text, which was awesome. To do that without opening the letter is itself a sort of miracle, which I love. But they were also complete about the technology of the artifact itself.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: And they fully disclosed their whole process step by step. He says that kind of transparency is super important.

SEALES: You know, they told you in their paper what a letter says inside without ever opening it. You have to have some kind of trust in that.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Because the whole point is that you can't just open up the letter to check.

Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF RYAN HELSING AND MATTHEW SALTZ'S "CASCADE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.