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Time Capsules: History in a Box

I have been fascinated over the last few weeks with the news coming out of Richmond, Virginia about the time capsules just unearthed, found buried inside the Robert E. Lee Monument.

After the murder of George Floyd, the controversial monument, which has anchored Richmond’s famed Monument Avenue for over 30 years, was covered in graffiti, and activists calling for its removal. In response, Governor of Virginia Ralph Northam ordered the statue removed on June 4, 2020 but was blocked by a state court pending the outcome of a lawsuit. The state court ultimately ruled in Northam’s favor in October 2020, but the decision was again put on hold pending appeal. The Supreme Court of Virginia heard oral arguments in June 2021, ruling on September 2 that the restrictive covenants from 1887 and 1890 were no longer enforceable, and the monument could be removed by the state. The 60-foot-tall bronze sculpture depicting Confederate Civil War General Robert E. Lee on a horse atop a large marble base was removed from its plinth six days later.

On December 17 while workers were dismantling the statue’s 40-foot pedestal they came across a time capsule, long believed by historians to have been placed in the base of the monument’s pedestal on October 27, 1887. Records indicated that the time capsule contained about 60 items donated by 37 Richmond residents, many of which were related to the Confederacy. It was also believed to contain a rare, century-old photo of Abraham Lincoln in his coffin.  With great excitement and suspenseful live media coverage, the water-damaged box was opened, only to reveal a random assortment of artifacts: an 1875 almanac, two withered books, a coin and a cloth envelope, all too damaged to be of value. This lead box found in the tower of the pedestal, about 20 feet above ground level, was not the one everyone hoped to find, fueling further intrigue and anticipation for a second box, which was found less than a week later and opened on December 28th.

Inside the 36-pound copper box, conservators from the Virginia Department of Historic Resources (DHR) found an 1865 edition of Harper’s Weekly magazine with a clear image of a figure weeping over Abraham Lincoln’s grave; a Bible with a coin stuck to it; a Richmond directory; more newspapers, books, coins, and letters; a compass; and a minié ball, a type of bullet commonly used in the American Civil War. The prized Lincoln photograph, however, was not among its contents.

Due to water seepage, conservators had to work with caution to open the box and remove the items which had expanded, making it difficult for them to be removed. Experts will now work to stabilize the artifacts and dehydrate them, a process that generally involves packets of silica gel, but differs depending on the material to be treated.

Time capsules are not new, nor is the idea of wanting to share something tangible and reflective of your time and life with future generations.

The world’s first planned time capsule debuted in 1876, when New York magazine publisher Anna Deihm assembled a “Century Safe” at the U.S. Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. The iron box was stuffed with 19th-century relics including a gold pen and inkstand, a book on temperance, a collection of Americans’ signatures, and snapshots of President Ulysses S. Grant and other politicians taken by photographer Mathew Brady. After being sealed in 1879, the purple velvet-lined safe was taken to the U.S. Capitol and eventually left to languish under the East Portico. Though nearly forgotten, it was later rediscovered, restored and unlocked on schedule in July 1976 during the nation’s bicentennial festivities.

The United States’ oldest known time capsule was the work of none other than Samuel Adams and Paul Revere. In late 2014, repairmen fixing a water leak at the Massachusetts State House uncovered a brass box that the two former Sons of Liberty had placed in a cornerstone to mark the building’s construction back in 1795. It had already been opened once in 1855 for cleaning and the addition of new artifacts, and historians were initially unsure if its contents had survived intact. When it was finally unsealed in 2015, however, it was found to contain a trove of preserved artifacts including newspapers, coins dating back to the 1600s, a page from the Massachusetts Colony Records and a copper medal with an image of “General of the American Army” George Washington. Most exciting of all was a silver plaque—most likely the work of Revere—that read, “This cornerstone of a building intended for the use of the legislative and executive branches of the government of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts was laid by his Excellency Samuel Adams, Esquire, governor of the said Commonwealth.”

During the future-themed 1939 New York World’s Fair, the Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Company entombed a torpedo-shaped cylinder inside a 50-foot-deep “Immortal Well” on the fairgrounds in Flushing Meadows. The cylinder was originally called a “time bomb,” but the name was changed after a Westinghouse publicist coined the now-famous term “time capsule.” Another capsule was placed nearby in 1965, and both are now scheduled for opening in the year 6939 A.D.— 5,000 years after the first one was buried. The items inside the two capsules include a collection of seeds, metals and textiles; microfilm and newsreels; and everyday items such as a Beatles record, a bikini, a pack of Camel cigarettes and a plastic child’s cup featuring Mickey Mouse. The 1939 capsule also featured a letter from physicist Albert Einstein, who praised the scientific progress of his age but also added that, “People living in different countries kill each other at irregular time intervals, so that also for this reason any one who thinks about the future must live in fear and terror.”

Time capsules are unique artifacts of history, curated by individuals to represent their current culture through the objects reflective of their everyday life. These stories never grow old and only become more fascinating with time. Every discovery and opening are like opening a present from the past. And who doesn’t love to open presents?!