The two oldest known and unopened time capsules were unsealed last week, one in New York and the other in Boston. The former was encased in a bronze, claw-footed chest by Revolutionary War aficionados in 1914 in Manhattan; the latter placed inside a copper box in a gold lion statue in 1901 and from there cast into the realm of urban legend until last month, when the statue was brought down from Boston’s Old State House for restoration.
Both have proven to be perhaps a bit anticlimactic, considering their long journeys to now. The New York capsule contains a heap of paper ephemera, including library arbitrations and annual reports, while the Boston one has its own papers, although a bit of mystery as well in the form of its solitary, unopened red book. They do offer a tantalizing allure as transmissions sent directly from a bygone era.
I attended the opening of the 1914 time capsule at the New-York Historical Society, which also included the packing of a new time capsule by student historians at the museum, to be opened in 2114. Amid the salon-style installation of paintings on the second floor— including an 1867 Thomas Satterwhite Nobel portrait of John Brown, who seemed to be giving his blessing just behind the proceedings — the screws were unbolted one by one and the contents carefully extracted to a flurry of cameras from the media crowd.
Nick Yablon, an associate professor at the University of Iowa and a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellow at the society, who’s working on a book about time capsules, presided over the event, offering a history of how the time capsule came into vogue. The phenomenon hit its peak in the 1930s, Yablon explained, making its mark at the 1939 World’s Fair and leading to a time capsule frenzy. Sometimes these have meant disappointments for the future, like the 1957 Plymouth Belvedere hauled out of the ground in Tulsa after 50 years, wet and ruined.
Yablon found that, despite to their mid-century popularity peak, there were time capsules dating back to at least 1876. The 1914 one was intended to be opened by the New-York Historical Society in 1974, but in a rather mundane way it was forgotten in storage in Chelsea, the date passed, and after being rediscovered in 1998 it finally got a nice centennial opening date. The audience crowded to get a glimpse of it last Wednesday, a small but dense, camera-bearing throng, but this was nothing like the excitement of 1914. Yablon sets the scene in a blog post for the New-York Historical Society:
But before drawing the veil, the assembled dignitaries performed a ceremony so new it had no name. They revealed to the crowds a large, ornate bronze chest containing various documents, and to seal it they called on the ex-mayor of New York and former president of Columbia University, Seth Low […] Wielding a silver hammer, Low hammered bronze nails into the chest. He then formally entrusted it to the president of the New-York Historical Society with instructions not to allow anyone to open it until 1974.
One reason for this particular time capsule was to commemorate the New Netherland Company’s charter tricentennial. Just as significantly, the Lower Wall Street Business Men’s Association, which created the capsule, wanted to make a statement about New York’s role in the American Revolution. During the same ceremony, the group placed a historic plaque at the Merchants’ Coffee House, commemorating a letter penned there in May 1774 and designating that as the real beginning of the new nation. This was a direct retort to Boston’s Faneuil Hall.
Now, curiously, the cities have met again with these two time capsules, each once lost in its own way. The items packed carefully in twine in the 1914 chest might not inspire too much wonder: a yearbook from the Holland Society, a portrait of Ellen Jay (a descendant of John Jay), the annual report of the New York Society Library, a newspaper proclaiming a John Singer Sargent painting stolen from the Brooklyn Museum (okay, that one is actually pretty interesting). But there is instead the fascination of the action itself, of messages sent — and sometimes lost and then found again — through time.
The 1914 time capsule materials will remain together as part of the New-York Historical Society’s library (170 Central Park West, Upper West Side, Manhattan).