Imagine you were creating a time capsule that would summarize American life today. What would you put in it: A smart phone? A kindle? Maybe a few seasons of NCIS or Orange Is the New Black?
In 1795, Paul Revere, Samuel Adams, and Colonel William Scollay decided to seal a time capsule beneath the granite cornerstone of the Massachusetts State House. They filled a box with objects that were then culturally important — mostly coins, newspapers, and business cards. Not exactly riveting stuff, but a source of pride for citizens of the newly created republic nonetheless: the lead capsule was drawn to a grand internment ceremony by a team of 15 white horses and given a 15-gun salute.
On Tuesday, conservators at the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA), Boston, opened the time capsule and revealed its contents to a room of excited onlookers that included Governor Deval Patrick, Secretary of the Commonwealth William Galvin, and MFA Boston Director Malcolm Rogers. It had been 160 years since the items inside were last seen — in 1855, some well-meaning Bostonians had unearthed and cleaned the items before returning them to a sturdier brass box (and adding a few of their own).
The 10-pound capsule was then mostly forgotten until last summer, when an engineering firm trying to fix a water leak found it using radar technology. The firm called the MFA, which enlisted the help of a local construction company to excavate the site. When it came time to actually remove box, MFA conservator Pam Hatchfield spent seven hours delicately chiseling away around it to pry it free. She also removed five silver coins that had been ritually sealed in the plaster in the 19th century.
Back at the MFA’s lab, X-rays showed that the capsule’s contents had survived beautifully through the years. Hatchfield cleaned the remaining plaster residue and corroded lead solder from the exterior before finally opening the box. It held coins dating to as early as 1652 — one-shilling, half-cent, three-cent, dime, “quar. dol,” and half-dollar pieces. There was also the title page of the first volume of the Massachusetts Colony Records, a paper copy of the Seal of the Commonwealth, a copper medal depicting George Washington, and a plaque inscribed by Revere that commemorated the erection of the State House.
One is inclined to wonder why they didn’t include any other objects — say, ephemera from the war or a stitched sampler — that would bring them to life more intimately. But their choices must have been calculated; perhaps they wanted to project an image of the new America as a well-functioning state. It will be intriguing to know what historians make of them, along with those objects removed from another time capsule at the Old State House in October.