After our recent PermaRec posts about time capsules, I found myself with lots of questions, so I got in touch with Nick Yablon, associate professor of American Studies at the University of Iowa, who's become something of a time capsule authority (and is shown above, reading the headlines from a 1914 edition of The New York Times that was contained in a recently opened time capsule). He agreed to do an email interview with me, which went like so:
Permanent Record: Notwithstanding ancient examples like Egyptian tombs and such, what's the history of the time capsule? Do we know when/where was the first one was buried (or stowed, or whatever)?
Nick Yablon: At the risk of sounding academic, it depends how you define "time capsule." If you define it loosely to refer to the burying or sealing of certain items in the hope that someone will find them at some point in the future, then this is clearly a very old practice. Americans have been filling cornerstones of buildings and monuments since at least the late eighteenth century. And they borrowed this practice from the masons who constructed Europe's cathedrals of the Middle Ages.
But if you define time capsules more narrowly, as a deposit of artifacts and messages to be opened on a specific date in the future, then that is relatively recent. After researching its origins for 5 years, I can safely say that nobody thought of doing that until 1876.
As for who can take the credit, that's also complicated. In 1876, several people seem to have come up with the idea independently, although not all of them followed through immediately. But, if forced to choose the winner, I'd go for Anna Deihm, a magazine publisher from New York City. She displayed a specially designed bank safe at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, and announced her plan to fill it with signatures and photographs of politicians (including the President), judges, scientists, inventors, and other leading Americans. It was eventually sealed for a hundred years in the U.S. Capitol.
PermaRec: Is there a period that could be considered the "golden age" of time capsules?
Yablon: I think time capsule buffs would probably identify the mid-twentieth century. The Westinghouse Corporation's time capsule at the New York World's Fair in 1939 brought the idea to a much larger public. It was for this exhibit that the term "time capsule" was coined, by Westinghouse's PR guru, George Edward Pendray. This time capsule — and a second one buried next door to it at the New York World's Fair of 1964 — captured the nation's imagination with the types of objects chosen, their missile-like design, and their long timespan (thousands of years). But by the 1970s, critics were complaining that time capsules had become solipsistic and banal.
Having said that, I would personally declare the late nineteenth century to be the real golden age. Because there was no standard protocol or even name for them, time capsules were more varied and experimental in that period. People were literally inventing a new tradition, and making it up as they went along.
PermaRec: Have time capsules been more prevalent in certain parts of the country?
Yablon: Nowadays, you would find them all across the country, and even in small towns (there are several in my adopted hometown of Iowa City). But in the late 19th and early 20th century, they were very much an urban phenomena. They cropped up in cities all across the country (although I've yet to find any in the South), and were generally launched by mayors, newspapers, churches, or philanthropists.
PermaRec: Are time capsules largely an American phenomenon, or have they been common in other countries?
Yablon: Yes, in the early years, this was a uniquely American tradition. Beyond the U.S., the earliest time capsule (defined as a deposit with a specified opening date) that I've found was one sealed in the basement of the Paris Opera House in 1907. Very Phantom of the Opera!
PermaRec: The term "capsule" brings to mind a specific shape — something round-ish and/or cylindrical. But most time capsules that I've seen have simply been boxes. How did the term "time capsule" originate, and was there a time when the capsules were more truly capsule-like?
Yablon: The first time capsule, as I mentioned, was a specially decorated bank safe. Thereafter, they tended to be small, plain boxes, made of iron, steel, lead, or wood. The one just opened in New York was unusually ornate: a bronze chest with legs in the shape of lion's paws, handles resembling ropes, and a finial crowning the lid. In the 1930s, Westinghouse introduced the capsule or missile shape — a brilliant way of conjuring the sense of a vessel hurtling through time. The capsule shape also evoked the streamline aesthetic of that decade. They were re-designing all sorts of objects to make them look more aerodynamic, even pencil sharpeners and toasters!
PermaRec: I've seen you quoted to the effect that "disappointment is the most common response to time capsule openings." Could you elaborate on that point?
Yablon: The fact that they have been sealed for so many years naturally stimulates all kinds of speculation about what is inside. In the case of the 1876 time capsule, there were even rumors it might contain gold or a skeleton. So the opening of a time capsule is bound to disappoint. Another issue is that the depositors' sense of what is interesting or worth preserving are inevitably different from what a later period might consider interesting or valuable.
PermaRec: Any other good time capsule anecdotes?
Yablon: The most bizarre thing I've found in a time capsule was a matchbox containing a human tooth. Even more bizarre was that the label claimed it was the molar of the French revolutionary, Robespierre. Sounds like a hoax to me.
PermaRec: Maybe I'm just spoiled by being a journalist working during the information age, but is there really much suspense regarding time capsule openings? I mean, hasn't someone left a list of what's inside the capsule, or maybe the list was published in the local newspaper back in the day? Doesn't that pretty much eliminate the element of surprise?
Yablon: You're right. People did compile inventories of their time capsules, and left copies of them in local libraries — or as you say, printed them in the local newspaper. I've often wondered why they did this, because it does kind of spoil the suspense! Perhaps it was to leave a clue to the existence of the time capsule, to prevent it from being forgotten — a common fate of many time capsules.
PermaRec: I'm also puzzled by instances of time capsules being "forgotten" and "rediscovered." My impression is that the capsules are usually buried/sealed/etc. with great fanfare. Do they really fade so readily from a town's (or business's, or museum's, or whomever's) institutional memory?
Yablon: Yes, it is surprising how often this has happened — and a reminder that even the grandest ceremonies are quickly forgotten. For instance, the very first time capsule was removed from Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol, and consigned to a storage space under the outside stairs. It was only rediscovered a few years before it was due to be opened. In an early science fiction novel, one author came up with an ingenious solution: miniature cylinders containing a message about the time capsule were sent out across the country.
PermaRec: Related to the above: It seems to me that the appeal of time capsules is rooted in a sense of wonder that's increasingly difficult to maintain in a technologically sophisticated, hyper-documented era. With that in mind, I find it interesting that time capsules are still being created today for future generations to open. So what is the current state of time capsules? How common — or, I guess, uncommon — are they today?
Yablon: The celebration of the millennium did renew interest in the phenomenon. The most widely publicized time capsule from that year was probably the one organized by the New York Times. I'm sure people will continue to deposit time capsules — and to come up with new ideas for time capsules — for some time to come. In fact, I would say that the instantaneous, electronic availability of vast amounts of information has increased, not decreased, our fascination with chests and troves that are inaccessible. Kind of like how the omnipresence of digital music has sparked interest in vinyl records.
PermaRec: I understand you've written a book about time capsules. When is that going to be published?
Yablon: The book is now about 70 percent completed. I'm hoping it will be out in a couple of years. Or maybe I should seal the manuscript in a box for a hundred years? Actually, that was an idea I read about the other day: a project to enlist one novelist each year to submit a book that would remain unpublished until 100 years from now. It's called the Future Library project, and Margaret Atwood has agreed to be the first contributor.
PermaRec: On balance, do you think time capsules have lived up to intended function of teaching future generations about the past?
Yablon: Well, I would say that they can tell us much about the past, but not necessarily what the depositors wanted us to know. In other words, they tell us much about the implicit hopes, fears, and prejudices of certain groups in the past. And in particular, they tell us that, since 1876, people no longer trusted the traditional forms of memory, such as libraries, monuments, or orally transmitted stories. The time capsule represents a modern, somewhat artificial way of transmitting our legacy to future generations.
Great stuff. Big thanks to Nick for sharing his time and expertise. You can learn more about him at his website.