Capsule History

PrintPrintEmailEmailEver since it was dedicated in 1933, Cincinnati’s Union Terminal has been one of the city’s most stirring sights. It’s a museum center now, but when I was growing up in the 1950s, train trips with my parents began and ended in that vast half-dome rotunda. There’s one thing about being a kid, and a short one at that: You get to know what’s close to the ground. So it was that while most eyes were drawn up to the terminal’s majestic murals, I spotted a small plaque to the right of the entrance, just above the pavement. Inside that cornerstone, the inscription disclosed, was a time capsule. I remember finding it oddly thrilling to think about a secret message encased in stone.

The idea also appealed to Ronald Reagan. At the 1976 National Republican (Konvention in Kansas City, after Gerald Ford had won the presidential nomination, Reagan was invited to address the hall. It would be a moment of considerable political drama. The California governor had battled the President throughout the primary campaign but lost. Now, with this speech, it was time to bring the party factions together in a spirit of shared Republican purpose. Also, for the recently defeated candidate, it was the opportunity to voice his credo, with an eye toward future bids for the White House. Reagan later developed a reputation for having his every public utterance carefully scripted, but that night he headed for the podium with no prepared remarks, at least according to his aide Martin Anderson. This is the device he seized on to capture the imagination of the crowd:


“I had an assignment the other day. Someone asked me to write a letter for a time capsule that is going to be opened in Los Angeles a hundred years from now, on our tercentennial. It sounded like an easy assignment. They suggested I write something about the problems and issues of the day, and I set out to do so, riding down the coast in an automobile looking at the blue Pacific out on one side and the Santa Ynez Mountains on the other, and I couldn’t help but wonder if it was going to be that beautiful a hundred years from now as it was on that summer day.


“And then, as I tried to write … let your own minds turn to that task. You’re going to write for people a hundred years from now who know all about us. We know nothing about them. We don’t know what kind of a world they’ll be living in.”

Planting time capsules has become a widespread ritual. If your company, organization, city, or nation is celebrating a significant anniversary, then mark the event by dedicating a time capsule. If the date on your calendar is about to show a lot of zeros, do the same. This year preparations are under way for thousands of dedications. But it’s a curious practice really. If you have a collection of keepsakes, why salt them away from view for decades, centuries, even millenniums? Why not keep them in the public eye? With time capsules it’s the hiding that creates the allure. The process of sealing now and unsealing later lends mystery and significance to the contents. And all time capsules, regardless of what’s placed inside, contain the same thing: a message. Each capsule expresses the nearly universal urge to communicate across the ages. Reagan knew a powerful image when he saw one.

If nostalgia is a process of recalling the past selectively, emphasizing some memories to the exclusion of others, then time capsules are a kind of nostalgia in reverse. Their purpose is to influence how the present will be remembered in days to come. In contrast with remnants of the past that survive by chance, which are what historians and archeologists usually study, time capsules are intentional artifacts, compact packages of what the people in one time and place want succeeding generations to know about them. As Jonathan Greenfield, a history student at the University of Illinois, put it, if a random artifact is like a candid photograph of the past, then a time capsule is like a posed portrait.

Building stones have been used as repositories for records and cultural relics for millenniums. In the seventh century B.C. Esarhaddon, king of Assyria, wrote: “I had monuments made of bronze, lapis lazuli, alabaster and white limestone and inscriptions of baked clay … and I deposited them in the foundations and left them for future times.” In the Middle Ages the foundation stones of major structures often contained the names of contributors to the building fund. At the ceremonies in 1872 for the new home of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia, a lead box was placed in the cornerstone, containing a history of the academy, a list of its directors, a catalogue of its holdings, a proof set of U.S. coins, some newspapers, and other items that, according to an account of the proceedings, “may become very interesting relics in some remote period of the future.”