The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Time capsules are more popular than ever, as Americans take history into their own hands

The memorabilia we bury is often less important than what it reveals about our efforts to bypass institutional memory

(Brandon Celi/Illustration for The Washington Post)
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There was something quaint and clinical about the December opening of a metal box, long secreted in the base of a statue to Robert E. Lee in Richmond. The metal container full of memorabilia, which news accounts dubbed a time capsule, was rediscovered after the statue was removed and its masonry support dismantled. It had remained there undisturbed since the plinth was built in 1887.

The conservators who picked through the box wore masks to defend against the coronavirus and blue surgical gloves to handle the delicate contents, including books, pamphlets and newspapers. One by one, the soggy contents were removed and quickly whisked away for preservation. Like time capsules, which have a designated date for reopening, cornerstone or foundation boxes seem to belong to another era, when brass bands gathered to celebrate civic events and mayors gave pompous speeches redolent of racism, class privilege and unembarrassed fantasies of national destiny.

The material left for posterity in 1887 turned out to be mostly routine — a Bible, an almanac, a masonic trinket along with Confederate bank notes and a genealogy of the Lee family. If they hold any value for historians, it will be incremental and highly specialized. Of greater interest is the phenomenon itself, and the larger interest in time capsules, which are often designed not so much to communicate useful historical data, but to do an end run around traditional or institutional ways of recording and interpreting history.

And the phenomenon is anything but a quaint relic of the past. Adrienne Waterman, chair of the International Time Capsule Society (which maintains a public database for time capsules around the world), says that her organization has seen more capsules registered in the past two years than at any time since a precursor group was founded in 1937. Much of this, she says, is at the “hyperlocal level,” and probably driven by the anxieties caused by the pandemic as well as concern about the preservation of digital information, now largely held by a handful of social media and communication companies.

People seem to lack faith that traditional chronicles are registering the gritty, quotidian truth of history — for example, what it feels like to wear a surgical mask for two years while tending unvaccinated kids and working from home. And there is pervasive fear that the memory carried on cellphones or in the cloud may be as ephemeral as 8-track tapes and wax cylinders.

“Time capsules have always played a role in preventing collective amnesia, even more so now with the concept of the memory hole,” says Waterman, referring to an idea popularized in George Orwell’s “1984,” now used to suggest both the political and technological erasure of history.

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Amazon sells multiple do-it-yourself time capsule kits, including a stainless-steel tube large enough to hold CDs, DVDs and written material: “Kids can write a note to their future selves and maybe make some predictions of what the world and he or she will be like in the future,” reads the online description of one of the more elegant models. There is a spectrum of devices on offer, from high-tech metal canisters studded with bolts to a plastic “smell proof” tube “inspired by NASA," which seems designed mainly to keep your marijuana stash safe.

There has always been a range of meanings, and purposes, attached to the idea of a time capsule. The phrase was apparently invented for one of the most famous historical examples, a sophisticated tube designed and buried by the Westinghouse Electric & Manufacturing Co. in 1939, underneath Flushing Meadows, in New York, site of the 1939 World’s Fair. The same company added another to commemorate the 1964 World’s Fair, and both are meant to be opened in 6939.

But the idea, if not the term “time capsule,” long predates the 1939 publicity venture sponsored by Westinghouse. In 1976, President Gerald Ford went to Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol to open the Century Safe, an iron box sealed in 1879. Rumors circulated that it might contain an original version of the Liberty Bell, or a fortune in gold. As with the box discovered underneath the Lee statue, the results were disappointing, mostly photographs and documents of no earthshaking importance.

During an age of industrial growth and divisive national arguments about money and monetary standards, the creators of a national time capsule chose a bank safe as their ideal mode of communication with the future. In 1939, as world war loomed again and technology promised to make it even more unimaginably destructive than the last global conflagration, Westinghouse turned to science fiction to create a modernist vessel to speak to the 7th millennium.

But common to both projects, and to many contemporary time capsules, is some basic magical thinking. Creating a physical time capsule suggests that one has lost faith in all the larger “time capsules” that are fundamental to national, institutional and traditional forms of memory. Consider (or just Google) all the ways the term time capsule is used metaphorically: to refer to books, art, libraries and archives, scientific collections, old buildings, archaeological sites, fossils and geological strata. Creating your own time capsule is likely to be a sign that you lack faith that any of these methods of transmitting history will be successful.

A tenement building preserved as a time capsule

Unless, of course, time capsules have nothing to do with history and the future, and are strictly rituals rooted in the present. Andy Warhol, whose art has kept commercial imagery and newspaper headlines from more than a half-century ago circulating in contemporary art galleries, used to pack up everyday objects into cardboard box “time capsules” full of newspaper clippings, postcards, cheap toys, cartoons, books and other ephemera, hundreds of thousands of objects stored in more than 600 containers. But was this about memory, or forgetting?

Warhol suggested the project was therapeutic: “What you should do,” he wrote, “is get a box for a month, and drop everything in it and at the end of the month lock it up. Then date it and send it over to Jersey. You should try to keep track of it, but if you can't and you lose it, that's fine, because it's one less thing to think about, another load off your mind.”

If not forgetting, then perhaps self-flattery is a motive. When a memorial to the dead of World War I was constructed in a small town in Minnesota more than a century ago, a sealed copper time capsule was buried in its base. A local newspaper speculated that the people of the future might find it as interesting as contemporary Americans did the exploration of “the ancient ruins of Italy, Egypt and the Holy Land.”

Of course, we have little control over how we will be remembered, which may explain why people go to such extraordinary lengths to “shake hands” with the future, as the creator of the 19th-century “memorial safe” described the purpose of his time capsule. The preponderance of Civil War and Robert E. Lee memorabilia in the Richmond time capsule suggests not just items pertinent to a statue of Lee, but at least a little special pleading. Remember him — and by extension, us — as we wish him to be remembered, not as he was, or for the terrible things he and his co-conspirators did.

Perhaps the most curious thing about the contemporary interest in making time capsules is the persistence of the practice, even as the chances of mankind surviving global warming, nuclear war or new pandemics are dwindling. But there is a paradoxical logic at work: If history is coming to an end, we better make history as fast as we can. Time capsules are full of what might be called instant relics. What we place inside them become history, at least to us, as soon as we seal them up and send them to the future, no matter how soon that will be.

Some may even find hope in that. One of the more recently registered time capsules documented by the International Time Capsule Society was made last year by a sixth-grade class at Lenox Elementary School in suburban Portland, Ore. The class teacher, Alia Zagyva, helped the students, who had been dealing with months of remote learning, the pandemic and emotions of the Black Lives Matter protests, prepare the vessel. They bought a silver capsule from Amazon and filled it with letters, newspaper clippings, decorated face masks (to represent the impact of coronavirus), and a USB cartridge with videos and interviews.

They spent months brainstorming about what to include. That process is one of the essential rituals of time capsules: a sorting out of significance, weighing the present for its most resonant signs and markers.

Then they had to choose a date for when it will be opened. They chose 2046.

“They knew sometimes people leave it for 50 or 100 years,” Zagyva says. “But they wanted to do it for 25 years, because they wanted to still be alive. They are hoping to be part of it.”