Buried Museums: A History of Time Capsules

The term “Time Capsule” was first used in 1939 at the New York World’s Fair when the Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Company buried a cylinder inside a well on the fairgrounds, to be opened in the year 6939. The cylinder contains a collection of seeds, microfilm and newsreels, everyday items, and a letter from Albert Einstein. Although this was the first capsule given the name ‘time capsule’, the practice of preserving items to let future generations know about contemporary life goes back much earlier in time. 

Merriam-Webster defines a time capsule asa container holding historical records or objects representative of current culture that is deposited (as in a cornerstone) for preservation until discovery by some future age.”

There are numerous references in early literature to buried manuscripts and other items that would enlighten the finder about past civilizations, and later during the Victorian Era it became popular to set a box of mementos into the cornerstones of new buildings. While these early ‘capsules’ were never meant to be opened on a specific date, they gave rise to the modern idea of time capsules as a way to commemorate a period in time.  

American Time Capsules

Some of the earliest American time capsules were the 1876 Century Safe and The Massachusetts State House Time Capsule.  The Massachusetts State House time capsule was opened in 2015 and is the United States’ oldest known time capsule, although it was not meant to be opened on a certain date. Assembled by Samuel Adams and Paul Revere in 1795 and put into the cornerstone of the Massachusetts State House building, it was discovered in 2014 by repairmen fixing a water leak. The box contained newspapers, coins, a medal with Washington’s image, and a silver plaque reading “This cornerstone of a building intended for the use of the legislative and executive branches of the government of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts was laid by his Excellency Samuel Adams, Esquire, governor of the said Commonwealth.”

The 1876 Century Safe was the United States’ first planned time capsule, assembled by New York magazine publisher Anna Deihm at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. A book on Temperance, a collection of signatures, and Mathew Brady photographs of politicians were among the items found upon its opening in 1976 during the bicentennial celebrations in Washington. 

The Auburn Bicentennial Capsule

The same year the 1876 Century Safe was being opened, another time capsule was being buried here in Auburn. Planned as part of the city’s U.S. bicentennial celebration and opened in 2001, it contains everything from a Sears catalog and YMCA cookbook to a 1975 Auburn High School Yearbook and minutes from an Auburn council meeting.

Explore Some of the Objects from the 1976 Time Capsule:

Bicentennial Booklet on Auburn History, 1976

WMBO Radio Top Ten Hits of Aug. 1976

YMCA Cookbook

Bicentennial Parade Itinerary, 1976

Letter from Councilman Edward Lauckern, 1976

Seymour Library Movie Flyer, 1976