Time Regained

Remembrance of Things Present: The Invention of the Time Capsule BY Nick Yablon. University of Chicago Press. Hardcover, 384 pages. $45.
The cover of Remembrance of Things Present: The Invention of the Time Capsule

“The impulse to stash things away,” Nick Yablon writes in Remembrance of Things Present: The Invention of the Time Capsule, “is ancient, perhaps universal.” This accounts for the cornerstone ceremonies of early republican America, or the ancient Greek and Roman practice of placing coins in sacred places, or maybe even letters, “sealed for at least a day.” But a time capsule has a specific destination in time, an opening day. For Yablon, a historian at the University of Iowa, time capsules were invented in the United States around 1876. Two were on display at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia that year: The Century Safe, which held daguerreotypes and autographs of influential Americans collected by the New York publisher Anna Deihm; and a set of portraits made by the Chicago photographer Charles D. Mosher, later stored in the Memorial Safe. In 1879, millionaire dentist and temperance advocate Dr. Henry D. Cogswell placed his Antiquarian Box in the base of a water fountain in San Francisco, under a statue of Benjamin Franklin. A constellation of more vernacular time vessels celebrated the turn of the century in Colorado Springs, Kansas City, and Detroit, and at Harvard University and Mount Holyoke College; a little over a decade later, the Modern Historic Records Association (MHRA) experimented with new ways of preserving state documents towards a “living history of the times,” a sort of ongoing archive. Yablon ends his history with the Crypt of Civilization at Oglethorpe University; the “pyramid” planned by William Harvey on his Arkansas estate; Duren J. H. Ward’s Denver Mausoleum; and where many assume the time capsule starts: the 1938 Westinghouse Time Capsule at the New York World’s Fair.

So much care goes into a time capsule. First, in the sense of caring for stuff, of making it last for ten or a hundred or a thousand years. By the turn of the century, time capsules contained new media—photographs, recordings, and typed documents. These degraded easily. It was impossible to remove early tinfoil phonographs from their cylinders without erasing them; newer wax ones were soft and impressionable, their voices easily lost. Worried that future readers wouldn’t be able to decode their handwriting—or even that handwriting would be obsolete—contributors used typewriters and made mimeographs. But paper turns yellow and brittle fast. And how long could photographs last? Daguerreotype, tintype, and silver-plate photographs are all delicate and unstable.

Working against decay, Deihm collected old and new materials; in the Detroit centennial vessel, manuscripts on linen stock were mixed with typed and mimeographed documents. A Colorado Springs photographer wrapped his prints in tinfoil. The MHRA debated using vitrified clay records (a “modern imperishable tablet”), photographs printed on stone, and metal stereotypes, the idea being that these would survive not only air and light but also anything from a volcano to war. And then there are the containers themselves, like the five-foot tall iron Century Safe that Deihm designed, or the plate-steel box from Colorado Springs, with its lead lining and joints, that weighed two hundred pounds. Some were copper, or bronze with lion’s paw feet. A 1913 lead-lined steel prototype made for the MHRA was meant to find a home in its own whole building, somewhere remote from ecological disaster, an American Pantheon of reinforced concrete that was never actually built.

A time capsule can be a way of caring for the future. Deihm and Mosher wanted their vessels opened at the United States Bicentennial and again for the tricentennial—a nationalist ritual connecting past and future Americans. Deihm anticipated that the president would open the Century Safe, while Mosher assumed it would be the mayor of Chicago, which is to say that the connection was a conservative one, made at the level of state, that imagines political continuity. Or sometimes continuity is generational. Cogswell called his a “P.O. Box,” addressed to “Our Boys and Girls Who Will Soon Take Our Place and Pass On.” Next to breath sweeteners, a wooden puzzle, a souvenir pen, false teeth, and coins, Cogswell put a glass vial filled with seeds, acorns, and legumes.

The centennial vessels at Harvard and Colorado College, and in Detroit and Kansas City, long for an even greater intimacy with the future, to care for it more personally. Like Cogswell’s capsule, these vessels address future generations. For Louis R. Ehrich in Colorado Springs, the vessel was tied to a politics he called posteritism, devoted to the “worship of the unborn,” which he tried and failed to make catch on nationally. Yablon also describes a kinship between time vessels and spiritualism and telepathy. “So strong was the yearning for communion,” Yablon writes, “that several contributors expressed a desire to attend the unsealing—whether through reincarnation, resurrection, ghostly visitation, or some kind of time travel.” Contributors thought of themselves as hovering spirits, or disembodied voices, haunting the future. Often this took the form of touch, like Kansas City Mayor James A. Reed, who imagined reaching out to “clasp the shadowy fingers of the unborn mayor of 2001.” For others, the century boxes became a kind of confessional, where secrets could be safely put away, many of them avowals of affection or love, like the Radcliffe College student who confided a crush on her English professor.

Yablon structures his history like the life of a time capsule. In early chapters he tells us what motivated Deihm and Mosher, or Cogswell, or the assembly of the centurial vessels. He describes the ways they captured contemporary hopes or wants or anxieties, and their reflection of politics or literature—like Walt Whitman addressing future readers in “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” or the utopian novels of Edward Bellamy, or Mark Twain, who asked that his autobiography stay unpublished until a century after his death—and details their contents in close, and often poignant, detail. These chapters end with the vessels being sealed, at their most coherent, whole. I wondered when and if they would be opened, and what that would look like. Actually I was dying to know—I had to stop myself from skipping ahead or looking things up online. Which is to say that Yablon makes us conscious of how these vessels might be spoiled.

In the last chapter we learn what happened when the vessels reached their target dates. When Gerald Ford opened the Century Safe in 1976, he declined to hold the autograph ceremony Deihm had imagined and, holding up a framed photograph of the wife of Rutherford B. Hayes, turned to Representative Lindy Boggs and said, “I don’t have any indication of her name but she looks mighty pretty.” In Chicago, Kansas City, and Detroit, crowds at opening ceremonies were bored by piles of daguerreotypes, laughed at outdated assumptions (like addressing future officials as Sirs), or were disappointed or embarrassed by past visions of the future. Yablon describes how historians have shared this lack of interest in time vessels and their contents. In many cases, he is the first to consult these materials in the archives. Indifference often takes the form of neglect. In some ways, the ease with which we forget time capsules is a feature; in order to reach its destination in time, a vessel has to lie undisturbed for years. But there’s something heartbreaking in the way past care fails to meet with care. If most of the vessels Yablon describes were eventually opened, along the way their keys were lost, combinations forgotten, and containers mislaid—in other words not only a final ambivalence but an intervening one. I find a little of this in myself in writing this review, in lingering with some vessels and not others. For reasons I have trouble articulating, I feel less attached to those not scheduled to be opened for thousands of years: the Ward Mausoleum (target date 4000), or the Westinghouse (6939) or Oglethorpe (8113) projects.

The appeal of a time vessel is closely tied to our feelings about the future and our capacity to imagine it. Sometimes this takes the form of a faith in progress or a utopian impulse; at different moments, time vessels have aligned with temperance, or Christian Science, or Single-Tax reform, or have anticipated class and racial equality (as in the prospectus for the American Worker’s Alliance included in the Century Safe). They’ve also been containers for capitalism, paternalism, eugenics, or structural violence (the composite photographs made in Colorado Springs that picture a future perfect race). If they afford a clear view into a past place or moment, these projects can make historians uneasy, Yablon writes. They feel “premeditated,” too self-consciously assembled, or somehow criminal. In recent decades, time capsules seem to have lost their popularity, maybe because of an association with corporate interests or the military-industrial complex—like the Westinghouse Time Capsule, the missile-like metal cylinder in its “Immortal Well,” filled with Westinghouse products—or a sense of what Yablon calls their “temporal hubris.”

Try reading a history of the time capsule and not thinking about climate change. So many of the catastrophes the Memorial Safe or the centurial vessels or any of the others were made to survive feel familiar: famine, flood, socioeconomic collapse. Today, most time capsules are meant to be opened in a decade or two, rather than in a century or a thousand years. “These reduced time spans,” Yablon writes, “reflect and reaffirm the general foreshortening or ‘forfeit’ of the future in the postindustrial, neoliberal era.” But he also finds artworks and projects that continue to reimagine the form, like Robert Smithson’s 1970 earthwork sculpture Spiral Jetty, or the Clock of the Long Now being built inside a mountain in west Texas. Artist Katie Paterson’s Future Library collects one new book manuscript per year, to be printed on paper made from trees from its own forest, now growing in Norway, and published and read for the first time in 2114. Something to look forward to.

Rachel Heise Bolten is a writer in California.