New York’s Century-Old Time Capsule Is a Dud

A 1914 time capsule forgotten for years was finally opened at the New York Historical Society. It's big reveal? Businessmen should never be in charge of putting together time capsules.

10.08.14 9:45 AM ET

When a box was recently discovered hidden within the head of a lion statue in Boston, it was identified as the world’s oldest unopened time capsule, dating to 1901. The previous titleholder sat a few states away, on display in the rotunda of the New York Historical Society in Manhattan, waiting to be opened. In 1914, the Lower Wall Street Business Men’s Association had festively gathered the city to celebrate a milestone and preserve a brief moment in time for the future to see.

When I was seven, the small town where I grew up had a similar celebration when it erected a monument to commemorate its 150th birthday. It stood walking distance from downtown, just off the banks of the region’s largest river, and strikingly resembled the Washington Monument. It was one of the biggest celebrations I can remember from my youth. 

Seth Newcom/New-York Historical Society

Our prized riverboat was lavishly decorated. Local marching bands paraded the streets and the entire town gathered to hear government officials, local residents and students speak about the relatively short, but rich history, of our community. But, in my mind—and many of the townspeople—the monument was far from the main attraction. We had seen it throughout its entire construction. Instead, select residents, myself included, had the opportunity to place personal belongings into a time capsule that would be sealed within the structure, not to be opened for fifty years. 

But, imagine that scene recreated in 1914 New York to commemorate the 300-year anniversary of the Dutch attempt to colonize the New World—New Netherlands as it was named. The occasion was of a grander scale, of course, and a much more elaborate production. There were men dressed in colonial garb complete with knee-breeches and powdered wigs. They marched through the streets of downtown New York to the synchronized beats of the Continental drum corps that followed. Hundreds of spectators trailed behind as people cheered from the skyscrapers that towered above.

What waited was a capsule that was just as majestic as the celebration. A large, ornate bronze box glistened for the throngs of spectators, who had gathered in what is now New York’s Financial District. The claw-foot chest held various documents, artifacts, and mementos contemporary to the times and was not to be seen again until 1974.

Yet, it was never opened. Filed away within the annals of the New York Historical Society, it escaped the notice of those who oversaw the archives. Granted, a lot was happening that year: Nixon resigned in the wake of Watergate, Hank Aaron hit more home runs than Babe Ruth, and Beverly Johnson became the first black model to appear on the cover of a major fashion magazine. The Vietnam War had just ended and New York was having a bit of a financial crisis.

Seth Newcom/New-York Historical Society

When it was rediscovered in the 1990s, the oversight had resulted in the world’s oldest, unopened time capsule, according to Nike Yablon, author of the upcoming book The Birth of the Time Capsule

The tradition was widely believed to have begun in 1939, on the advent of the New York World’s Fair. However, Yablon—through his research—has discovered over a dozen similarly themed metal boxes dating back as far as 1876, which was sealed during the Philadelphia Exposition. Had New York’s capsule been opened on time, it would have been the first on record. But, alas, Philadelphia received the honor and President Gerald Ford did the deed.

This 1876 Philadelphia time capsule contained “letters and printed documents but also photographs, phonographs, and films,” as Yablon describes. “Contributors even offered items of material culture, ranging from samples of clothing, hats, and shoes to technological artifacts such as the latest camera or telephone.”

On Wednesday, after being displayed in the New York Historical Society’s rotunda, the 1914 bronze capsule was finally opened, just days before the official 400-year anniversary marking the New Netherland charter it originally commemorated.

It was filled with journals and catalogues on exotic teas and coffees, newspapers produced throughout the city—including a copy of the New York Times that read “Beck Again Found Guilty of Murder” and a New York Herald printed in French—and yearbooks from local organizations. The treasures found within the capsule were mostly records that reflected those immediately involved with its planning. The men of the Lower Wall Street Business Men’s Association had included mainly financial records and budgets, with an added item or two that may have been pleasurable reading, like a 1914 book on eagles. 

As Yablon pointed out at the opening, some time capsules do not invite the public to submit their own artifacts for preservation. Such was the case with this one. There were no articles of clothing or entertainment memorabilia. There wasn’t even an antique tool or gadget to be seen. 

Seth Newcom/New-York Historical Society

The New York Historical Society plans to seal a new time capsule this week that is more reflective of our current pop culture. Inside the capsule, high school students who have spent the summer interning at the Historical Society will each contribute one item. There will be an issue of the New York Times and magazines, an iPhone and Kindle, metro cards and subway maintenance signs. Others added a ticket from Lady Gaga’s final performance at Roseland Ballroom, the historical concert venue that shuttered its doors that same night, and a shirt that reads “Some dudes marry dudes, get over it,” signifying the major advances made in the rights of same-sex couples. 

So, as one box opens, another will close. These objects, along with dozens more, will be sealed until 2114. Let’s hope this time around the capsule won’t be as easily forgotten.