At 2pm on May 23, 1914, a group of men wearing cocked hats, white wigs, and knee-breeches, emerged from the Fraunces Tavern, walked slowly up Broad Street, and then turned down Wall Street towards the river, accompanied by the steady beat of a Continental drum corps. “Had George Washington’s statue on the steps of the Sub-Treasury come to life,” remarked one witness, “he would surely have thought that the old Revolutionary days had returned.” But it was merely the advance guard of a parade celebrating lower Wall Street’s importance not just as a center of the tea and coffee trade, but also as a birthplace of the revolution. Following behind were several hundred tea and coffee merchants, along with members (including almost forty women) of various historical and hereditary societies, and descendants of New York’s revolutionary leaders. Cheered on by hundreds of spectators on the sidewalk and by office workers from windows high above, they finally reached the Jauncey office building at 91 Wall Street, where they gathered for the unveiling of a bronze plaque marking the site of the historic Merchants’ Coffee House, which had burned down 110 years earlier.
But before drawing the veil, the assembled dignitaries performed a ceremony so new it had no name. They revealed to the crowds a large, ornate bronze chest containing various documents, and to seal it they called on the ex-mayor of New York and former president of Columbia University, Seth Low, who had himself begun his career on lower Wall Street in his father’s tea company. Wielding a silver hammer, Low hammered bronze nails into the chest. He then formally entrusted it to the president of the New-York Historical Society with instructions not to allow anyone to open it until 1974.
Although the plaque no longer exists – presumably lost when that office building was demolished – the bronze chest has survived and is approaching its hundredth birthday. Sitting patiently on a shelf in the Henry Luce III Center for the Study of American Culture, and now in the Museum’s rotunda, it remains visible to visitors. They can read its engraved message and admire its rich ornamentation: the faux-rope handles, the paw-shaped feet, and the crowning finial. They might also notice that it is still nailed firmly shut. As a result of being uncatalogued and, for a time, consigned to offsite art storage in Chelsea, the chest was forgotten and thus missed its date with destiny. In fact, it overslept by more than quarter of a century. Not until the late 1990s, when curators were cataloguing artifacts in preparation for display in the new Luce Center, was it rediscovered.
Time capsules are generally assumed to be a creation of the 1930s, with the term first being used at the New-York World’s Fair. In my own research, however, I have found as many as fifteen from the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, dating back to the earliest, introduced at the Philadelphia Exposition of 1876. Consisting of bank safes, lead chests, or other metal boxes, these vessels contained a variety of objects: letters and printed documents but also photographs, phonographs, and films. 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. I describe these precursors in my book-in-progress, The Birth of the Time Capsule, as a way to explore larger themes such as the mounting conflict between capital and labor, the envisioned possibilities of new media, or the changing conception of the present’s duty to posterity.
As the notion of sealing a box for a certain number of years (usually 100) was only just emerging and no term or protocol yet existed, these early time capsules faced many challenges. Entrusted to libraries, city halls, and other public spaces, rather than buried underground, they were subject to tampering, relocation, or – in one case – premature opening by a curious clerk. Over time, further problems arose: a missing key, a broken lock, and a legal dispute over the ownership of the contents. Nevertheless, the success rate of these proto-time capsules is surprisingly high. Almost all were opened, usually on time and in the presence of leading officials. The Wall Street chest would have been the very first to be opened, had it been remembered in 1974 (that honor ultimately fell to the Philadelphia Exposition time capsule, opened two years later by President Gerald Ford). But it now appears to hold another world record: it is, by my account, the oldest, unopened time capsule.
This fall, the four-hundredth anniversary of Dutch attempts to colonize the New World provides the perfect occasion to finally open this remarkable chest. On October 11, 1614, the Dutch Republic granted a charter and a three-year fur-trading monopoly to the New Netherland Company – the first official reference to “New Netherland.” It was this event that the Wall Street merchants were celebrating in 1914, and the city’s festivities continued through the summer, until cut short by the Great War. If the quadricentennial of New Netherland has gone relatively unnoticed so far this year, the opening of this time capsule on October 8 may serve to correct that.
In the New-York Historical Society’s Rotunda, like a message in a bottle that has washed up on a distant shore, it evokes a sense of connection across time to those who sent it. We might wonder what they deposited in it. And whether we – and the city we now live in – resemble the vision they held of the future.
We might also wonder about the motives behind the capsule. Certainly, the Lower Wall Street businessmen were celebrating themselves, drawing attention to their deep historical roots at the foot of Wall Street, their pedigree as descendants of revolutionaries, and their ongoing efforts as a philanthropic and Republican-aligned organization. But they were also making a historical argument that New York, and in particular the Merchants’ Coffee House, rather than Boston’s Faneuil Hall, was the true birthplace of the revolution, by depositing (among other things) a copy of a letter written there in May 1774 by New York’s Committee of Correspondence, calling for a “virtuous and spirited union” – a document that had been lost for many years. Like other acts of preservation in early twentieth-century New York, the time capsule may even have been intended to inculcate patriotism and national-historical consciousness among a growing immigrant population.
Such ulterior motives and social biases raise questions about how we are to position ourselves as recipients – and how, more generally, we might observe the four-hundredth anniversary of the Dutch venture, knowing as we do its implications for the region’s indigenous peoples. The time capsule will be opened at the New-York Historical Society on October 8, 2014 (if you would like to receive an invitation to the event, please e-mail email@example.com)
After the time capsule is opened, it will then be – according to its instructions – “resealed” and returned to the “custody of the New-York Historical Society” for its next opening in 2074. And finally, there is a plan to compile a new capsule to be placed alongside it. This would involve reaching out to students for ideas about what kinds of messages and objects would best convey the texture and condition of life in their complex, diverse city to those living sixty years from now.
Nick Yablon is an associate professor of American Studies at the University of Iowa and the author of Untimely Ruins: An Archaeology of American Urban Modernity, 1819-1919 (University of Chicago Press, 2009). As the NEH Fellow at the N-YHS for 2013-14, he is researching a book on Charles Gilbert Hine, an amateur photographer who photographed New York at the turn of the twentieth century.