J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Sunday, December 14, 2014

What’s Inside the State House Time Capsule?

On 7 Aug 1855, workers were building an addition onto the Massachusetts State House and strengthening its foundation on Beacon Hill. They were surprised to find that the cornerstone in the building’s southeast corner  was damaged—and that something had been crudely cemented to it.

The workmen found “a few copper coins and two pieces of sheet lead loosely put together,” according to a Freemasons’ magazine. The silver plate laid down by Gov. Samuel Adams and Paul Revere in 1795 sat between those lead sheets, along with more coins. Those metal artifacts were “corroded with rust” but soon “restored to their original condition”—possibly with acid.

The managers of the construction projects quickly had the other side of the plate engraved with this text:
The Corner Stone of the Capitol having been removed in consequence of alterations and additions to the Building, The original deposit together with this inscription is replaced by the Most Worshipful Winslow Lewis, M.D., Grand Master and other Officers and Brethren of the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts, in the presence of His Excellency, Henry J. Gardner, Governor of the Commonwealth, on the 11th day of August, 1855, A. L. 5855.
Instead of simply laying that plate on the ground again, the state government commissioned a “securely prepared metal box hermetically sealed.” The term “time capsule” hadn’t been coined yet, but that’s what they were making. Inside they placed the silver plate, the copper coins, and…some other things.

Only four days passed between when workers discovered the 1795 plate and coins and when they placed those things back inside the State House walls. There was no big public ceremony because the site was then a construction zone—only government officials attended. The original cornerstone was replaced with a granite block on a new foundation, and the metal box was placed inside a “newly hammered granite ashlar” on top of that block. This was the time capsule recently rediscovered during another repair process.

So what, besides the artifacts from 1795, might be in that box? The Freemason’s Monthly Magazine reported in detail on the 1855 developments, and it listed the contents.

First, there were the coins from 1795, showing the transition from state to federal currency with the adoption of the new Constitution:
  • “a Massachusetts cent, (commonly known as bearing an Indian on one side and an eagle on the other,) of the year 1787” [above]
  • “another of the year 1788 two half cents of the same currency and bearing the same dates”
  • “cents of the United States, coined in 1793, and 1794”
  • “New Jersey cent (Nova Caesarea,) of the year 1787”
  • “an old half penny of the time of George the Second
  • “a half dollar of the United States currency, 1795”
  • “half dime of the same currency and year”
  • “a pine tree shilling, of the currency established in Massachusetts in 1652”
  • “a copy of the small medal struck in England in 1794 in honor of Washington, bearing the following on the obverse, head and bust of Washington in regimentals, with the legend.—‘George Washington, born in Virginia, Feb. 11, 1732,’ the parallel lines, ‘General of the American Armies 1776. Resigned 1783. President of the United States 1789.’” [below]
To which the statesmen of 1855 added:
  • “The silver coins of the U. States currency of the present year”
  • “copper cents and half cents of the last four years”
  • “an impression of the State seal”
  • “the title page to the first volume of the newly printed Massachusetts Colony Records”
  • “morning papers of the day”
Sam Doran of Lexington found a newspaper article from 1855 snapping that Gov. Gardner, from the American or Know Nothing Party, had included “the Bee, the American Crusader, and two other Know Nothing sheets.” After all, this was the Massachusetts State House—there had to be a political complaint.

The time capsule was carefully removed by a Museum of Fine Arts preservation specialist, so soon we’ll know how accurate that list of objects is, and how well they’ve survived the last century and a half.


Xathos said...

Way to go, J.L.! I knew you would come through on this. You have once again validated my faith in your research capabilities. I have had multiple people post links to news stories about this and I told them each time that J.L. Bell would have the information for us in depth on his blog, Boston 1775.

I think it is wonderful that the officials of 1795 Massachusetts thought to put things in the cornerstone. I also applaud the officials in 1855 for doing what they did. I certainly hope that the officials today take the time to catalog the contents, record the items in depth, replace them in a well sealed vessel, and replace them in the cornerstone along with items from today for the people in the future to enjoy.

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks, J.D.! Soon we'll hear if the 1855 print reports were complete, or if more surprises await us.

Some of the news articles call this the oldest time capsule known. That might apply to the original portion—the silver plate and coins placed between the two lead sheets in 1795. Did the men of that time expect those artifacts ever to be dug up? By 1855 it looks like the tradition had been established, though without the fanfare that's gone into twentieth-century time capsules (when the term was actually coined).

PJ Curran said...

Great work John. Do we know if the silver plate was originally enscribed with any names or information?

J. L. Bell said...

Yes, the plate was inscribed. Those words were reported in 1795, so I quoted them in the previous posting.

T. Frantz said...

My jaw dropped when I heard the news of this time capsule. Discoveries of this type from that era are beyond fascinating to me.

While the whole of the contents are obviously priceless, I'm curious if there are any coin collectors out there who might know what the current monetary value would be of the coinage found inside?

Byron DeLear said...

Great sleuthing John! Question: Do you think that the statement in the Columbian Centinel on 8 July 1795 reporting on the Samuel Adams and Paul Revere time-capsule ritual, “Being the XXth Anniversary of American Independence,” was merely a mathematical mistake? Or do you consider that, perhaps, in Boston, there was a perception the 1775 events of Lexington/Concord, and then, of course, Bunker Hill, were seen as a clean break and therefore the downbeat of American Independence?

J. L. Bell said...

I'm mystified by the numbering, Byron. The Columbian Centinel newspaper published an issue on 4 July 1795 saying it was the “XXth anniversary of the Independence of the United States of America.” Yet other New England newspapers called that day the “XIXth Anniversary,” as we would number it.

Perhaps “XXth anniversary” meant it started the anniversary year of independence, especially from a New England perspective. But it makes no sense to peg the anniversary to the 4th of July without also pegging it to 1776.