Not Everything in the Paul Revere Time Capsule is History

Newspapers found in a 1795 time capsule, are displayed at the Museum of Fine Arts on January 6.
Newspapers found in a 1795 time capsule, are displayed at the Museum of Fine Arts on January 6. –Kayana Szymczak/Getty Images

On Tuesday, conservators at the Museum of Fine Arts undertook the painstaking unveiling of a time capsule placed in the cornerstone of the Massachusetts State House in 1795 by icons of American history Sam Adams, Paul Revere, and William Scollay. Since the capsule was discovered late last year when repairs were being undertaken, there has been much speculation about just what this page pulled from history would contain. Sadly, for the more fantastically inclined, the contents were of the rather pedestrian variety — newspapers and coins and a glaring lack of ancient Masonic treasure maps or any sort of proof that Martians had written the Constitution. Then again, there was nothing that ruled that out.

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The purpose of a time capsule like this one is a correspondence from the past — a means for bygone generations to thrust themselves forward decades or centuries into the future, and reaffirm their existence. It’s meant to be a teaching tool about the way things were. And while this was certainly that, the items in the capsule read as a commentary on the present: While we have evolved beyond plenty of outdated colonial practices, we still haven’t let go of all of them, even when they no longer make any sense for the time in which we live.

Pam Hatchfield, head of objects conservation at the Museum delicately probed the capsule over the course of an hour, using a series of tools, including a porcupine’s quill, while brimming with a sort of historian’s glee that was contagious to the throng of media gathered nearby and those watching at home on livestreams.

“This is the most exciting project I’ve ever worked on…this is what we as conservators live for,’’ she said.

Hatchfield’s bounty included five newspapers, which were in exceptional condition considering their age, perhaps because of the inclusion of copper coins, which prevents the growth of fungus, she said. Alongside 23 coins, some dated as far back as 1652, there was also a page of Massachusetts Colony Records, a paper impression of the Seal of the Commonwealth, and a George Washington medal (He was president at the time of the burial as you probably shouldn’t need to be reminded). Among the newspapers was what is believed to be a Saturday morning copy of the Boston Traveller, priced at two cents.

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The process of removing the items was itself a marvel. “It was like brain surgery, with history looking down on us,’’ Malcolm Rogers, director of the museum said.

And what would history think if it could see us now? Certainly the founding fathers would be awed by all of the wonders that have been developed in recent centuries, after they’d wet their pantaloons in panic, that is.

One thing they didn’t envision was the capsule’s opening being streamed on video throughout the world, or a museum providing instant updates on Twitter. On top of all that, there might also be a sense of disappointment: Wait, you’re still using this same crap we used to have?

Behold these great wonders from the past! today’s press is proclaiming, a printed broadsheet newspaper and a currency made out of metal! All of this when thousands of people are today buying newspapers with metal currency to read about this very story. It’s the equivalent of us unearthing George Washington’s dental records with a mouth full of wooden choppers.

Have we really come as far as we think? Coins cost far more to produce than they’re actually worth. While costs for all four types of major coins dropped this year, the U.S. Mint continues to lose money on the production of what many of us consider an archaic hindrance.

“It now costs $1.62 to make a dollar’s worth of nickels, and $1.66 to make a dollar’s worth of pennies,’’ the Washington Post noted last month. All for something you might just as soon throw in the trash or leave behind on the counter at a store.

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And the woes of the newspaper publishing industry are certainly a familiar tale. The market for newsprint continued its precipitous decline yet again this year, falling at a rate of 8 percent a year. And further, ad revenues for print are at the lowest rate they’ve been since 1950.

Over 200 years later, despite all of the technological advances we enjoy now, we’re still stuck in the mire of the past, using the same, increasingly outdated forms of media and money that Sam Adams and his buddies used to define their era. I’m just glad Ben Franklin isn’t here to see us. Getting a look back into the past is supposed to show us how far we’ve come, not remind us where we still are.

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