So often the past is lost because it was not preserved somehow, whether by writings, word of mouth, or in rare times it is preserved because someone put things in a time capsule to be opened at a later date. Most of us think of time capsules as a fairly modern concept, but they really aren’t. A few years ago, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick and other dignitaries were on hand to witness the opening of one of the nation’s oldest time capsules, located in the Art of the Americas wing at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. The date was January 6, 2015. The museum’s conservator, Pam Hatchfield removed the screws from the corners of the brass box and carefully extracted its contents using tools including a porcupine quill and a dental pick that belonged to her grandfather.
In December, Hatchfield had spent nearly seven hours extracting the time capsule from the cornerstone of the Massachusetts State House. The event brought with it an electrical feeling of excitement. The brass box, now green with age, measured 5.5 by 7.5 by 1.5 inches, which is a little smaller than a cigar box. It weighed 10 pounds. The contents of the time capsule were not a complete surprise, because the original time capsule had been removed in 1855, during some repairs to the building. At that time, its contents were cleaned and documented before it was placed back in the cornerstone.
More recently, workers fixing a leak unearthed the time capsule that had been placed in the building’s cornerstone more than two centuries earlier. But even after X-raying and examining the box, Hatchfield and her colleagues had no way of knowing what kind of condition the ancient contents would be in, nor did they have any idea of what was inside. The first items removed from the time capsule were folded newspapers. They were in “amazingly good condition” according to Hatchfield. There were five newspapers all, including copies of the Boston Bee and Boston Traveler. Next they removed 23 coins, in denominations of half-cent (something modern people haven’t heard of), penny, quarter, dime and half-dime (Isn’t that a nickel? I guess it hadn’t been named yet). Some of the coins dated back to the mid-19th century, but some were from 1795. There was also a so-called “Pine Tree Shilling” dated to 1652. Just the coins alone are an amazing find, but they wouldn’t be proof of who had placed them in the box. The box also contained a copper medal with George Washington’s image and the words “General of the American Army,” a seal of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and a title page from the Massachusetts Colony Records. There was no clear indication of who it had belonged to. Finally, Hatchfield removed a silver plate with fingerprints still on it, bearing an inscription dedicating the State House cornerstone on the 20th anniversary of American independence in July 1795. While the silver plate is amazing, to me, the fingerprints are a stellar find.
“This cornerstone of a building intended for the use of the legislative and executive branches of the government of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts was laid by his Excellency Samuel Adams, Esquire, governor of the said Commonwealth,” Michael Comeau, executive director of the Massachusetts Archives, read from the plate’s inscription to the assembled crowd, adding “How cool is that.” It is believed that the plate was the work of Paul Revere, the master metalsmith and engraver turned Revolutionary hero who placed the time capsule alongside Adams and William Scollay, a colonel in the Revolutionary War. It took nearly an hour to remove all the items from the time capsule. I’m sure they wanted to be both careful, and also have a really good look at them. The museum’s conservators then began the work on preserving the contents so they could be put on display. According to the Massachusetts Secretary of State, William Galvin, the time capsule will eventually be returned to the cornerstone, but it’s not certain whether state officials will add any new objects to it before burying it again.
I suppose that everyone has an aunt or uncle that they connect with better than some of the others, and while the choice would be really tough for me to make, because I have so many great aunts and uncles, I would, nevertheless have to go with my Uncle Bill Spencer, who is my dad’s brother. Uncle Bill and I have always clicked. I notice many ways that we are alike. It was Uncle Bill that taught me how to play cribbage, and when they came to town, the rest of the family was hard pressed to spend much time with him…unless they wanted to watch us play. It was Uncle Bill who got me interested in coin and stamp collecting. I think I liked pretty much anything he was interested in.
While my interest in those things didn’t last very long, there was something that Uncle Bill got me interested in that has stayed with me for years…genealogy. Uncle Bill has been interested in the family history since he was a little boy. I can’t say that I have been interested in it quite that long, but since my girls were little for sure…and probably a while before that too. So much of what we now have is because of the work that Uncle Bill did over a lifetime. As a kid, I was certain that I hated history of any kind, but as an adult, I discovered just how interesting history can be, especially when you apply it to your own family. Most of the time, we don’t really consider the impact our own family members had on the course of history, but often they had a great impact…somewhere, at some place in time. Uncle Bill looked for the things our family did, and for the impact many of them had in history. That made them seem more real. I have also found out that some of the characters that we studied in history in school, are ancestors of mine, so that makes them even more interesting. Sometimes you just have to look at things differently, to really be able to see them for what they are.
While history and genealogy were something Uncle Bill and I shared, I can’t say that those things were the reason that we connected so well. In fact, I can’t say exactly why we connected so well…only that we did. Sometimes, it isn’t just about things you have in common, but rather about personalities. I think Uncle Bill and I were quite a bit alike in our personalities too. Maybe it was our sense of humor, or maybe our determination, but whatever it was, we always seemed to click, and it was a relationship that I always cherished.
Through the years, we tried to keep in contact with letters, but that was not always easy or successful. Uncle Bill didn’t get on the computer except to log his gun shop inventory, and so letters were just about it for him…especially since phone calls across the country back in the day could be pricey. We had thought about finding a way to play cribbage long distance, but could never get that figured out either. These days, online gaming is pretty easy, and if he had know much about the computer, we could have done it. It makes me sad that we were never able to do so.
When we went to see Uncle Bill on this trip, the Alzheimer’s Disease had taken much of his recent memory from him, but when we told him that we were his brother, Allen’s family, he knew who we were. We talked abut the very distant past…his and his sibling’s childhood, and he remember playing cribbage…I think. Nevertheless, it was not the same. The relationship was locked in the past, where it will most likely remain. I wish I could be close enough to see him a little more often, and maybe we could even give a game of cribbage a try. Though I haven’t seen him nearly as much in the past few years, as I did in my younger years, I find myself missing him terribly.
When kids are small, they are happy with a penny or a nickel, because they don’t know that these coins are not really worth very much in today’s world. All they know is that with that penny or nickel, they can go to a gumball machine and buy a piece of gum, and after all, isn’t that sort of thing the extent of their buying world at that early age.
Like all kids their age, Corrie and Amy loved getting money, in the form of coins, for their piggy banks and to put in the gumball machines. They learned quickly that those little pieces of metal were of great value, and they asked for them often. Sometimes they even found money on the ground, as we all have, and then you really got to see the excitement in their eyes, and hear it in their voices. It’s funny that as time goes by, we find ourselves leaving coins on the ground where we see them, because we now understand that they are not really very valuable. My girls were living in that special time, when coins still had value.
That childlike valuation of money was never made more clear to me that it was one day when my girls and I were at home, and they were about 3 and 2 years of age. The girls were playing with their toys in the living room, as I was cleaning the house. I had been back in the bedrooms. I brought out some trash to throw in the trash can under the sink in the kitchen. As I went to throw the trash away, something caught my eye in the trash can. I really have no idea why I even glanced into the trash can that day. It was not something I would normally have done. Nevertheless, I did glance down and then looked again…more carefully. Inside the trash can, I saw one hundred dollars, in twenty dollar bills. I was totally shocked.
I turned to see the girls with some coins in their hands. They had gone into my purse and taken out the money they thought was valuable, and then decided to help their mommy clean out her purse, by throwing away the useless paper that was in the wallet. In doing so, they had thrown away the hundred dollars that was in my wallet. It would have been lost, had it not been for the glance into the trash can, that I uncharacteristically made. I can’t say for sure if it was both of my girls who got the idea to get the money, or just Corrie, who the would have shared her take with her sister. I just know that I was thankful that I had looked into the trash can, and indeed, I looked as I threw things away for a number of years after that too, because I knew then, full well that when it came to the value of money, my little girls and I clearly had different ideas.