The crowd glimpses into the past

By Nancy Novick

Wednesday’s unsealing of a time capsule at the New York Historical Society may well have been a once-in-a-lifetime event for most of those present. However, as two workers wearing protective gloves removed the 26 screws that fastened the bronze chest sealed 100 years ago by the Lower Wall Street Business Men’s Association, Professor of American Studies Nick Yablon cautioned “Disappointment with [the contents of time capsules] is the most common response.” Instead he invited the gathering of history buffs and members of the press to think of the original assemblers of the time capsule as “reaching out over time” with a message.

The room was packed, making it difficult for some people in the crowd to get to the table and view the items.

The contents of the box did paint a valuable historical record of commercial New York in 1914, as well as providing a glimpse of the greater world through contemporary media. There was also a literal message of goodwill from Governor Martin H. Glynn who described New York as prospering and wishing the same to his successor 60 years in the future (the time capsule was originally to be opened in 1974). The letter got a chuckle from the audience — New York was teetering on the brink of bankruptcy in the mid-70’s. Other items included newspapers, a medal from the Lower Wall Street Business Men’s Association, budgets and other documents for many area businesses, as well as an annual report form the Bloomingdale Asylum, which once stood on the grounds of Columbia University.

As each historical document was laid upon a table at the front of the hall, visitors were also invited to view items selected for a new time capsule by the New York Historical Society’s student historians. The new time capsule—to be saved for 100 years in a vessel still to be selected—reflected a different sensibility. Items included in the 1914 time capsule were selected by “captains of industry”, noted one of the museum’s historians. The new time capsule reflects pop culture as seen through the eyes of teenagers: the October 8 edition of the New York Times, the book Humans of New York featuring the photos of Brandon Stanton, the traditional Greek diner take out coffee cup, a folded dollar bill, a metro card, a tee shirt supporting same sex marriage and a ticket from Lady Gaga’s concert at the now-defunct Roseland Ballroom.

Note: Items from the 1914 time capsule will be processed and then maintained as a collection that will be available to researchers in the New-York Historical Society library.

Photos by Nancy Novick.

Correction: We mislabeled the newspaper photo. It was from 1914 not 2014.

HISTORY | 5 comments | permalink
    1. Sally Smile says:

      SO the lesson here is never leave the contents of a time capsule up to a bunch of unimaginative ‘Captains of Industry” whose incredibly narrow view of the world is to focus on money and on themselves. I’m sure they though reading an old budget and an annual report form an Insane Asylum would be absolutely fascinating reading to people 60 years in the future.

      I just wish we could send them back a copy of the new Ken Burns PBS documantary on the Rooosevelts so they could understand what an amazing time in America’s history they were living through, and how they tragically never even realized it.

      • Auws says:

        I am so excited for a hundred years from now when someone else on Westside Rag can make some snarky comment like “They let a bunch of teenagers put a metro card in a time capsule… They probably didn’t even realize what an amazing digital revolution they were living through I’d like to send them back a copy of (insert name of biography of as yet unknown/undervalued person whose true value will only be revealed upon historical reflection) they probably had no idea what a significant time they lived in… ” Time capsules are specifically exciting and interesting because they show what a segment of people think of at that time, not because they dictate how we should judge the entire historic value of a given age…If you are looking for that get a history textbook.

    2. Bento says:

      It looks to me like all the found was a bunch of boring junk, or maybe some rich guys were palying a joke but it wan’t funny. Just shows how clueless people really are.

      • John says:

        I am re-posting my comment left on the announcement in WSR before the capsule was opened: in brief — yes, it was a staggeringly disappointing event, and not only because the contents of the box were almost uniformly unimaginative.


        Thanks to the WSR, I attended this unusual event at the NY Historical Society. There were some fine speeches before the unveiling, including one from expert Nick Yablon (who served as MC) in which he said the predominant reaction surrounding the opening of time capsules is disappointment. He was quite accurate (speaking for myself, anyway). The box with filled mainly with pamphlets, books, mementos medals, and so forth related to the Lower Wall Street Business Men’s Association. There were several newspapers (including NYTimes) from 1914, rolled up (and thus difficult to unfurl in their hardened states). The most exciting thing was the facsimile of a revolutionary letter (alluded to in the lengthier article linked above). There may be some particular gems among the books and pamphlets, but these were not immediately made known. A letter from the governor of NY in 1914 was addressed to his counterpart of 1974, and this provided some amusement.

        I have to strongly criticize the organizers of the event in this one respect: they invited a large audience to attend this unveiling, but virtually no one but the crowd of press people could see anything during the lengthy process because no one bothered to suggest there be at least one avenue of sight for the many gathered. It was clear many in the scrum were not even press members. Even the press who had video cameras were annoyed because they now had no shot. The area where the box was being opened was very poorly lit (with primary lighting coming from press vid cameras), and so the entire event became something of a farce, with the vast majority of onlookers forced to listen to descriptions of the findings over the loudspeaker (which itself was too low). In short, a botched delivery of a not-very-interesting baby. But I still found the experience compelling and was glad I attended.

    3. Lucien Desar says:

      I would not put the bottle of Purell in the time capsule for the future because it could leak and ruin the rest of the contents inside. Good idea to use physical newspapers instead of flash drives or cd-r’s since in a 100 years from now there won’t be a lot of devices that will read such antiquated media. It does look like a great sampling of current pop culture for a time capsule.