Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick and other dignitaries were on hand to witness the opening of one of the nation’s oldest time capsules yesterday evening (January 6) in the Art of the Americas wing at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts (MFA). Standing in front of a large painting of George Washington on horseback in 1776 (Thomas Sully’s “The Passage of the Delaware”), museum 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.
Last month,Hatchfield spent nearly seven hours extracting the time capsule from the cornerstone of the Massachusetts State House. The brass box, which had turned green with age, measured 5.5 by 7.5 by 1.5 inches (a little smaller than a cigar box) and weighed 10 pounds. Its contents were not exactly a surprise: The original time capsule had been removed in 1855, during some repairs to the building; its contents were cleaned and documented before it was placed back in the cornerstone. But even after X-raying and examining the box, Hatchfield and her colleagues had no way of knowing what kind of condition its contents would be in, or the details of what lay inside.
Among the first items removed from the time capsule yesterday were folded newspapers, which Hatchfield stated were in “amazingly good condition.” There were five of them in all, including copies of the Boston Bee and Boston Traveller. Then came some 23 coins, in denominations of “half-cent,” penny, quarter, dime and half-dime. Some dated to the mid-19th century, while others were from 1795; a so-called “Pine Tree Shilling” dated to 1652. In addition, the box 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. 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.
“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.” The plate is thought to be 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. MFA conservators will now work on preserving the contents, which will probably go on display at the museum later this year. According to 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.