Preserving Time in a Capsule

Gayle Humpherys

Last summer my husband Brian received an interesting letter in the mail. The handwriting addressing the letter to him was familiar—it was his own—but the return name and address didn't ring a bell. Upon opening the envelope, Brian discovered a three-page letter that he had written to himself for a high school English assignment. His English teacher had kept track of the letter and mailed it to his parents' home ten years later.

In the letter, Brian described some of the current national events, the relationships of his family members, and how he pictured himself in ten years. He had completely forgotten about the letter, and we both got a kick out of reading some of his predictions, as well as remembering his life ten years earlier.

Brian's ten-year-old letter is one example of a simple time capsule. A time capsule allows us to preserve some of our past for the future. Time capsules don't have to be large boxes buried in the the cornerstone of a building—they can take many shapes and forms. Since creating a time capsule isn't something you do every day, in this article I'll answer the basic time capsule questions: who, what, when, where, why and how (although not necessarily in that order!).

1. Why should I create a time capsule?
Do you remember what daily life was like ten or twenty years ago—how much a gallon of milk cost, what types of cars and clothing were popular, or who was making the national headlines? Probably not very well. While we remember the big occasions, it's hard to recall the details of everyday living. Time capsules help us "take a picture" of the current day—through letters, newspapers, photographs and other items. Then all those details are safely preserved for future generations.

In addition to giving us a picture of the past, time capsules are also a fun way to predict the future. What does your child think he or she will be doing in five or ten years? How do you see the world twenty or fifty years from now?

Time capsules are often created in conjunction with a special event, such as a birth, wedding, graduation, family reunion or new school year. Imagine the excitement of opening a time capsule on your 21st birthday that was created by your parents when you were born, or opening a capsule on your 50th wedding anniversary that you created during your first year of marriage. Of course, you don't need a specific reason to create a time capsule—you and your family can put one together just for fun.

2. What should I include?
Deciding what to include in a time capsule isn't easy—after all, you can't include everything. Instead, you should try to select items that will provide a fun and accurate "picture" of the current day when the capsule is opened later, as well as items that have a special personal or family significance.

Here are a few suggestions of things you might include:

  • Current newspapers or magazines
  • Photographs (use duplicate copies since you won't be able to get at these pictures for a few years!)
  • Letters describing your daily routine and what you think life will be like in the future (make sure you use acid-free paper and pens)
  • Lists of the country's top songs, movies and sporting teams, as well as current prices of things like gasoline, groceries and cars.
  • Videotapes of the local news or a popular TV sitcom, as well as home videos of you and your family members
  • "Fad" items of the day (recent items that come to mind are "electronic pets" and Beanie Babies)
  • Store catalogs, restaurant menus or product advertisements

    3. Who can help?
    Creating a time capsule is a great activity that can involve every member of your family. Each person can select a personal belonging to contribute to the capsule, perhaps with a note describing why that item is important.

    You can also involve extended family members by having them write letters for your capsule (it's especially nice to have grandparents contribute). If you're creating a capsule for a birth or wedding, consider throwing a "Time Capsule" shower and inviting each guest to bring a small item to get the capsule started.

    Several companies can help you put together a time capsule. The Original Time Capsule Co. offers four different time capsule kits—baby, wedding, graduation and first school year. Each kit comes with a decorated tin for storing the capsule, a "What Life Was Like" book, stationery for writing letters to the future, and an informational book with lots of ideas and suggestions (Figure 1).

    Preserving Time in a Capsule
    Figure 1 The Original Time Capsule Co. (800/729-8463) offers several different time capsule kits in decorated tins for a variety of different occasions, such as births, weddings and graduations.
    If you're creating a baby time capsule, the Birth-Day Time Capsule Company offers a fabric-covered box engraved with the baby's name and filled with newspapers, magazines and other items from the date, month and year of the baby's birth (Figure 2).

    Preserving Time in a Capsule
    Figure 2 The Birth-Day Time Capsule Company (800/530-7078) puts together an engraved box with newspapers, magazines, and other items from the date, month and year of your baby's birth.
    If you need help compiling lists about the top news stories, songs, movies and other events of the year, Dannette Clayson of Memories of the Past offers a personalized document (printed on a variety of specialty papers) with information about any date from 1880 to the present (Figure 3). In addition, The Original Time Capsule Co. provides a "Year in Review" newsletter.

    Preserving Time in a Capsule
    Figure 3 Memories of the Past (801/224-8127) can help you put together a list of the top news stories, songs, movies, and other events for any date from 1880.
    4. How should I assemble it?
    Once you've gathered the time capsule items, you need to select a container. You can use a variety of different containers for your capsule, such as a plastic tub, metal or cardboard box, or large glass jar. (If you plan to bury your capsule, see the "Burying a Time Capsule" sidebar.) Select something durable that won't be easily damaged, and make sure it's large enough to store all of your items with a little extra room for padding.

    Line the container with a plastic garbage bag, then carefully place the contents inside. (Filling a time capsule is a great excuse for a family party!) Wrap newspapers, magazines and other paper items separately in plastic bags to reduce damage and discoloration. Place photographs in a small album with plastic sleeves. Store video and audio tapes in plastic cases. Don't include any liquid or food.

    Protect each item in your capsule as much as possible. After adding all the contents, finish filling the capsule with wadded tissue or styrofoam "popcorn" so the contents won't shift too much. Then, seal the container with tape or stickers. Sealing the time capsule is an important step; otherwise, it will be too tempting to "peek" before the specified future date.

    Mark the capsule well on the outside so you know what it is and when it should be opened. Feel free to decorate the outside of the capsule any way you want (another great family project).

    5. Where do I store it?
    While many people think a time capsule should be buried, it's generally not recommended. Two of the biggest problems that you'll face with a buried time capsule are water damage and forgetfulness that you buried it. Chances are you won't be in the same location twenty years from now and buried time capsules are easily forgotten. However, if you do want to bury your capsule, see the "Burying a Time Capsule" sidebar for some tips and suggestions.

    Store your time capsule in a safe place that's cool and dry (and where it won't accidentally be damaged or thrown out), such as an inside closet or underneath the stairs. But don't hide it so well that you'll never find it again.

    Some people prefer to display their capsule somewhere in their home, where it can be a great conversation starter. And remember, don't open your capsule until the specified date--after all, that takes the fun out of it.

    6. When do I open it?
    So, how long should you store your capsule before opening it again? The length can vary anywhere from one to fifty years. For a family time capsule, I'd suggest waiting at least ten years. For personal time capsules created by children, you might want to have them open the capsules in a year or two (just before the school year, for example) so they can see how they've changed. At that time, you can even put together a new time capsule for the next year!

    If you're preparing a time capsule for a new baby, it will have more meaning if he or she waits until at least age 21 before opening it. Remember, the longer you wait to open a time capsule, the more the world will have changed and the more meaning the capsule items will hold.

    Creating a time capsule is a wonderful way to preserve some of the day-to-day aspects of your life, as well as ponder a little about what the future will hold. And just like my husband's high-school letter, opening a long-since-forgotten time capsule brings a piece of the past--along with lots of fond memories--into the present.

    Burying a Time Capsule
    If you're creating a personal or family time capsule, it's usually recommended that you not bury it. When you bury a time capsule, you run the risk of damaging it (especially from water) and, more commonly, losing it.

    Time capsules that are buried are usually created on a larger scale, such as for a church, school or community. If you do decide to bury your time capsule for an extended period of time, here are a few guidelines:

  • Use a stainless steel container that's well sealed. Plastic containers can crack over a long period of time, as well as "out-gas," accelerating the deterioration of the contents.

    If you're putting together a time capsule for a large organization, consider contacting a company that specializes in time capsule containers, such as Future Packaging & Preservation (see the "Time Capsule Companies" sidebar). Some companies offer discounts to non-profit organizations such as schools and churches.

  • To help control humidity, add silica gel crystals to your container before sealing it.
  • Many buried time capsules are also filled with an inert gas, such as nitrogen or argon, to push out the oxygen and better control the climate inside the container. (Time capsule companies often provide this service.)
  • Bury the capsule at least two feet deep to help control humidity and prevent moisture condensation.
  • Mark the location well! You don't want to lose track of your time capsule.

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