My current book project, The Birth of the Time Capsule: Memory, Media, and the Uses of Posterity, explores efforts to create a memory of the present by sealing away selected documents and artifacts in a metal box to be opened at a future date. Although most assume the time capsule was invented at the New York World’s Fair of 1939, where the term was coined, I trace it back to the Gilded Age, when a number of “memorial safes” and “chests” were deposited for a hundred years in cities across the country. I also examine the broader, public response to the idea of communicating across time. Why did Theodore Roosevelt embraced the idea? Why were William James and Mark Twain more skeptical? And what future outcomes did utopian and science fiction authors predict for their imagined time capsules?
In each chapter, I show how time capsules were surprisingly collaborative and heterogeneous projects, involving suffragettes, labor leaders, African American activists, and anti-imperialists, as well as capitalist apologists and eugenicists. Those various groups used the ceremonial sealing to project a future in which their own visions would be realized. I thus make a case for viewing the political and social conflicts of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era in terms of a struggle to imagine posterity and society’s duty to it.
These time capsules also drew on a wide range of media, including photographs, phonograph records, film, and material artifacts. My book thus contributes to fields within and beyond history, such as communications studies, media studies, history of technology, the history of photography, museum studies, and material culture studies. Given this embrace of the material, the photographic, and the local, I view time capsules as a kind of “public history” that went beyond the professionalized history of the period.
Finally, my book constructs a trans-temporal history, by examining not just the production of time capsules but also their reception a century later. By incorporating this reception history, I attempt to go beyond the period-bound approach of historians and humanities scholars in general.
I am nearing completion of this manuscript, and have published articles related to it in the journals, Winterthur Portfolio and History of Photography.
If you would like to receive an email notice when the book is available, please email me at nick-yablon <at> uiowa.edu.