Washington Monument Time Capsules Show Historic Views of Declaration of Independence

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The contents of the 1915 Washington Monument time capsule.
The contents of the 1915 Washington Monument time capsule.

Since uncovering two time capsules amid renovations of the Washington Monument, historians and conservators have been keeping mum on what’s inside. On Tuesday morning, it was time to lay the contents on the table. In doing so, they showed how presentations of documents like the Declaration of Independence and the Bible can change over time.

Just steps from the Monument in the Walters Art Museum’s Sculpture Court, conservators from the Walters and Mt. Vernon Place Conservancy Restoration chair Lance Humphries provided the first look at what was in the two time capsules. The 100-year-old time capsule, which was the found by George Wilk II of Lewis Contractors while crews were working back in October, 2014, was opened for the first time.

The two capsules were laid to commemorate the dedication and 100-year anniversary of the Mt. Vernon monument itself. The items that were chosen for preservation reflected those celebrations, but also revealed some of the values and technological developments available in the era.

A Speech, a Declaration and a Bible

The 200-year-old time capsule, which was contained inside the Monument’s cornerstone, contained three glass jars lined with newspaper. The highlight of the trove, however, wasn’t contained in any sort of casing. When the historians opened the cornerstone, they found a copy of the Declaration of Independence, which was reprinted in a Baltimore newspaper called the Federal Gazette just before the Monument was dedicated on July 3, 1815.

Humphries said historians believe each jar was assembled by a different person, and therefore each tells a different story. Along with coins and newspapers, each of the jars contained printed works that were emblematic of the time.

A jar and Bible from the 1815 time capsule.
A jar and Bible from the 1815 time capsule.

One jar contained a copy of George Washington’s farewell address, in which he famously warned to avoid “entangling alliances” with other countries. Also containing Washington’s likeness and a medal for him, the jar reflects the Monument’s dedication to the First President, Humphries said.

Another jar contained a Bible, but it was likely not included for purely religious reasons. Like Gutenberg, publisher John Hagerty chose the book to show off a new printing technology. Known as Diamond Type, the technique allowed for very small printing, and was developed at the Baltimore Type Foundry.

Humphries said the type enabled people to hold an “amazing amount of information in the palm of your hand. That obviously has a lot of meaning to us today.”

The third jar told the story of the Monument itself. Likely assembled by William Gwynn, it contained a copy of the Federal Gazette, which Gwynnn edited, and a likeness of Gwynn.

Cover of copy of Washington's Farewell Address (courtesy Mt. Vernon Place Conservancy)
Cover of copy of Washington’s Farewell Address (courtesy Mt. Vernon Place Conservancy)

“We’re kind of calling this the vanity jar, because it was all about Gwynn,” Humphries said.

To Humphries, the varied nature of the contents of the jar revealed a new meaning of Baltimore’s Washington Monument, which, by the way, was built before DC’s.

“The monument was not just a memorial to Washington, but it was also one of the first monuments celebrating the ideals of American independence,” he said.

More Than Expected

The 100-year-old time capsule second time capsule, which was found behind a plaque inside the base of the Monument, was contained in a small copper box. But they packed it good.

After opening the box for the first time on Tuesday, Terry Drayman-Weisser kept going back for more.

“We didn’t anticipate this much material,” she said.

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In many ways, the 50+ items reflected the same devotion to Washington and the Monument. It was filled with coins and documents commemorating Washington, Francis Scott Key and the Star-Spangled Banner. But it was also reflective of its time.

By 1915, photography was starting to come into wide use. It seemed that a photograph of Baltimore’s mayor at the time would be the prime example of this, until Drayman-Weisser pulled out another photograph, this one of the Declaration of Indepdendence. Elissa O’Loughlin, the Walters’ retired paper conservator who was onhand to assist on the project, instantly recognized it and began to beam. She said it could be one of the earliest photos of the founding document.

Other items showed that while the presentation was slightly different, sentiments don’t necessarily change over time. One newspaper asked whether a city government should go after results regardless of popularity, or if it should pursue popularity instead of results. Meanwhile, another document asked for donations to the committee that put together the commemoration.

“Some things never change,” Humphries said.

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Reborn on the Fourth of July

The public will get a chance to join the historians in celebrating and seeing the contents on the Fourth of July.

The Conservancy is putting on a big old-fashioned country fair on Mt. Vernon, and will formally end the renovation by rededicating the monument and reopening it to the public. Independence Day will also be the first time the contents of the Monument go on view to the public at the Maryland Historical Society.

 

 



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