1795 Boston Time Capsule Contents Revealed in MFA Photos

by Mike Unser on January 9, 2015 · 7 comments

Time capsules have the thrill of treasure, wonder and history. They bring the past to the present in an almost magical way. For an American, it can’t get better than an 18th century box buried by revolutionary heroes Samuel Adams, Paul Revere and William Scollay. What did these icons think we should rediscover?

Time Capsule

A time capsule found in the cornerstone of the Massachusetts State House building prior to opening. (Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

We now know, courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA) and its many photos that reveal the time capsule’s early-American artifacts to include coins, newspapers, a medal and more.

Contents of a time capsule

Some of the contents of a time capsule found in the cornerstone of the Massachusetts State House building and undergoing examination and conservation work at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. (Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

The MFA and Commonwealth of Massachusetts teamed up Tuesday to open and unveil the contents of the now famous capsule which was placed in a granite cornerstone of the Massachusetts State House in 1795.

Malcolm Rogers, Ann and Graham Gund Director of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Malcolm Rogers, Ann and Graham Gund Director of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

Excavated on Dec. 11, 2014 for only the second time in more than 200 years, there was already some ideas about what to expect. The cigar-sized capsule was X-rayed on Dec. 14, 2014. The presence of coins was obvious.

Boston time capsule

An x-ray showing the contents of a time capsule found in the cornerstone of the Massachusetts State House building and undergoing examination and conservation work at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. (Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

And intriguingly, there is also an account of the artifacts from a document penned in 1855 when the time capsule was last unearthed. Back then, its contents were cleaned, with additional items added and then placed in a brass box. There’s a bit of extra fascination here for coin collectors. As a part of the reburial ceremony for good luck, five 19th-century silver coins were inserted during the setting of the plaster which encased the capsule. Those coins were also recovered on the 11th.

Michael Comeau and Pam Hatchfield

Pamela Hatchfield, Robert P. and Carol T. Henderson Head of Objects Conservation at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and Michael Comeau, Executive Director, Massachusetts Archives. (Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

Opened Tuesday night for the first time in nearly 160 years, the time capsule weighing 10 pounds and measuring 5.5 x 7.5 x 1.5 inches contained:

  • Silver and copper coins, dating from 1652 to 1855
  • Silver plaque thought to be engraved by Paul Revere
  • Copper medal depicting George Washington
  • Newspapers
  • Paper impression of the Seal of the Commonwealth
  • Calling or business cards
  • Title page from the Massachusetts Colony Records

There is little specifics yet about the types of coins and their dates, with available photos of the coins too low of quality for identifications. It appears that there are about two dozen of them to include a Pine Tree shilling, half cent, large cent, half dime, dime and quarter-dollar.

Contents of a time capsule

Coins found in the capsule. (Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)


Contents of a time capsule

Another view of the coins. (Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

Pamela Hatchfield, the museum’s conservator who freed the capsule from the cornerstone last month, and Annette Manick, the museum’s head of paper conservations, are overseeing the conservation treatment of the artifacts.

The items will be publicly displayed until their reburial at the Massachusetts State House. One or more new objects are likely to be placed in the capsule, adding mystery for later generations to uncover.

Here are some additional photos taken during and after the capsule opening:

Silver plaque thought to be engraved by Paul Revere

Silver plaque thought to be engraved by Paul Revere (Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)


Contents of a time capsule

A wider view of the capsule’s contents. (Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)


Contents of a time capsule

The time capsule (cigar-sized brass box) with its cover and contents removed. (Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)


Officials at unveiling

Officials at unveiling. Michael Comeau, Executive Director, Massachusetts Archives; Pamela Hatchfield, Robert P. and Carol T. Henderson Head of Objects Conservation at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; William Galvin, Secretary of the Commonwealth and Chairman of the Massachusetts Historical Commission; Governor Deval Patrick; and Malcolm Rogers, Ann and Graham Gund Director. (Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Victor DeCurtis January 9, 2015 at 11:15 am

Move along folks! Nothing here to gawk at. Could these high brow mucky mucks be more secretive on what everything looks like? Gee, some cardboard boxes on a table. It could be anything.

Joe C. January 9, 2015 at 12:09 pm

When will we see closeup pics and descriptions of the coins?

Jim B. January 9, 2015 at 12:27 pm

Looking forward to some better pictures of the coins and more info on these papers. Very neat stuff.

Jim O January 10, 2015 at 10:53 am

More information & close up photos of Coins & medals/ contents PLEASE

BETTER explanation of specific contents

Some of us really ARE interested in what was found there & what will accompany return of said “capsule”

swamp yankee January 11, 2015 at 2:57 pm

I understand the last time this was removed from the building some members of the “brain trust” treated the coins w/ an acid dip! You may not want to see them now as they had to be damaged in some way. Former Mass. resident Carl I Asplind

Jim January 11, 2015 at 8:42 pm

I had heard such,swamp yankee. An attempt to “conserve” eh ? Wonder what today’s “conserved” coins will look like in 150-230 years ?

bert cabardo January 14, 2015 at 8:42 pm

It appears to us freemasons that the silver plaque given to Samuel Adams was awarded by the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts. Paul Revere was then the Grand Master of Free and Accepted Masons at that time.

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