Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Photo by Julie Jacobson, Associated Press

After our recent PermaRec posts about time capsules, I found myself with lots of questions, so I got in touch with Nick Yablon, associate professor of American Studies at the University of Iowa, who's become something of a time capsule authority (and is shown above, reading the headlines from a 1914 edition of The New York Times that was contained in a recently opened time capsule). He agreed to do an email interview with me, which went like so:

Permanent Record: Notwithstanding ancient examples like Egyptian tombs and such, what's the history of the time capsule? Do we know when/where was the first one was buried (or stowed, or whatever)?

Nick Yablon: At the risk of sounding academic, it depends how you define "time capsule." If you define it loosely to refer to the burying or sealing of certain items in the hope that someone will find them at some point in the future, then this is clearly a very old practice. Americans have been filling cornerstones of buildings and monuments since at least the late eighteenth century. And they borrowed this practice from the masons who constructed Europe's cathedrals of the Middle Ages.

But if you define time capsules more narrowly, as a deposit of artifacts and messages to be opened on a specific date in the future, then that is relatively recent. After researching its origins for 5 years, I can safely say that nobody thought of doing that until 1876.

As for who can take the credit, that's also complicated. In 1876, several people seem to have come up with the idea independently, although not all of them followed through immediately. But, if forced to choose the winner, I'd go for Anna Deihm, a magazine publisher from New York City. She displayed a specially designed bank safe at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, and announced her plan to fill it with signatures and photographs of politicians (including the President), judges, scientists, inventors, and other leading Americans. It was eventually sealed for a hundred years in the U.S. Capitol.

PermaRec: Is there a period that could be considered the "golden age" of time capsules?

Yablon: I think time capsule buffs would probably identify the mid-twentieth century. The Westinghouse Corporation's time capsule at the New York World's Fair in 1939 brought the idea to a much larger public. It was for this exhibit that the term "time capsule" was coined, by Westinghouse's PR guru, George Edward Pendray. This time capsule — and a second one buried next door to it at the New York World's Fair of 1964 — captured the nation's imagination with the types of objects chosen, their missile-like design, and their long timespan (thousands of years). But by the 1970s, critics were complaining that time capsules had become solipsistic and banal.

Having said that, I would personally declare the late nineteenth century to be the real golden age. Because there was no standard protocol or even name for them, time capsules were more varied and experimental in that period. People were literally inventing a new tradition, and making it up as they went along.

PermaRec: Have time capsules been more prevalent in certain parts of the country?

Yablon: Nowadays, you would find them all across the country, and even in small towns (there are several in my adopted hometown of Iowa City). But in the late 19th and early 20th century, they were very much an urban phenomena. They cropped up in cities all across the country (although I've yet to find any in the South), and were generally launched by mayors, newspapers, churches, or philanthropists.

PermaRec: Are time capsules largely an American phenomenon, or have they been common in other countries?

Yablon: Yes, in the early years, this was a uniquely American tradition. Beyond the U.S., the earliest time capsule (defined as a deposit with a specified opening date) that I've found was one sealed in the basement of the Paris Opera House in 1907. Very Phantom of the Opera!

PermaRec: The term "capsule" brings to mind a specific shape — something round-ish and/or cylindrical. But most time capsules that I've seen have simply been boxes. How did the term "time capsule" originate, and was there a time when the capsules were more truly capsule-like?

Yablon: The first time capsule, as I mentioned, was a specially decorated bank safe. Thereafter, they tended to be small, plain boxes, made of iron, steel, lead, or wood. The one just opened in New York was unusually ornate: a bronze chest with legs in the shape of lion's paws, handles resembling ropes, and a finial crowning the lid. In the 1930s, Westinghouse introduced the capsule or missile shape — a brilliant way of conjuring the sense of a vessel hurtling through time. The capsule shape also evoked the streamline aesthetic of that decade. They were re-designing all sorts of objects to make them look more aerodynamic, even pencil sharpeners and toasters!

PermaRec: I've seen you quoted to the effect that "disappointment is the most common response to time capsule openings." Could you elaborate on that point?

Yablon: The fact that they have been sealed for so many years naturally stimulates all kinds of speculation about what is inside. In the case of the 1876 time capsule, there were even rumors it might contain gold or a skeleton. So the opening of a time capsule is bound to disappoint. Another issue is that the depositors' sense of what is interesting or worth preserving are inevitably different from what a later period might consider interesting or valuable.

PermaRec: Any other good time capsule anecdotes?

Yablon: The most bizarre thing I've found in a time capsule was a matchbox containing a human tooth. Even more bizarre was that the label claimed it was the molar of the French revolutionary, Robespierre. Sounds like a hoax to me.

PermaRec: Maybe I'm just spoiled by being a journalist working during the information age, but is there really much suspense regarding time capsule openings? I mean, hasn't someone left a list of what's inside the capsule, or maybe the list was published in the local newspaper back in the day? Doesn't that pretty much eliminate the element of surprise?

Yablon: You're right. People did compile inventories of their time capsules, and left copies of them in local libraries — or as you say, printed them in the local newspaper. I've often wondered why they did this, because it does kind of spoil the suspense! Perhaps it was to leave a clue to the existence of the time capsule, to prevent it from being forgotten — a common fate of many time capsules.

PermaRec: I'm also puzzled by instances of time capsules being "forgotten" and "rediscovered." My impression is that the capsules are usually buried/sealed/etc. with great fanfare. Do they really fade so readily from a town's (or business's, or museum's, or whomever's) institutional memory?

Yablon: Yes, it is surprising how often this has happened — and a reminder that even the grandest ceremonies are quickly forgotten. For instance, the very first time capsule was removed from Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol, and consigned to a storage space under the outside stairs. It was only rediscovered a few years before it was due to be opened. In an early science fiction novel, one author came up with an ingenious solution: miniature cylinders containing a message about the time capsule were sent out across the country.

PermaRec: Related to the above: It seems to me that the appeal of time capsules is rooted in a sense of wonder that's increasingly difficult to maintain in a technologically sophisticated, hyper-documented era. With that in mind, I find it interesting that time capsules are still being created today for future generations to open. So what is the current state of time capsules? How common — or, I guess, uncommon — are they today?

Yablon: The celebration of the millennium did renew interest in the phenomenon. The most widely publicized time capsule from that year was probably the one organized by the New York Times. I'm sure people will continue to deposit time capsules — and to come up with new ideas for time capsules — for some time to come. In fact, I would say that the instantaneous, electronic availability of vast amounts of information has increased, not decreased, our fascination with chests and troves that are inaccessible. Kind of like how the omnipresence of digital music has sparked interest in vinyl records.

PermaRec: I understand you've written a book about time capsules. When is that going to be published?

Yablon: The book is now about 70 percent completed. I'm hoping it will be out in a couple of years. Or maybe I should seal the manuscript in a box for a hundred years? Actually, that was an idea I read about the other day: a project to enlist one novelist each year to submit a book that would remain unpublished until 100 years from now. It's called the Future Library project, and Margaret Atwood has agreed to be the first contributor.

PermaRec: On balance, do you think time capsules have lived up to intended function of teaching future generations about the past?

Yablon: Well, I would say that they can tell us much about the past, but not necessarily what the depositors wanted us to know. In other words, they tell us much about the implicit hopes, fears, and prejudices of certain groups in the past. And in particular, they tell us that, since 1876, people no longer trusted the traditional forms of memory, such as libraries, monuments, or orally transmitted stories. The time capsule represents a modern, somewhat artificial way of transmitting our legacy to future generations.


Great stuff. Big thanks to Nick for sharing his time and expertise. You can learn more about him at his website.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

A few days ago I did a post about time capsules, so my ears perked up when I was listening to All Things Considered today and heard a report about a century-old time capsule that was forgotten about, rediscovered (inside the head of a lion statue, as you can see ablove), and just opened in Boston. Here's the audio of that segment:

It's straightforward enough, but I hate how the reporter, Audie Cornish, concludes the report by saying, "Stay tuned, history nerds." For starters, that's really condescending. More importantly, I've always thought that the whole point of time capsules is that they make history accessible and appealing to everyone, not just "nerds." Lazy, kneejerk remark by Cornish.

Anyway. Here's some video of that capsule being removed from the lion's head:

Meanwhile, I expect to publish an interview with time capsule expert Nick Yablon shortly — stay tuned.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Toyota recently launched a new six-commercial ad campaign for the 2015 Camry, and one of the spots (a screen shot from which is shown above) is very PermaRec-ish.

Before you watch the commercial, check out the script, which is delivered as a first-person narrative:

Started my Camry
Went to the auction
Won a storage locker
Found an old guitar
Tracked down the previous owner
Reunited them
Hit the jackpot

Now, if you've ever watched the TV show Storage Wars, you know that the people who bid on abandoned storage lockers tend to be professional salvage dealers, not random Camry owners, so it's rare for a "normal" person to win one of those auctions. It's even rarer for the lockers to contain anything of value. And it's well-nigh impossible for that thing of value to be connected to a famous person such as — here, just watch the commercial and see for yourself:

Pretty cheesy, right? Still, the impulse to reunite an object with its original owner is certainly one I can appreciate. And as aspirational fantasies go, the urge to investigate an item's past is certainly better than car advertising's usual fantasy, which is that the car will give you status and get you laid. Fortunately, as we've demonstrated many times here on Permanent Record, you can turn the "Let's find out who owned this" fantasy into reality without bidding on a storage locker — or driving a Toyota Camry, for that matter.

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Site Upgrade: If you look in the right-hand sidebar, you'll see that all of the site's entries are now tagged by category. I hope this will make the site easier and more fun to poke around in — enjoy.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

The top photo shows a 100-year-old sealed bronze time capsule that was recently opened in New York. The lower photo shows some of the capsule's contents -- newspapers, journals, yearbooks, a world almanac, and so on.

According to a New York Times article, the capsule was sealed on May 23, 1914, and was supposed to be opened 60 years later, on May 22, 1974. But before that could happen, the building that housed the capsule was demolished, and the capsule ended up in a storage warehouse. The 1974 unsealing was forgotten, as was the capsule itself until 1998, when it was rediscovered. It was finally opened last Wednesday at the New-York Historical Society (yes, they spell it with the hyphen). Some high school students who've been interning at the Society then presented the objects that they'll be placing in a new time capsule, to be opened in 2114. Those objects included the following (click to enlarge):

Time capsules have always struck me as sort of a big fuss over nothing. I get how they're supposed to be intriguing and all, but isn't there usually a list or other documentation of what's inside the capsule (like the photos of the contemporary objects shown above), and doesn't that pretty much eliminate any element of suspense of surprise? Couldn't you get a more interesting sense of the past just by poking around at a flea market or antiques shop?

I'm about to pose those questions (and others) to Nick Yablon, an academic who's something of a time capsule expert and has written a soon-to-be-published book on the topic. He's agreed to do a PermaRec interview, which I'll be posting here on the site shortly — stay tuned. Meanwhile, what do you folks think of time capsules? Post your thoughts in the comments.

Monday, September 29, 2014

At first glance, the drawing and photograph shown above are nothing remarkable. They show a fashion illustration and then a finished ensemble. It's not clear which came first — were the clothes based on the drawing, or the other way around? — but it's obvious that they show the same outfit.

Lurking beneath these clothing designs, however, is a fascinating story that's very, very Permanent Record.

Here's the deal: In 1997, a Milwaukee man named Burton Strnad was cleaning out his parents' house after having moved his mother to an assisted-living facility. He found a number of interesting artifacts, including a 1939 letter from his father's cousin, Paul Strnad, a Jew who at the time was in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia. The letter asked if the Milwaukee family could sponsor Paul and his wife, Hedvika, as they sought to immigrate to America. Hedvika was a dressmaker, and the letter was accompanied by eight of her drawings, to show that she was talented. The letter was also accompanied by this photo of Paul and Hedvika:

Unfortunately, as it turned out, Paul and Hedvika were unable to leave Czechoslovakia and perished in the Holocaust.

Burton Strnad — the man who found the letters and drawings in his parents' house — donated them to the Jewish Museum Milwaukee, where they became part of the museum's permanent collection. It wasn't until more than a decade later that the museum staff came up with the idea of bringing Hedvika Strnad's designs to life by actually making the clothes she had drawn and using them as the basis of an exhibit. That exhibit, called "Stitching History From the Holocaust," opened a few weeks ago and will run through next February.

The museum enlisted the Milwaukee Repertory Theater's costume department to create the clothing. The costumers did research to ensure that they were using period-appropriate fabrics that would have been available to Hedvika at the time. In an inspired touch, they also created a labeldesign featuring a "Hedy" signature, based on the handwriting shown on some of Hedvika's drawings:

And so this dressmaker's designs have finally been brought to life, seven decades after she herself died. To learn more about this fantastic story and see more of the drawings and dresses, check out this article and the exhibit's website.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Today is a special day. It was 18 years ago today — Sept. 28, 1996 — that I attended my friend Gina Duclayan's 30th birthday party in the gymnasium of the old Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan. It was during that party that I stumbled upon the file cabinet full of old Manhattan Trade School report cards that were about to be thrown out. My friends and I decided to rescue some of the cards (we ended up with about 400 of them, which I'd guesstimate to be about 10 percent of the total), a decision that has changed my life in several ways and led to the creation of the Permanent Record project. If you're not familiar with that story, you can learn more about that 1996 evening here.

That's Gina above. It's fitting that she's posing with a pineapple, the symbol of hospitality, because Gina's one of the most hospitable and gracious people I've ever known. She's also from Hawaii, the land of pineapples.

So happy birthday, Gina! And happy birthday to Permanent Record.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Photos by Rachel D'Oro, Associated Press

If you're into Nazi memorabilia — and a lot of people are — you might be interested in an auction taking place this weekend in Anchorage, Alaska, where they plan to sell off some Nazi armbands, a Hitler propaganda booklet, transcripts from the Nuremberg trials, and a letter that signs off, "Heil Hitler!" They were all found in a trunk that was discovered in a long-vacant house that was about to be listed for sale.

The house and the trunk belonged to a woman named Maxine Carr, who apparently died at least 10 years ago. She worked on the International Military Tribunal staff in Nuremberg back in the 1940, which is presumably when she acquired the Nazi mementos.

Carr's trunk also included paperwork relating to her job performance prior to going to Nuremberg. A supervisor gave her a rating of "Fair" in 1944, but Carr appealed to the Civil Service Commission, writing:

I performed a great deal more work than any other girl assigned to the same type of position, and I certainly believe that I should receive a higher rating than "Fair" for work completed, especially considering the unfavorable circumstances under which I had to work.

Paperwork found in the trunk indicates that her appeal was denied, with the Commission ruling that Carr "had not altogether convincingly rebutted" her supervisor's assessment.

You can read more about this here. Meanwhile, here are a few more photos of items found in Carr's trunk:

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Photos by Bob Luckey, GreenwichTime.com

The woman shown above is Alicia Collier, who lives in Old Greenwich, Connecticut. She's holding a postcard that was recently arrived at her address in the mail. Just one problem: The postcard wasn't for her — it was for a previous inhabitant of her house. That's because the postcard was mailed and postmarked in 1948 (click to enlarge):

As you can see, the postcard was addressed to Linda Benner. It's hard to read the message because it's sideways, so here's a transciption:

Dear Linda

This is where we are staying Thursday night. Look for the x and that marks our window.


It's not clear why the postcard took 66 years to be delivered. Collier, the woman who received it, did some research and determined that Linda Benner, the card's intended recipient, was five years old when the card was mailed in 1948. Here's how she looked around that time:

Unfortunately, Linda and her mother, who sent the postcard, are both now deceased. But one of Linda's sisters is still alive, and Collier plans to deliver the postcard to her soon. You can read more about this here.

I learned about this story from PermaRec reader Cliff Corcoran. He's the stepson of Linda Benner's living sister — the one to whom the postcard will soon be returned. Small world.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Speak of the devil: Small Town Noir, the excellent mug shot-centric site I wrote about just a few days ago, is going to be featured tonight as part of a documentary being aired on the Canadian cable channel TVO. Further details here.

Unfortunately, my cable package doesn't include TVO. But for you Canadian folks, this looks highly worthwhile.

Friday, September 19, 2014

All photos from Small Town Noir; click to enlarge

I've recently become aware of a fantastic project by a Scottish parliamentary reporter named Diarmid Mogg, who has an endearingly niche-specific hobby: He collects mid-century mug shots and their accompanying police reports from one particular city — New Castle, Pennsylvania, a now-faded manufacturing town about an hour north of Pittsburgh. Then he searches the online archives of New Castle's daily newspaper, The New Castle News, to learn more about the arrestees, their alleged crimes, and the anything else he can discover about their lives. Because the News was the type of paper that documented virtually every aspect of its local community, Mogg is sometimes able to piece together a surprisingly vivid picture of a mug shot subject's life, from birth announcement to obituary. In other cases, the pickings are slimmer. Either way, Mogg chronicles all of this in his wonderful blog, Small Town Noir, which he's been writing since 2009.

Mogg is a sharp enough storyteller to recognize that the crimes these people were accused of were often much less interesting than the other aspects of their lives. In the case of the mug shots shown above, for example, the gentleman in the photos was named Frank Heckathorn. Mogg spends eight nicely crafted paragraphs explaining how Heckathorn and his cousins had been picking blackberries in the woods in 1921 when they came upon the unconscious body of a badly beaten 14-year-old girl. This turns out to be completely unrelated to the Heckathorn's mug shots, which resulted from an arrest for indecent exposure in 1943 — an incident that Moggs mentions at the end, almost as an afterthought.

In other words, the mug shots are intriguing as historical artifacts but are even more interesting when viewed as portals into people's lives — just like the report cards that inspired Permanent Record. And just as the report cards led me to seek out and become acquainted with the descendants of the Manhattan Trade School students, Mogg has developed an intimacy with the people connected to his project. As he recently wrote:

Since I started researching and publishing the stories behind the mug shots on the Small Town Noir website, I’ve visited New Castle a couple of times, tracked down crime scenes, met relatives of the people I’ve written about — I’ve even attended the 95th birthday party of a man who had his mug shot taken at the age of seventeen, in 1935, when he was charged with stealing a car. (The return of his mug shot was my birthday gift to him.) Over those years, I’ve come to feel something like love for New Castle and the people whose lives I’ve tried to piece together.

That quote comes from an article Mogg wrote for a narrative history website called The Appendix. It provides the best overview of what he and Small Town Noir are about, including a good explanation of how he began collecting the mug shots, how they became available in the first place, and so on. I strongly recommend that you start there and then dig into Small Town Noir itself.

One additional detail worth mentioning: As longtime PermaRec readers are aware, I've written several times about lost class rings being found. So I laughed when I read this Small Town Noir entry about a 1945 mug shot, which includes the following passage about the arrestee:

By the 1970s ... Charles [the arrestee] was made foreman of the city’s sewers. In 1976, he was working in a sewer in Winter Avenue when he found a 1942 class ring inscribed with the initials MAS hanging on a broken tree branch. He called New Castle High, whose staff checked their records and told him that it must have belonged to Mary Agnes Schetrom. Charles’s friend, Frank Gagliardo, had been the Schetroms’ paper boy and still knew some friends of the family, who told Charles that Mary Agnes was living on Kenneth street. Two hours after he had found the ring, Charles returned it to Mary Agnes, who told him she had accidentally dropped it down her toilet in 1946 and had not expected to see it again.

The story of a lost class ring lurking within the story of a vintage mug shot — very meta, at least from a Permanent Record perspective.

Friday, September 12, 2014

I've featured many stories about lost class rings being found. But the story of the ring you see above stands out for at least three reasons:

1. The ring was lost in 1970 and found this year -- a 44-year gap!

2. The ring was successfully reunited with its original owner.

3. The ring was found by a St. Louis sewer crew, which found it while cleaning a clogged sewer line. The ring (which was not the source of the clog) had apparently been there for four decades. Hmmm, would you wear a ring that had spent that long in a sewer, or even want to own it?

You can read more about this here.

(Big thanks to James Poisso for pointing me toward this one.)

The ring you see above is more than 100 years old. The little design on the top, or what remains of it, is the crest of the Roosevelt family. Yes, that Roosevelt family.

The ring is currently owned by Theodore Roosevelt V — the 38-year-old great-great-grandson of America's 26th president. He inherited the ring, along with some other jewelry (cuff links, tie tacks, etc.), when his grandfather died in 2001. He assumed the ring was important to his grandfather but didn't know anything else about its history.

As you may be aware, PBS is about to begin airing a seven-part Ken Burns series about the Roosevelts. TR V, as one of family's living heirs, got to see an advance version of it during the summer. And during one scene, he spotted a familiar piece of jewelry on his great-great-grandfather's left pinky (click to enlarge):

A bit of additional research confirmed that TR V's ring was indeed the same ring that had been worn by his famous ancestor. He'd had no idea.

You can read more about all of this here.

Friday, May 30, 2014

The photo blog Humans of New York, which launched in 2010, consists of portraits of NYC residents, accompanied by short quotes and stories. It's a relatively popular site and has been spun off into a best-selling book, so maybe you already know about it.

The site recently featured the photo you see above. It was accompanied by a short, cryptic quote — "I was Defensive Player of the Year" — and prompted a lot of interesting comments from Humans of New York readers, who read all sorts of things into the man's life just based on that one image and the simple statement.

That was enough to intrigue Sports Illustrated writer Greg Bishop, who became fixated on the question of how the guy in the photo had transitioned from some sort of athletic glory to a construction job. Bishop had nothing to work with except the photo itself, so he began using every tool and technique he could think of to track down the man's identity.

The result turned out to be a very PermaRec-ish little project, which you can read about here — highly recommended.

(Big thanks to reader Jeff Ash for letting me know about this one.)

Thursday, May 29, 2014


The camera shown above was recently found in 40 feet of water — and with quite a few aquatic creatures living on it and in it — by marine science students who were doing research dives off of British Columbia, Canada. The divers were able to remove the camera's memory card and access the photos and video that, rather amazingly, were still preserved and intact.

One of the photos appeared to be a family portrait, so the students' professor posted it on Twitter in the hopes that someone would recognize the people in the photo. A local coast guard official saw the photo and recognized one of the family members as a shipwreck victim that the coast guard had rescued two years earlier. The camera apparently went down with that wreck and remained in the sea until the student divers found it.

The camera and memory card are now being returned to their owner. You can read more about the story here, and here's a TV news report on the camera's discovery.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

I've written several times this spring about old employee photo I.D. badges. Now PermaRec reader Kirsten Hively has found one of those badges in an unusual place: the familiar "Rosie the Riveter" poster, shown above.

See that little pin on Rosie's collar? Looks like an employee I.D. badge, right? I've looked at that illustration a gazillion times but had never noticed the badge until Kirsten pointed it out to me the other day. Let's take a closer look at it:

It's a Westinghouse Electric employee I.D. badge! That makes sense, because the Rosie illustration was commissioned by Westinghouse's War Production Coordinating Committee, which was looking to inspire the company's female workforce. You can learn more about that here and here. (Those links also explain why the it's actually a misnomer to refer to the poster as "Rosie the Riveter," but I'm going to keep calling it that for now, because it's a convenient, easily understood shorthand.)

The Rosie image has been adapted, copied, and repurposed countless times over the years. Some women taking inspiration from the image make a point of including the I.D. badge while others don't bother with it. Maybe those in the latter category were using this "How to look like Rosie" guide, which doesn't include the badge.

And here's someone who flopped the original orientation of the Rosie image and then Photoshopped her own face onto it, apparently not realizing (or caring) that the "Westinghouse Electric" lettering on the original badge would appear backwards on her flopped version.

Did Westinghouse Electric really have badges like the one shown in the illustration? They sure did. Not only that, but some enterprising soul on Etsy has used that badge design as the basis for a replica Rosie I.D. badge. (They also offer the same design as a zipper pull, but come on — that's cheating.)

Anyway: Employee photo I.D. badges — endlessly fascinating!

(Big thanks to Kirsten Hively for spotting Rosie's badge.)