About That Time Capsule...

By Wendy Swanson

Washington, D.C.

Friday, June 10, 2022

The laying of the Lincoln Memorial cornerstone on February 12, 1915. No public ceremony for the event but dignitaries and some other observers attended.


Questions about the existence and location of a time capsule in the Lincoln Memorial arose at one of the Lincoln Group’s recent dinner program meetings. In fact, there is a time capsule located in one of the monument’s cornerstones.


The cornerstone in question is the one located on the northeast corner of the monument. There was little in the way of fanfare when the stone was laid on February 12, 1915, at 3:07 p.m. No ceremony of what one would consider a formal nature, only “informal observation.” The stone itself has a purpose, serving as the base for the colonnade column on that corner of the building. The vital statistics of the cornerstone are as follows: 7 feet 10 inches square, with a height of 2 feet 9 ½ inches with an additional two inches of height in the beginning of the columns flutings integral with the base. The stone at 17 tons is no lightweight. As for the time capsule…


Careful planning took place to ensure that the capsule would be preserved and protected over the years. A cavity, an opening of 19 inches by 14 inches and 10 inches deep, was cut into the top of the stone. The space was to hold two copper boxes, designed by Frederick D. Owen of the Office of Public Buildings and Public Parks, one inside the other. However, some preparatory actions were needed prior to the depositing of the boxes into the cavity. First, five 2-inch squares of glass were placed in the bottom of the opening in the stone – one in each corner and the other in the center. The larger of the two boxes then was placed on top of these glass squares. Then additional glass squares, similar to those described above, were dropped into the cavity, one on each of the four sides, between the box and the stone walls.


Inside the bottom of this box were placed five more glass squares, again one in each corner and one in the center. The smaller copper box was then deposited inside the larger box, resting upon the glass squares. The second box contained the “time capsule treasures.” This box already had been filled (with the time-capsule appropriate mementos) and sealed at the office of the Lincoln Memorial Commission in the presence of officials including the Special Resident Commissioner, the executive and disbursing officer, the architect, contractor representatives and some spectators. Once again a square piece of glass was placed between the walls of the two boxes. The cover was then placed on the larger box and hermetically sealed via soldering. Voila! The cornerstone now held the time capsule.


The cornerstone was then placed in position by the masons and was declared by the Special Resident Commissioner, the Honorable J. C. S. Blackburn of Kentucky, as “set.” Blackburn then made the following statement to mark the occasion:

The Lincoln Memorial Commission at its recent meeting determined that the laying of this corner stone should not be attended by any public function, as there was not time in which to prepare for such a gathering as would be commensurate to the occasion.
The purpose of this Memorial that we are erecting is not to perpetuate the name or fame of him in whose honor it is builded (sic), but is intended rather as an evidence to generations that shall follow us of the admiration and love cherished by the American people. It can add no luster to the name and fame of Lincoln, but it is to stand through the coming ages as evidence of the gratitude and devotion in which Lincoln is held by his countrymen.

A copy of Blackburn’s remarks was placed in the time capsule.


An American flag was then unfurled above the stone. The ceremonies concluded with the placement of mortar by Blackburn and others associated with the work.


Now to the question many are asking. What are the contents of the time capsule? Certainly, no Union – or for that matter, Confederate - gold. Rather, the items included many documents pertaining to the construction of the monument itself (contracts, a photo of the ground breaking), to the nation’s history (the Constitution) and to the time of the cornerstone placement (current publications). A Bible placed in the time capsule held an autograph of Abraham Lincoln placed inside the cover. An autograph of Robert T, Lincoln, who closely followed the construction of the monument to his father, was on the first flyleaf of an included volume of the Life of Abraham Lincoln by Helen Nicolay.


The capsule also contains some, but not a lot of, money: $1 silver certificate, a silver dollar (1888), and 50, 25, 10, 5 and 1 cent pieces (1914) and about 15 pennies contributed by those present when the box was filled. In light of current ever-rising postal costs, the stamps of the day (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, and 10 cent) certainly do attract one’s attention. (A more detailed list of capsule contents will be included in the next print version of The Lincolnian.)


The information about the time capsule is contained in Edward F. Concklin’s The Lincoln Memorial in Washington, a publication prepared under the direction of The Director of Public Buildings and Public Parks of the National Capital. (United States Government Printing Office, Washington, 1927). Copies of the publication were given to those who were on the program of the 1922 Lincoln Memorial dedication including the Rev. Wallace Radcliffe, D.D., Pastor Emeritus,` of The New York Avenue Presbyterian Church. Radcliffe gave the invocation and the benediction at that event. We thank the church for allowing us to borrow the publication and for John O’Brien for facilitating that loan. The publication provided much valuable information as the Lincoln Group planned the recent Lincoln Memorial Centennial celebration.


(Photo credit: Library of Congress)