Students, faculty, and community members at Hamilton College got an intimate look at what campus life looked like more than 120 years ago, thanks to a surprise discovery of a time capsule buried by the class of 1890.
With members of the Archaeology Department faculty and the library special collection staff on hand, the College hosted a public opening of the time capsule on Tuesday. President David Wippman opened the box and presented each item with the help of Vice President for Libraries and Information Technology Joe Shelley, Special Collections Coordinator Mark Tillson, College Archivist Kathy Collett, and Director and Curator of Special Collections and Archives Christian Goodwillie.
Inside the box was a college catalogue for the 1889-1890 year; an issue of Hamilton Literary Monthly from May, 1890; newspapers printed by the Utica Morning Herald for the two days before the time capsule was buried, June 23 and 24, 1890; a course catalogue for the 1889-1890 year; the Hamiltonian yearbook for the Class of 1890; and numerous advertisements, presumably used as packing material.
Paper records were the most popular items to be included, but there were also some surprises, including a leather hat, a menu for the class banquet of the class of 1890 from 1887, and a noisemaker in two pieces (mouthpiece with whistle and horn) with an engraving indicating that it was “stolen” from another class.
In the late 19th century, it was customary for graduating classes to commission a stone carved with the year of their graduation. After commencement, the students would bury a box beneath the stone containing newspapers, magazines, and other memorabilia from their class year.
This ceremony was discontinued in the early 20th century, and many of the time capsules have already been recovered and stored in the archives.
The 1890 time capsule was only discovered due to the careful work of the road crew during campus construction.
“We’re very grateful to the road crew for their good instincts and attentiveness,” said Director and Curator of Special Collections and Archives Christian Goodwillie. “We had pretty low hopes that anything would be salvageable—things might have been destroyed by the equipment or water damage. Thankfully, the time capsule was double boxed and tightly sealed, and the road crew was very careful while uncovering it.”
Goodwillie learned about the burial of the time capsule from records of the Utica Morning Herald. He hopes the discovery of this time capsule will inspire a more deliberate effort to look through the archives for mentions of other capsules, which may still remain buried around campus.
Originally founded in 1793 as the Hamilton-Oneida Academy, Hamilton was chartered as a college in 1812. It is among the three dozen oldest colleges in the United States.
Although Goodwillie is eager to add items like newspapers and yearbooks to the archives, he adds that the more playful and humorous objects hold special value. “I think the most important thing is for students to see that there’s a continuity of culture on this campus, right back to the beginning. Even though the face of the campus has changed, the spirit of the students never changes,” he said.
President David Wippman echoed that sentiment. “Our college goes back to 1793,” he said. “We’re really proud of that long history, and seeing something like this helps bring that history to life. It reminds us that our predecessors were just like students today—just young people living their lives like any other time in history.”