ATCHISON, KS—A deep sense of disappointment gripped the citizens of Atchison, KS, Tuesday, when a 60-year-old time capsule unearthed from the site of a demolished library was found to contain a bunch of useless old crap.
"What were the people who buried this thing thinking?" asked Atchison mayor Donald Kirschwald, following a capsule-opening ceremony at Atchison Town Hall. "None of this stuff is worth a red cent. It's all a bunch of stupid, worthless junk: newspapers, photographs, children's toys, sheet music, a pen knife, an iron and some rusty kitchen appliances. Big deal."
The capsule—a large wooden crate bearing the words, "For The People Of The Future, So That They May Come To Know Us"—is believed to have been buried in 1939 during the dedication of the just-built Atchison Public Library. Earlier this month, as the library was torn down to make room for a new Steak & Shake, demolitions workers came across the capsule, which had been sealed in the building's cornerstone.
Though the capsule also bore the instructions, "Not to be unsealed until 2939 A.D.," civic leaders decided it should be opened as soon as possible.
"Everyone was very excited about the capsule," Kirschwald said. "We thought, 'What if it contains gold? Or pirate treasure? Or a deed to a diamond mine?' We also figured that by the time 2939 rolled around, folks would probably know how to synthesize gold and other precious metals anyway, so why let them get all the good stuff when we could really use it now?"
As word got around Atchison that the contents of a circa-1939 time capsule were to be revealed in a public ceremony, rumors about its contents began to fly. Local residents conjectured that it contained everything from solid-gold Egyptian tomb idols to the British crown jewels to vials of pure uranium.
"The speculation really got ridiculous," Kirschwald said. "How would a Kansas farm town get a hold of Egyptian tomb idols, especially during the Depression? It's just absurd. Now, Disney stock certificates, that's what I was counting on."
But when the capsule was finally opened, a collective groan rose up among Atchison residents. Instead of treasure, the capsule merely yielded banal items of everyday function. Among the "artifacts" were photographs of prominent Atchison residents, postcards of town landmarks, a spoon, a vacuum tube, a measuring pitcher, an alarm clock, a Bakelite comb, a washboard, a pair of spectacles, a die-cast toy car, a Sears-Roebuck catalog, a pair of leather shoes made in the now-defunct Atchison Shoe Works, detailed statistics of Atchison County's 1938 agricultural output, and a stack of hand-written county birth records.
"The first question was, 'Why?' Why would the town fathers bury a box full of junk?" Kirschwald asked. "A letter included with the time capsule explained that the items are designed to give future generations an idea of how people lived and what life was like in Atchison in 1939. Well, who cares about that?"
Added Kirschwald: "Yeah, pretty impressive, people of 1939. Thanks for giving us the priceless, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to look at all of your old garbage."
Perhaps the most unusual item in the capsule was an elaborately calligraphed document titled, "A Proclamation To The Peoples Of The Distant Future."
"It is our profound hope," the document read, "that as the clouds of war once again darken the Earth here in 1939, you, our descendants of the year 2939, will have come to realize that the destruction of civilization in the name of nationalism is too great a price to bear. It is also our hope that peace, harmony and prosperity will embrace your world as it has eluded ours."
"Boring!" said Cub Foods cashier Sherri Gower, 20, who witnessed the capsule-opening ceremony during a cigarette break. "It would've been a lot more interesting if they'd included something cool, like a signed murder confession from a famous citizen or a severed hand or something. Instead, they give us some big lecture about how bad war is. Well, duh."
University of Kansas history professor Dr. Curtis Dandridge said the capsule's dullness is a reflection of the time from which it came.
"The 1930s were one of the most boring eras in American history," Dandridge said. "People didn't have a lot of money or education, so they amused themselves in simple ways. Yes, there were movies, but they were in crude black-and-white and didn't have any swearing, nudity or special effects. Radio also existed, but the programs were hokey and old-fashioned. So planting a time capsule was, for these people, a departure from their horribly dull routines. But their poverty, combined with their naïvete and limited knowledge of the world, left them no choice but to put cheap, uninteresting stuff in their time capsule."
The capsule's contents are currently being stored in a broom closet in Atchison Town Hall.
"It's yours for the taking, if you're interested," Kirschwald said. "But we'll probably end up tossing that stuff out. Not even the libraries around here want that crap. Do you know anyone who uses vacuum tubes these days?"