A Sneak Peak Into a 137-Year-Old Time Capsule

On May 1, 1883, a crowd of people assembled on an open stretch of lawn north of Main Street, upon the grounds of what would become Watertown Free Public Library. They came to celebrate an important occasion: the construction of a new library building. After years of cramped quarters in the town hall, Watertown’s library would finally have “a house and home of its own” at 123 Main Street. [1]

Main Library exterior. Watertown Free Public Library, before 1900. Watertown Free Public Library Local History Collection.

The Library Board of Trustees, the Library Building Committee, and other prominent members of the community gathered around to say a few words and lay the cornerstone of the new building. As Chairman of the Library Board of Trustees, Charles J. Barry took pride of place. Though he was too ill to move unassisted or speak publicly, he looked on as Chairman of the Building Committee Abraham L. Richards opened the ceremony and Library Trustee George K. Snow read his address and presented a copper box, roughly 10 x 12 x 6 inches in size, before the crowd. Then “Mr. Snow, acting for Mr. Barry, placed the box in its receptacle, Mr. Richards spread the mortar by which a block of stone was cemented over it, and the ceremonies were complete.”

Charles J. Barry, charcoal drawing by Emma McLaughlin, 1888. Watertown Free Public Library Local History Collection.

What was in the copper box that went into the cornerstone? It’s locked away, cemented into the foundation of the building for years to come. But the day after the ceremony, the Watertown Enterprise printed a list of its contents, helpfully titled a “list of articles placed in the box for the corner stone of the free public library building.” Thanks to the journalists of the Enterprise, we can peak inside!

According to the Enterprise article, the time capsule is part snapshot in time…

  • Voting List of May 1, 1883, including Women’s Voting List
  • Cambridge Almanac of 1883
  • Manual of General Court, 1883
  • 28th Annual Report of Receipts and Expenditures,  1883 (catalog record)
  • Copies of Boston Daily Newspapers of May 1, 1883
  • Town Report for 1883 (annual report)
  • Copy of Railway Guide, of May, 1883
  • Copy of the Watertown Directory, in sheets, published in 1882 by Greenough & Co. (directory)
  • Ten Stereoscopic Views of Churches and Street Views in Watertown; presented by McLauthlin Brothers
  • Five Cent Nickels, letter V, of 1883
  • Silver Dollar, of 1883
The time capsule contains stereoscopic photographs of the town, like this stereograph of the south side of Main Street.

…and part record of the town’s past.

  • Map of Watertown, of 1850 (map)
  • Francis’ History of Watertown, date of 1830; presented by Tilden G. Abbot (Internet Archive)
  • Order of Exercises of Centennial Celebration in Watertown, 1876

It is an archive of the building committee…

  • Petition of citizens to building committee, requesting that Mr. Charles J. Barry, chairman of the Library Trustees, place the box in position, and assist in the ceremony of laying the corner stone
  • Copy of the Doings of the Building Committee to date, George K. Snow, secretary
  • Copy of the Doings of the Committee on Location of the Library Building, George K. Snow, secretary
  • Certified copies of the Votes of the Town relating to the Erection of the Library Building
  • Six copies of the Watertown Enterprise, containing articles relating to the library building
  • Three copies of a Description of the Library Building, taken from the Enterprise of September, 1882

…and an assortment of local institutional histories and memorabilia.

  • 250th Anniversary of the First Parish, November, 1880 (catalog record)
  • Record of the First Parish, (A. B. Fuller) 1861
  • Manual of the Phillips Church, Watertown, 1874
  • By-Laws of the Isaac B. Patten Post 81, G.A.R., 1878
  • Grand Army Badge
  • General Grant Medal, 1868
  • Copy of the first and last issue of the Pequossette, of dates of October 11, 1873 and March 3, 1882 (catalog record)

As luck would have it, we don’t need to bring out a construction crew to dig a little deeper. Some of these newspapers, reports, booklets, and maps can be found in the WFPL Local History Collection, no jackhammer necessary!

Ready to learn more about Watertown history? Head to watertownlib.org/local-history

by Caroline, WFPL Local History Librarian


“Time Capsule in Library Cornerstone.” Watertown Enterprise. May 2, 1883.

“Library Building—The Corner Stone.” Watertown Enterprise. April 25, 1883

[1] Annual report of the Board of Trustees of the Free Public Library of the Town of Watertown, 1884.

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