In the Library: Henry Cogswell’s “Box with Mementos for the Historical Society,” Unpacking a Time Capsule from the Gilded Age San Francisco


Tuesday, September 10, 2019 6:30PM

In the Library:
Henry Cogswell’s “Box with Mementos for the Historical Society,” Unpacking a Time Capsule from the Gilded Age San Francisco
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Please reserve prior to the event. Our space has capacity for 25.

Where: California Historical Society Headquarters in the North Baker Research Library, 678 Mission Street, San Francisco, CA 94105

This talk will explore a unique collection from the California Historical Society: a time capsule from 1879. Deposited by an eccentric dentist and millionaire in a drinking fountain at the intersection of Columbus and Montgomery avenues in San Francisco, the “Antiquarian Box” was opened on schedule, a century later, by then-mayor Dianne Feinstein. Time capsules are generally thought to have been a later innovation, introduced to the public at the New York World’s Fair of 1939 by Westinghouse Electric Company, whose PR consultant coined the term. But as Nick Yablon will show, drawing from his new book, Remembrance of Things Present: The Invention of the Time Capsule, the practice first emerged as a civic ritual during the Gilded Age. The very first time capsule sealing took place only a few months before Cogswell’s.

What motivated Cogswell to pioneer this new device for dispatching documents to future historians? What led him to flout traditional memorialization practices by soliciting contributions from ordinary San Franciscans, including immigrants and women? Why did he decide to preserve printed ephemera and manufactured artifacts – sources that contemporaneous historians rarely considered legitimate? And, most importantly, given the anti-capitalist and anti-Chinese unrest that was convulsed his city in the late 1870s, what was his political intent in sealing his “P.O. Box to the Future”? Yablon will tackle these questions by exhibiting and examining the documents and objects from the actual box.

About our Speaker:

Nick Yablon received his Ph.D. in history from the University of Chicago and is associate professor of history at the University of Iowa. His area of expertise is nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century US history, with a focus on urbanism, memory and monument studies, material culture, photography, and the changing experiences of space and time in modernity. He is the author of Untimely Ruins: An Archaeology of American Urban Modernity, 1819-1919 (University of Chicago Press, 2009), and Remembrance of Things Present: The Invention of the Time Capsule (University of Chicago Press, 2019), and has published articles in Journal of Urban History, American Quarterly, Journal of American Studies, American Literary History, Winterthur Portfolio, American Nineteenth Century History, American Art, and History of Photography, among others. He has also received fellowships from the Getty Research Center, the American Antiquarian Society (NEH-funded), and the New-York Historical Society (NEH-funded).