Stanford Report Online

Stanford Report, April 10, 2002

Copper box steals the show: 1898 time capsule opened


There was a Dixieland-style band, a floral wreath the size of a truck tire, a flock of robed academics and a burnished, century-old carriage drawn by two white horses. But the star of the Founders' Celebration that ended Sunday's Community Day celebration was an old copper box with a punctured top.

The box was a time capsule uncovered last summer in Building 160, when a tool wielded by construction worker Manuel Astorga struck the box in a wall in the basement. The long-forgotten capsule had been deposited in the cornerstone of the building in November 1898. The sandstone building was the first of the Outer Quadrangle buildings constructed and originally held a library.

University Archivist Maggie Kimball discovered a list detailing the capsule's contents, which were selected by Jane Stanford herself, and secreted it away. A contest to guess what Jane Stanford did -- or should have -- put inside the capsule launched last fall drew more than 300 entries.

On Sunday, drama Lecturer Patricia Ryan, portraying Jane Stanford, carried the capsule in her lap as she rode in a carriage that belonged to the Stanford family in a procession to the ceremony. She handed the capsule to Kimball, who opened it and handed the contents, one by one, to Board of Trustees Chair Isaac Stein, who revealed them to a crowd of 800 people. "This is Stanford's own Antiques Roadshow," Stein quipped.

The items, all found in good condition, included:

  • A Bible

  • University registers from 1891 to 1898, listing courses, faculty and students

  • Circulars 1 to 6, a half-dozen periodicals published by Stanford, including such information as entrance requirements and transcripts of speeches given on Opening Day in 1891

  • A book with Leland Stanford's plan for the university's organization and the founding grant

  • A copy of a student literary publication, Sequoia, dated Oct. 28, 1898

  • A series of 1898 coins, ranging from a nickel to a $20 gold piece

  • Copies of newspapers from San Francisco and Palo Alto (which included, Stein pointed out, a real estate listing for a 10-room house in Palo Alto on a half-block lot for $5,000)

  • A copy of Following of Christ, by Thomas à Kempis

  • A copy of the hymn sung at the 1898 cornerstone ceremony

  • A crucifix

  • A photograph of Thomas Welton Stanford, younger brother of Leland Stanford and Building 160's first namesake

  • A letter written by Jane Stanford confessing her gratitude to God and a detailed account of the circumstances that led to the construction of the Thomas Welton Stanford Library

The letter, written while funds from Leland Stanford's estate had yet to be distributed -- Mrs. Stanford was using her own household funds to keep the university afloat -- "was very 'on the edge' for Jane Stanford," said Kimball on Monday. "It was extremely emotional."

In the letter, Jane Stanford poured her heart out about how difficult the time had been, Kimball said. "She was really feeling the pressure. It's a real contrast to our other materials."

Kimball was still sorting through a database holding the hundreds of contest entries on Monday. The top two closest guesses were identical, Kimball said, and appear to have shared the same source: a November 1898 copy of the Stanford Daily. "These two people, who will be winners, actually figured out where they could find the answers and went to the archives of the Stanford Daily," she said.

The two entries, while the most accurate entered, shared an identical error -- because the list published in the paper was slightly wrong, Kimball said. The paper listed five university circulars, not six, she said.

Winners of the contest will be announced by the end of the week, Kimball said. Their names will appear on the website at

The time capsule and its contents are currently on display in a case in the reading room at the Bing Wing of the Cecil H. Green Library. They won't remain on display for long, since the light and air can cause the items to deteriorate, Kimball said.