By JOHN Y. COLE
One of the final Bicentennial events this year will be the placement of the Bicentennial Time Capsule in a safe in the Librarian's ceremonial office in the Jefferson Building (the office of Librarians of Congress from 1897 until 1980, when the office was moved to the Madison Building.) The time capsule will contain items provided and suggested by Library of Congress staff that reflect daily life at the institution during its Bicentennial year. This Dec. 20 ceremony recalls two intriguing but never fully explained episodes in the Library's history: an 1890 Jefferson Building "time capsule" hastily buried in a cornerstone that was laid without ceremony, and a surprising discovery made in the closet safe in 1975 by Librarian Daniel J. Boorstin.
The Hurried Burial of the 1890 Time Capsule
After years of delay, construction of the Jefferson Building rapidly picked up speed after March 2, 1889, when Congress approved a $6 million plan proposed by the man it had placed in charge, Brig. Gen. Thomas Lincoln Casey, chief of the Army Corps of Engineers. In fact, it turned out that Gen. Casey and his chief assistant, Bernard Green, moved too fast for Congress when it came to a proper cornerstone inscription and ceremony.
Contemporary documents about the building's history had been carefully chosen for placement in the cornerstone, which was to be the ground level granite stone in the northeast corner. The documents, to be enclosed in "a hermetically sealed copper box," included Librarian of Congress Ainsworth Rand Spofford's Annual Reports for 1872 and 1888, Gen. Casey's Annual Reports for 1888 and 1889, two construction photographs, a detailed legislative history of the building and The American Almanac for 1889.
On May 17, 1890, a Joint Resolution was introduced in Congress that called for "suitable" cornerstone-laying ceremonies, supported by an appropriation of $2,000 "or so much thereof as may be necessary," and an invitation to "the Grand Master of Masons in and for the District of Columbia, or this Masonic jurisdiction" to participate in the ceremony. The resolution was tabled, however, possibly because of the plan to include the Masons in the event. Three months later, it suddenly became necessary to lay the cornerstone without any ceremony "to avoid serious delay in construction." So at the last minute, four newspapers (the Aug. 27, 1890, Washington Evening Star and the Aug. 28, 1890, issues of the Washington Post, the New York Tribune and the New York World) were added to the copper box. It was sealed, quickly enclosed in the granite cornerstone, a photograph was snapped, and that was it—no ceremony and, in fact, no inscription. On Jan. 16, 1952, more than 61 years later, the date was inscribed on the outside of the stone: Aug. 28, 1890 (see Information Bulletin, Aug., 25, 1952).
Revealed Secrets of the Librarian's Closet Safe
Surveying his ornate Jefferson Building office after becoming Librarian of Congress in 1975, Dr. Boorstin spotted a large package on one of the shelves of the walk-in closet safe. About the size of a shoe box, the package was wrapped in dusty brown paper and tied with faded tape. On the package someone had written "To be opened only by the Librarian of Congress." Inside was a leather box that Dr. Boorstin opened with a key that was tied to the handle. Inside the box was a smaller container of blue cardboard with a handwritten label: "Contents of the President's pockets on the night of April 14, 1865." The president of course was Abraham Lincoln and the label was correct. Dr. Boorstin reopened the box at a press conference on Feb. 12, 1976, and the contents went on display alongside other items from the Library's Lincoln collection, including the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural Address.
The blue cardboard container in the Librarian's safe contained two pairs of spectacles and a lens polisher; a pocketknife, a watch fob, a linen handkerchief and a brown leather wallet containing a $5 Confederate note and nine newspaper clippings, including several favorable to the president and his policies. Given to Lincoln's son, Robert Todd Lincoln, after the president's death, these everyday items were kept in the Lincoln family for more than 70 years. They came to the Library in 1937 as part of the generous bequest of Lincoln's granddaughter Mary Lincoln Isham that included several books and daguerreotypes, a silver inkstand and Mary Todd Lincoln's seed pearl necklace and matching bracelets. It is not clear why Librarians of Congress Herbert Putnam (1899-1939), Archibald MacLeish (1939-1944), Luther H. Evans (1945-1953) and L. Quincy Mumford (1954-1974) never opened the package, leaving it to Dr. Boorstin to put the items on public display. It is clear, however, that today the contents of Lincoln's pockets on the night he died are among the most popular items on display in the "American Treasures of the Library of Congress" exhibition in the Jefferson Building. (Some of these items are on loan to the Smithsonian Institution until the end of April.)
Mr. Cole is director of the Center for the Book and co-chair of the Bicentennial Steering Committee.