The bucolic Gothic Revival-style campus of Oglethorpe University is steps away from the hustle and bustle of Peachtree Road in Brookhaven. It was here in 1940 that then-college President Thornwell Jacobs” “Crypt of Civilization” was sealed, arguably kicking off the modern-day time capsule movement that led to the founding of the International Time Capsule Society here. CONTRIBUTED BY JENNI GIRTMAN / ATLANTA EVENT PHOTOGRAPHY
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Trying to locate a time capsule? Answer might be at Oglethorpe

The envelopes are postmarked from small towns and big cities throughout the U.S. and at least a half-dozen foreign countries. For every thick, expertly tabbed and indexed report, there are many more forms filled out by hand and paper-clipped to aging snapshots or newspaper articles.

There’s a VHS tape submitted by a town in Massachusetts. And the occasional charming letter from a child, complete with penciled misspellings and schematics to the family home.

“Please registar (sic) my time capsule,” a third-grader from Missouri wrote in 1999, providing the street address of her house. “I will buried (sic) it under my slide on the west side of my house.”

Technically, the material that’s carefully packed inside five sturdy boxes and housed on shelves at the Archives and Special Collections of the Philip Weltner Library at Oglethorpe University, is part — but not all — of an ambitious registration project launched years ago by the Atlanta-born International Time Capsule Society (ITCS).

Emotionally, though, the collection speaks to something much deeper and more human than that.

Eli Arnold, director and university librarian of Oglethorpe’s Weltner Library, in the Archives and Special Collections room of the library. It’s here where the earliest, paper submissions to the International Time Capsule Registry are carefully kept in boxes. JILL VEJNOSKA/ JVEJNOSKA@AJC.COM
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

“You define yourself when you do a time capsule,” said Paul Hudson, a history professor at Georgia State University Perimeter College in Clarkston. “People always ask, ‘What should I put in it?’ There’s no easy answer to that.”

Fascination with time capsules — and with officially registering them — is an international affair. This is one of several carefully itemized pages attesting to the contents of a time capsule submitted to the registry in 2000 by the Traffic Police Department of the Singapore Police Force. JILL VEJNOSKA/ JVEJNOSKA@AJC.COM
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

It was becoming a one-stop answer shop of sorts on the arguably quirky subject of time capsules that led Hudson, then Oglethorpe’s registrar and a history lecturer, to found ITCS with three other experts in 1990. Based at Oglethorpe’s Gothic Revival-style campus that’s steps away from the hustle and bustle of Peachtree Road in Brookhaven, ITCS promoted the “careful study” of time capsules — defined by the founders as “a container used to store for posterity a selection of objects thought to be representative of life at a particular time.”

They created a Time Capsule Registration form, and encouraged submissions from, well, everywhere. A surprisingly comprehensive set of questions covering everything from the purpose and precise location of a capsule to when it’s to be opened and what’s inside (“from the important to the trivial”), the registry was part of ITCS’ ambitious goal of “document(ing) all types of time capsules throughout the world.”

A thick sheaf of envelopes filled with time capsule registration forms submitted to the International Time Capsule Society. There’s now an online version of the form that automatically inputs info to a spreadsheet; these “unprocessed” forms, some of which date back to the early to mid-1990s, are carefully held in the Archives and Special Collections area of the library at Oglethorpe University. JILL VEJNOSKA/ JVEJNOSKA@AJC.COM
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

While the ITCS is currently inactive, people haven’t stopped registering their time capsules. There’s an online version of the form now that automatically inputs information to a spreadsheet, and two to three new ones arrive weekly, said Eli Arnold, director and university librarian of Oglethorpe’s Weltner Library. The total amount of registrations submitted is thought to number in the thousands.

Somewhere up there, Thornwell Jacobs must be smiling at what he helped inspire.

Longtime Oglethorpe University President Thornwell Jacobs is credited with coming up with the concept of the modern-day time capsule. Here he looks at film that would be encased in “The Crypt of Civilization,” which is located on the campus in Brookhaven and isn’t scheduled to be reopened until the year 8113. CONTRIBUTED BY OGLETHORPE UNIVERSITY ARCHIVES
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

As Oglethorpe’s president from 1915 to 1943, Jacobs was the driving force behind reviving the university that had originally opened outside Milledgeville in 1838, then shut down during the Civil War. Jacobs is credited with moving the school to its present high-profile location, awarding honorary degrees to the likes of Amelia Earhart and Franklin Delano Roosevelt and — in a move that really put Oglethorpe on the map — inventing the modern-day time capsule.

Or, as he irresistibly dubbed the novel project he conceived in 1936, then spent four years turning into reality: “The Crypt of Civilization.”

A photo taken before “The Crypt of Civilization” was sealed, showing some of the items placed inside. CONTRIBUTED BY OGLETHORPE UNIVERSITY ARCHIVES
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

“Thornwell Jacobs wanted to preserve things for posterity, but he was also a publicity guy,” said Arnold. “News organizations all over the world covered it for years, and everyone wanted to send something to be included in the Crypt.”

No less an authoritative source than the Guinness Book of World Records declared the Crypt “the first successful attempt to bury a record of this culture for any future inhabitants or visitors to the planet Earth.” Located in the basement of Phoebe Hearst Memorial Hall, it’s encased in a reinforced concrete and granite room measuring 20 feet long by 10 feet wide and high. Scheduled to be reopened in the year 8113 — yes, really — it’s filled with works of art (hundreds of classic books on microfilm, and an original copy of the “Gone With the Wind” script); artifacts of politics and popular culture (voice recordings of Hitler, FDR and Popeye the Sailor); beloved pastimes (Lincoln Logs, and a specially created and sealed ampule of Budweiser), plus thousands more items.

“Nothing has been left to chance,” The Atlanta Journal wrote the day before the Crypt was sealed up behind a massive steel door in an elaborate ceremony on May 28, 1940. Written copies of the Crypt’s history and location were being distributed around the world, the Journal reported, due to “the fact that Atlanta may be no more in the year 8113.”

So far, so good. It’s nearly 2018 and Atlanta’s still here. So is the Crypt of Civilization, although the site (actually, the outer door and a plaque) is only available for viewing on certain occasions now. Hudson’s academic career eventually took him away from Oglethorpe, although he’s still a sought-after speaker and expert source on time capsules, Jacobs and the Crypt.

Paul Hudson was a co-founder of the International Time Capsule Society in 1990 when he worked and taught at Oglethorpe University. He’s now a history professor at Georgia State University Perimeter College in Clarkston, where he helped install this time capsule on campus in 2004. To be opened in June 2025, its contents include a circa-1960s Barbie doll, an IBM Selectric typewriter, an Afro pick, a Rubik’s Cube and other items reflective of American society and culture from 1963-2004. JILL VEJNOSKA/ JVEJNOSKA@AJC.COM
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

The Crypt section of Oglethorpe’s website explains that the ITCS is “currently … not active,” but also provides a link to the registration form. Occasionally, completed forms still arrive by mail, said Arnold, who hopes to one day incorporate all the material in those carefully maintained Archives boxes into one “nice spreadsheet” of time capsule registrations.

“We want to be good stewards of people’s information and expectations,” Arnold said.

Mostly, it appears they’re a very patient people. Take, for instance, the Minnesota middle school class that registered its time capsule in May 1996. Attached to the back of the form is a two-page list containing students’ names, addresses and home phone numbers — along with a neatly typed message across the top:

“Please contact the following people in the year 2049.”

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