A Colonial Time Capsule

In 1795, Samuel Adams and Paul Revere placed a box under the foundation of the new Massachusetts State House.  On Tuesday, that box was opened — very carefully.

Inside, a conservator from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts found five folded newspapers, two dozen coins including a “Pine Tree Schilling” from 1652, a George Washington medal, a Massachusetts seal, and a silver plate made for the occasion by ace silversmith Paul Revere himself.  Even cooler, the silver plate has visible fingerprints on it . . . presumably those of the man whose famous midnight ride warned colonists that “the British are coming” and helped trigger the American Revolution.

Although news reports describe the box as a time capsule, technically that is not correct because time capsules are designed to be opened at a particular date — usually, a century or two later.  Instead, the box is part of a much more ancient tradition of putting material in the foundation of building.  That practice dates back to ancient Mesopotamia and, over the centuries, has been employed in the construction of colossal medieval cathedrals and, more recently, been adopted by fraternal organizations like the Masons.

Indeed, in 1793 George Washington laid such a ceremonial cornerstone in the foundation of the U.S. Capitol building.  That ceremonial cornerstone has never been found and its contents are unknown — although I’m guessing it has played a role in a Dan Brown-type novel or a Nicholas Cage movie.

The Fez

On Mother’s Day we had the family over, and Mom brought over a surprise for me:  Grampa Neal’s fez from the Tadmor Shrine in Akron, Ohio.  The fez is an evocative item; you feel a connection when you hold something that you know another person once wore.  This fez is a sturdy piece of work, with a leather hat band, a well-preserved tassel, and the familiar Shriners logo.

Grampa Neal's fez

I don’t know much about Grampa’s activities in the Shriners — technically, the Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine.  Like many people of his generation, he was a joiner.  He was a Mason, a Shriner, and an Odd Fellow, and perhaps belonged to other fraternal organizations I don’t know about.  There isn’t a lot of information about the Shriners on the web, either.  The home page of the Tadmor Shrine in Akron, Ohio is here.  You can see the Tadmor Shrine building, which looks like it has been around since Grampa was a member, and learn about the current officers, but it doesn’t provide the kind of historical information I was hoping to find.  When did Grampa join?  Did he hold any offices?  And — even though this is unimaginable to me — did he ever drive one of those tiny cars in a Memorial Day parade?

According to the Tadmor Shrine website, the organization is based on “Masonic principles of brotherly love, relief and truth.”  It is clear that Shriners do some good work, through their hospitals for children and support for local organizations.  But what exactly is the connection between Shriners and Masons?  Wikipedia indicates that you have to have completed some levels of Masonry to be a Shriner and provides some history, but that is about it.  A Google search doesn’t yield much, either, although it doesn’t take long before you start to get into secret conspiracy-type websites and the kind of speculation that made National Treasure such a romp.

I’m just going to have to reconcile myself to the fact that I’ll probably never know what Grampa Neal did with the fez on, or what secrets he learned and kept faithfully.