SEATTLE CENTER, AS NEARLY every Emerald City dweller knows by now, will spend this year feting the Century 21 Exposition, the city-transforming World’s Fair that began 50 years ago next month. The celebration will include a 10k marathon, talks by local visionaries, and the return of the King Tut exhibit. And, forgoing the de rigueur cylindrical tube filled with artifacts of the day, Seattle Center brass have opted to establish a virtual time capsule, one in which locals share their experiences via audio and video and post them online for future audiences.
Not a bad idea, given our region’s track record with physical time capsules. Some get lost (the state Department of Transportation can’t say what’s become of the capsule placed in the Aurora Bridge in 1932), some get punked (pranksters in the 1980s stowed porn magazines in a 1957 capsule at the University of Washington, shocking the septuagenarians who opened it in 2007), and some, well, some suffer the fate of the capsule prepared in 1927.
Ten thousand basketball fans poured into the new UW pavilion on that December night almost 85 years ago. They sat under the roof of the state-of-the-art $600,000 athletic facility, ferried there in Model Ts—though some would have rolled up in newfangled Model As, just introduced that year—to witness the Huskies lay waste to the University of Illinois Fighting Illini and christen the new building.
Local dignitaries took center court prior to the game, including the governor, the mayor, and UW president Lyle Spencer, his dark hair expertly pomaded into right angles. Swept up in the excitement of the era—in the year Lindbergh soared over the Atlantic, the decade the word astronaut was coined—not knowing economic collapse was just months away, the audience cheered as the luminaries dedicated the building and sealed a time capsule.
The contents in the capsule formed a kind of message, what Washington State University librarian and author of Time Capsules: A Cultural History William Jarvis calls “an effort to portray the contemporary present culture…to future recipients.” But capsule creators, Jarvis notes, “really don’t know for certain what will interest people who retrieve what is sent to them.”
Once the capsule was sealed into the gymnasium wall, time worked its trick on the outside world. Stock market crash. Hitler. Moon landing. Starbucks.
The decades spun by until, at the very end of the twentieth century, a new generation of Seattleites crowded the gym—by then renamed Hec Edmundson Pavilion—to kick off a $39 million renovation and unseal the capsule. It was March 1999.
Inside the crypt: A December 1927 edition of the Seattle Daily Times, a UW Daily, some paperwork, and…a dime.
Underwhelmed, the crowd booed. A 21-year-old woman was overheard calling the time capsule “stupid.” A male cheerleader told a Seattle Times reporter that he “liked the shoes,” only to be reminded that the capsule didn’t contain shoes.
“With a time capsule, you’re saying to the future, ‘This is what’s important,’” notes Lorraine McConaghy, a historian at Seattle’s Museum of History and Industry. “You’re saying that this front page of the newspaper is what matters. And it’s a conversation that takes 50 or a 100 years to have.”
You just don’t expect the people on the other end to boo.