Flush with pride from the War of 1812, Baltimoreans carefully placed a newspaper commemorating the Declaration of Independence inside a cornerstone that would be buried at the foot of the city's Washington Monument.
The contents of the cornerstone — which included coins, Scottish folk songs and a pocket-sized Bible with minuscule type — were revealed Tuesday as historians prepare to complete a $5.5 million restoration of the monument in Mount Vernon Place. The time capsule was put in the ground on July 4, 1815, as the nation's first civic monument to George Washington was being built.
"Two hundred years later, it's hard to imagine how fresh the ideals of American national independence were to the Baltimoreans who laid this cornerstone," said Lance Humphries, chair of the Mount Vernon Place Conservancy's monument restoration committee. "They had just defeated the British, re-securing that freedom for the country."
In restoring the monument, contractors were surprised to find not just a cornerstone but a time capsule placed behind a bronze plaque 100 years ago. It contains more than 50 items, including an iron spike, a map of trade routes from the port of Baltimore to the Panama Canal, a picture of Francis Scott Key and what could be one of the earliest existing photographs of the Declaration of Independence.
The contents of both were made public Tuesday at the Walters Art Museum. The 1915 time capsule was opened during a news conference while the more fragile contents of the cornerstone were unpacked in March by a team of historians.
The cornerstone was re-buried earlier this spring with a collection of 21st-century contributions, including 3-D-printed, metal-cast prints of the statue of Washington that stands atop the 178-foot column. Also inside is a hollow 3-D print of Washington's hand stuffed with a note explaining what was previously inside the cornerstone and how the new prints were made.
The project will culminate on the Fourth of July with a "Monumental Bicentennial" at Mount Vernon Place for the reopening of the memorial, featuring crafts, old-fashioned games, live music, food and Colonial demonstrations.
Some of the items from the time capsules will be displayed at the Maryland Historical Society, beginning around Independence Day.
Terry Drayman-Weisser, director of conservation and technical research at the Walters, said she hopes the events surrounding the monument's restoration are a reminder of Baltimore's key role in the country's founding. She also noted that Baltimore's memorial is older than the obelisk of the same name in the nation's capital.
"Sometimes we feel we're in the shadow of Washington, D.C., and there's that other monument," she said. "This will bring to people's attention that this was the first. This was a very important city for American history."
Humphries said one of the most fascinating finds in the 1815 time capsule was a Bible printed by John Hagerty in 1812 using a minuscule font developed in Baltimore, called Diamond Type.
"It was a virtuosic feat to cast these tiny, tiny pieces of type, and to make an entire Bible of it," Humphries said.
People at the time marveled at the ability to hold such a vast amount of information in the palm of one's hand, Humphries said, a concept that takes on greater meaning today.
"We understand how powerful it is to have a lot of information in your hand," he said.
Humphries said historians had X-rayed the contents of the 1915 time capsule, but were surprised to see the vast number of items included. One of them was a folded and slightly crumpled photograph of the Declaration of Independence taken in 1903 by L.C. Handy, the son-in-law of famed Civil War photographer Mathew Brady.
In all, Humphries said, the items were clearly intended to convey a message to the generation that would open the capsules.
"As we were unwrapping the items and pulling the items out of the jars, you could feel their pride," he said. "You can feel how proud they are, in the inscription of the books, and in this brass plate — it's all hand-engraved, but the word 'memory' is engraved the deepest."
Baltimore Sun research librarian Paul McCardell contributed to this article.