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Remembrance of Things Present

The Invention of the Time Capsule

Time capsules offer unexpected insights into how people view their own time, place, and culture, as well as their duties to future generations. Remembrance of Things Present traces the birth of this device to the Gilded Age, when growing urban volatility prompted doubts about how the period would be remembered—or if it would be remembered at all. Yablon details how diverse Americans – from presidents and mayors to advocates for the rights of women, blacks, and workers – constructed prospective memories of their present. They did so by contributing not just written testimony to time capsules but also sources that historians and archivists considered illegitimate, such as photographs, phonograph records, films, and everyday artifacts.

By offering a direct line to posterity, time capsules stimulated various hopes for the future. Remembrance of Things Present delves into these treasure chests to unearth those forgotten futures.

384 pages | 63 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2019

Culture Studies

History: American History, History of Ideas, History of Technology


“Yablon structures his history like the life of a time capsule. . . [and] makes us conscious of how these vessels might be spoiled. He describes the ways they captured contemporary hopes or wants or anxieties, and their reflection of politics or literature—like Walt Whitman addressing future readers in “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” or the utopian novels of Edward Bellamy, or Mark Twain, who asked that his autobiography stay unpublished until a century after his death—and details their contents in close, and often poignant, detail.”


“Recommended. . . Well-researched. . . This novel examination of American social, political, and cultural history through the medium of the time capsule should be of interest to both historians and archivists.”


Remembrance of Things Present is a landmark work of cultural history that brings sophisticated theoretical insights about modernity, temporality, and politics to bear upon the history of a unique timekeeping innovation: the time capsule. Yablon brilliantly identifies ‘a crisis of posterity’ that left Americans moored in the islands of the present but longing for bridges to the future. In clear and compelling prose, he insightfully explores how time capsules emerged in response to temporal displacement, democratizing politics, and what we today call information overload. This is a book of many dimensions, artfully executed, original, and rewarding, especially for scholars of modernity, temporality, and memory.”

Alexis McCrossen, author of Marking Modern Times

Remembrance of Things Present explains how anxieties about nation-building, prophecies, historic preservation, and a certain ‘duty to posterity’ led to the making, and sealing, of dozens of time capsules intended to tell the future about the past. This book is a fascinating study of the faith placed in physical objects as a pledge to tomorrow.”

Erika Doss, author of Memorial Mania

“In this brilliant book, Yablon unearths many buried treasures. Like the very best in the business, he is a three-tool historian: he can dig, he can think, and he can write. The packages left by his colorful cast of characters contain every major issue in American history after 1865. Time vessels—part tomb and part womb—also show us something deep about media that strive to bridge the gaps of time, space, and meaning.”

John Durham Peters, author of The Marvelous Clouds

“Yablon has produced a fascinating and learned account of how earlier generations of Americans thought about time. His survey of the practice of packaging objects and texts in order to project them into the future and rescue the present from oblivion manages to provide both a coherent narrative of cultural change from the Gilded Age through the Great Depression and a moving meditation on such subjects as historical self-consciousness, technological utopianism, mortality, and the number 100. Remembrance of Things Present is one of the most gratifying scholarly studies of US cultural history I’ve read in years. And at a moment when technological acceleration and climate change undermine confident imaginings of the future, this book will strike even nonspecialists as, well, timely.”

David M. Henkin, author of The Postal Age

“Yablon takes readers on a wild ride that offers new insights into how late nineteenth- and twentieth-century Americans understood historical memory and their own ephemeral place in history. . . . The depth of his research, the fearlessness with which he pursues leads, and the heft of the questions he asks along the way offer historians rare opportunities to dissect history making in motion.”

The Annals of Iowa

“What is cultural memory, and how do we preserve it? These questions are near and dear to an archivist’s heart, and also central themes of Nick Yablon’s book. By tracing the history of the time capsule, Yablon explores our hopes of documenting the present and thus communicating with the future. From the Library’s Modern Historic Records Association files, Yablon explores how an early 20th century organization attempted to document lives “writ on water” and, in so doing, grappled with the question of what was worth saving without the perspective of historical hindsight.”

New York Public Library

“As historians, it is perhaps inevitable that we think primarily about how the past shapes the present. Yablon’s exploration of the time capsule is a powerful argument for paying equal attention to how historical subjects thought about the future. As he demonstrates, whether real or fictional, time capsules are “good to think with,” offering a venue for explorations of the passage of time, the nature of the historical record, and our duties toward posterity.”


"Deeply researched, deftly structured, and conceptually inventive, Remembrance of Things Present shows that what has been buried in recent decades is not the present, but the concept of the future."

Justin T. Clark | Reviews in American History

Table of Contents

Introduction: Memory, History, Posterity

1          Safeguarding the Nation: Photographic Offerings to the Bicentennial, 1876–1889
2          “P.O. Box to the Future”: Temperance, Insurgence, and Memory in San Francisco, 1879
3          Annals of the Present, the Local, and the Everyday: The Centurial Time Vessels as Heterodox History, 1900–1901
4          Seeds of Hope: “Posteritism” and the Political Uses of the Future, 1900–1901
5          “A Living History of the Times”: The Modern Historic Records Association, 1911–1914
6          Mausoleums of Civilization: Techno-Corporate Appropriations of the Time Vessel, 1925–1940
7          Breaking the Seal: The Vicissitudes of Transtemporal Communication

Epilogue: The Time Capsule’s Futures
List of Abbreviations

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