Time capsules: How to leave surprises for future generations

William Hageman / Chicago Tribune /

Published Jan 27, 2013 at 04:00AM

Surprises come with homeownership. Usually, they’re of the “What’s that bubbling up from the drain?” variety. But occasionally they can be exciting, such as finding something left behind by a previous owner.

It could be accidental — a picture that fell behind a radiator and was undisturbed for 50 years — or intentional, like a time capsule.

Finding a time capsule is a roll of the dice. Either there’s something in the wall or there isn’t. But by creating a time capsule of your own, you can see to it that somewhere down the line a future resident of your home gets a pleasant surprise.

Drew and Jonathan Scott, hosts of HGTV’s “Property Brothers” (8 p.m. EST Wednesdays), are best known for buying and renovating properties on their show. What isn’t as well known is their lifelong affinity for time capsules.

“When we were about 5, we decided to make a time capsule,” Jonathan recalls. “We decided to bury money, notes, pictures. And we buried them at the foot of a tree on our property. We left it a year, then we decided to dig it up. When we did, all the money was gone. We couldn’t figure out how that happened. Turns out, our older brother had followed us the day we buried it and came back the next day or next week and dug it up. He took the money and reburied (the rest).”

Then when they were in college, one of their first renovation jobs was at a home with some unusable space in the basement. Before they walled it off, “we put a dummy in there, a dummy tied to a chair,” Jonathan says. “And he was wearing a sign, ‘I didn’t deserve this.’ We left it as a surprise.”

Properly prepared time capsules “can serve as valuable reminders of one generation for another,” notes the website of the International Time Capsule Society at Oglethorpe University in Atlanta (go to oglethorpe.edu and type “time capsule society” in the search field). Time capsules can “give individuals, families and organizations an independent voice to the future.”

Time capsules can be elaborate (a custom-made stainless steel capsule) or simple (a sturdy wooden box). You can involve the kids and turn it into a family project — have a party two, three or even 10 years later and make the “unearthing” cause for a family celebration — or you can do it on your own and get labeled the family eccentric.

Where to stash?

Here are a few places to leave, or not leave, a little something for the future:

• In a wall, floor or ceiling: If you’ve having work done on your house, leave something in a prime location. Be sure, of course, not to compromise the structural integrity of your home; even the coolest time capsule isn’t worth causing a floor to collapse.

“The trick, I think, is to decide when you want people to find it,” Jonathan Scott says. “A lot of people punch a hole in a wall between the kitchen and living room when remodeling. So, in 20 years, it would be found. But other walls, structural walls, or under the floor, they might never find it.” He suggests a hidden, secure location, “so people don’t find it in a couple of weeks.”

• Under the wallpaper: When a large Victorian home on Wellington Street in Traverse City, Mich., was being rehabbed into a bed-and-breakfast around 2000, five layers of wallpaper were removed from one bedroom wall. Under the last layer, on the plaster, were large caricatures drawn by the original painters and paper hangers, dated 1908. The drawings were sealed, and the Votruba Chamber remains one of the Wellington Inn’s highlights. If you’re papering a wall, think about leaving a message hidden in plain sight. Draw sketches of each family member, or let each kid leave his or her own message.

• The light switch: At the Make Projects website you can find directions, and a nifty computer template, to create a small printed message that fits inside a standard light switch. Tell future generations the house’s history, detail life in America in 2013, leave a favorite cookie recipe. Make up a half-dozen different sheets and place them in switch plates around the house. Go to makeprojects.com (type “light switch time capsule” in the search field).

• About the backyard: The International Time Capsule Society frowns on burying your capsule. “Thousands have been lost in this way,” the society’s Web page points out. The group’s advice: keep it indoors. Besides, if you dig a hole carelessly, you might hit a utility line. Then your kids will have to update your time capsule with your obituary. However, if you insist on burying your capsule, be sure it is safe from any moisture. Try to leave some sort of marker. Bury it at the base of a fence, perhaps, or the corner of a building, with a metal marker affixed to it. And don’t let your brother know where you buried it.

What to stash?

Common items left for posterity include photos, documents, coins, newspapers, books, political memorabilia, toys and other bits of popular culture.

Personal material is even better: diaries, letters, kids’ school papers, itemized grocery receipts or your medical records and bills. If you’ve got kids, be sure to get them involved, too, contributing items (pictures they draw, photos, small mementos, etc.) that represent things they want to memorialize. Things not to include: food, plants, mothballs, nonarchival paper or plastic items.

The Scotts recently renovated a house in which they not only found something from the past but also left a time capsule for future owners.

“(The house) was from the 1920s,” Drew says. “When we lifted some floorboards, we found a couple of (newspaper) articles. We’re sure they were left behind on purpose. One was on a 100-year celebration of something, and the other was a classified ad from the 1920s. I framed it and used it for art for the space.”

Jonathan says that the current owners had them put a zip-close bag in a bulkhead space over some stairs. It included pictures of the property before the renovation, stamps and coins, news clippings, photos of the current owners and a letter.

As for handling and preserving the documents themselves, care must be taken. Staples rust. Rubber bands dry out and snap. Untreated paper deteriorates. Plastic breaks down.

A good lesson in how to keep your items safe against the ravages of time is an article available from Future Packaging & Preservation, a company that specializes in time capsules, archival supplies and preservation kits. Go to futurepkg.com to read tips, as well as advice on related topics.

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