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With the millennium just around the corner, the time capsule market is booming. Whether it's a doglike enthusiasm for burying things, or the assumption that we have some explaining to do to future generations, the drive to preserve a bit of 20th-century Americana is making business brisk for people like Chuck and Gillian Barr, an entrepreneurial husband-and-wife team.
Three years ago, the Morgan Hill couple followed a whim to start Barrtek Time Capsule 2000. After a slow start, the company is now selling an average of 20 time capsules a week, triple the business it did last year.
"We only sold six in the first year, I can tell you that right off the bat," says Gillian, who takes orders on her home computer, sitting beneath a plaque that reads "You are mortal." The unusual home business was a wacky, side-of-the-road impulse for Chuck, an engineer, who thought of it while stuck in traffic.
Barrtek Time Capsule 2000 Client Profiles
Peruse the company's directory of clients complete with time capsule contents lists
International Time Capsule Society
Oglethorpe University's time capsule registry
U.S. Time Capsule Monument Inc.
Step by step instructions for creating your own capsule
Time capsule hawkers have proliferated, especially on the Internet, as the year 2000 approaches. Barrtek's customers are an eclectic lot, ranging from hospitals, churches, and major corporations to the California Inaugural Committee for Governor-Elect Gray Davis and the cast of The Young and the Restless.
"It just so happened that when our first son was born, he needed to be fed right about the time The Young and the Restless came on," says Gillian, delighted. "I thought, 'Gosh, what a coincidence. It's the only soap I know and here they are calling for a time capsule.'" The cast celebrated the show's 25th anniversary by piling commemorative coins, an edition of the Hollywood Reporter, various photos, and a copy of Cooking With The Young and the Restless in its time capsule.
But the contents don't seem so odd, Chuck says winking at his wife, compared to those of a certain church. "They brought in a disposable diaper saying this is the one thing that has [liberated] a woman from the house so she can go to work. We thought that was a funny one," says Chuck.
The cylindrical time capsules, which look like metal pedestals, are made from quarter-inch-thick aluminum, 12 inches in diameter. Each tube is welded onto a base, and they sell for between $275 and $750, depending on the size.
Those are healthy sums, considering that growing Internet competition is stiff. Lane Baumgardner, founder of the United States Millennium Project in Arkansas, sells a two-cylinder "reunion" package for a more affordable $210. Baumgardner, who got into the business because he needed money to fill a ditch on his property, says 600 people have expressed interest in buying a time capsule from him, but fewer than 100 have paid.
Barrtek's clients hail primarily from Texas and East Coast cities; only about 10 percent of sales are to Californians. "Perhaps people on the East Coast are more connected to history," Gillian muses. But her husband has a different take. "Californians don't believe they're going to die. They aren't worried about saving things for the future," he says.
The International Time Capsule Society in Atlanta, Ga., founded by professors at Oglethorpe University, maintains the only official time capsule registry in the country. "We're a time capsule clearinghouse," says history professor Paul Hudson, one of the society's founders. According to Hudson, there are 15 officially registered time capsules in California (out of 1,500 nationally) in places such as Palo Alto, Thousand Oaks, Berkeley, Yosemite, and, of all places, Torrance. Not bad for starters, but perhaps we lack civic pride -- the city of Nashville, Tenn., has planted 95 time capsules.
Time capsules may help encapsulate local flavor, and, ultimately, reflect on the shortness of human life. But they also make glaringly obvious the shortness of human memory. The time capsule registry was really created, Hudson says, because time capsules so often get lost. The registry has created a list of the country's nine most wanted time capsules, including a brass capsule that engineers at MIT placed -- and then lost for 50 years -- under an 18-ton cyclotron, where it is now buried. And there's the U.S. Bicentennial wagon train capsule, containing 22 million signatures. When President Gerald Ford arrived for its sealing ceremony on July 4, 1976, the capsule had been stolen. It was never found.
The need to write oneself into history, and supposedly contribute to posterity, is the apparent push behind the millennial time capsule boom. "To be remembered, you either have to be a president or kill one," Baumgardner says realistically. "With a time capsule, you know you left your mark."