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The things they buried: Social-distancing signs, masks, vials and, of course, toilet paper

Toilet paper is stacked up in a store in Northern Virginia in May 2020, as stocks were replenished following the first pandemic outbreak.

STARS AND STRIPES

By MAURA JUDKIS | The Washington Post | Published: March 25, 2021

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In 100 years, our descendants will gather around a capsule from the legendary and/or long-forgotten Coronavirus Pandemic of 2020. They will wonder what wisdom we wanted to convey across the generations, what priceless artifacts we chose as vessels of that wisdom.

They'll crack open a dusty seal, lift the lid of the box, and find ...

Toilet paper.

"We had to have a roll of toilet paper in there," says Debbie Kling, the mayor of Nampa, Idaho. "Who would have guessed, in 2020, that there would have been a run on toilet paper?"

Fear not, citizens of the pandemic: The Great Toilet Paper Shortage of Mid-March To Early April 2020 will not be lost to history. Rolls are being sealed into time capsules all across America: at Nampa City Hall, at a southeastern Pennsylvania nursing home, at a charter school in Draper, Utah, at a church in North Port, Fla., with the promise that they will not be opened for 25 years to a century.

Other treasures our descendants will dig up include hand sanitizer, face shields and many, many masks. Some capsules have included thermometers and signs telling people to keep 6 feet apart. Newspapers with notable headlines are popular, too. ("What is a newspaper?" future generations might wonder.)

In Nampa, some of the other items Kling has collected include a spit vial that was used to test students at a local university, an empty vaccine vial and a mental health proclamation from the city's Teen Council about suicide prevention and "reaching out for help if you're discouraged."

A Charleston, S.C., capsule by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will include a member's vaccine card. The New York radio station WNYC collected recordings of listeners' pandemic stories and stashed them at the top of the Empire State Building. For one Loudon County, Tenn., capsule, a couple donated an invitation for their socially distanced, drive-by wedding.

With the end of the pandemic possibly in sight, people are starting to think about how this uniquely crummy time in American history will be understood by our great-(great-great-)grandchildren. The International Time Capsule Society, which maintains a registry for capsules around the world, says there have been thousands created during the pandemic — "An increase of at least tenfold, if not many more," says society co-founder Adrienne Waterman. "They're pouring in."

The world's first planned time capsule, called the "Century Safe," debuted in 1876 at the U.S. Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, though people have been squirreling away memorabilia and messages for future generations long before that. The term is credited to George Pendray, a publicist for Westinghouse Electric & Manufacturing Company, who coined it to describe the company's exhibit for the New York World's Fair in 1939. The Westinghouse Time Capsules are scheduled to be opened in 6939.

Bad years are not often the subject of time capsules, says Nick Yablon, an associate professor of history at the University of Iowa, who studies visual culture and memory. Most capsules "tend to be something to celebrate anniversaries, or calendrical passages," or the construction of flagship buildings. (You know, moments people want to remember.)

He is not aware of any time capsules that contain artifacts from the 1918 flu pandemic.

It's different this time. People want their experiences living through simultaneous crises — political, environmental, epidemiological — to be remembered. Preserving history also helps them to process it in the present.

"A time capsule generates interest in a way that will capture people's imagination more," says Judith Knudsen, who is seeking donations for a time capsule for the Center for Local History in Arlington, Va. "People might stop and think, 'Well, now, what do I want people to know about what life was like in 2020, this extraordinary year?' "

Another question: How do you make sure a container of masks and toilet issue will keep for decades? Kling, the Idaho mayor, asked for a local funeral home to donate a cremation vault to use as a capsule. Tom Marak, owner of Time Capsules, Inc. in Prospect, Pa., sells custom-made time capsules — big, metal canisters and boxes sealed with an organic alkaline that preserves the papers and objects within — that start at $1,000. "They've got a guarantee of 500 years," he says. "It's the Rolls-Royce of time capsules."

Other people, like Joel Leonard of Asheboro, N.C., prefer to build their own vessels. Leonard started a project called "Bury 2020" with other do-it-yourself fabrication enthusiasts. His 2020 time capsule is a 3-D-printed pyramid that contains some items that got him through the year, including a stress ball and vitamin supplements. Leonard says he hopes whoever digs up the capsule will take the tip. "I think people need to know how to build their immune system" next time a pandemic strikes, he says.

Heritage Time Capsules co-founder Laura Ryan says she has sold her time capsules — big stainless steel boxes, small aluminum cylinders — to high schools that never got to host graduation ceremonies for their seniors. The students each filled a small "caplet" time capsule, then turned it over to the school for safe keeping.

The capsules will be opened during a future class reunion so the students can "have a proper celebration for the end of high school that they couldn't have," Ryan says. Other customers have included families who lost someone to the coronavirus and created time capsules in honor of their loved ones. One family, she said, filled the box with letters about their memories of the deceased.

Some of the most interesting and valuable relics in any time capsule are not the utilitarian artifacts, but those written ones: personal stories, testimonials and predictions for a utopian future. Time capsule writings have often "conveyed longings and ideals and anxieties about various aspects of history," says Yablon, and allowed people to speak directly to those they would not live long enough to meet.

"We have no idea how important they will be to future historians," he says. "But I think that the greater value in them is how they make us think about our own duty to posterity, about what kind of world we are helping to create."

Vancouver Pride, unable to host its usual celebration this year, decided to mark 2020 with a time capsule so LGBTQ stories of living through the pandemic would not be forgotten. "There's just a lot of things that have prevented our stories from being told, which is why it's really important that we take the time to do it," says Josephine Gray, the capsule's coordinator.

June Sapara, 40, is planning to donate her medical ID bracelet and a journal entry about what it was like to have her gender confirmation surgery rescheduled twice due to the pandemic, and to stay in the hospital while the virus was rapidly spreading. "My hope with the time capsule was that we'll open it in the future and see that things have gotten better," says Sapara.

The pandemic had already warped our sense of time, making weeks feel like months and days feel like minutes. Time capsules do that, too, says Yablon. When we collect items for one, "we're kind of withdrawing from that commotion in daily time" to project ourselves into the future. "We have this kind of archaeological gaze that we're projecting on everything around us," says Yablon. "We see these kinds of contemporary objects as though they were future relics."

Capsules also play tricks on the time perception of those who open them. They make the past seem ancient but also immediate, because we can hold it in our hands. Technology especially exacerbates this: A cellphone from 25 years ago seems prehistoric given how rapidly its design has changed, but a set of LPs, still playable, bring 60-year-old sounds into the present. Not all technology left behind in time capsules is accessible, though: If you opened one from the 1980s and found a floppy disk, it would be challenging to retrieve the information it contained. Same goes for the USB drives that are being left in today's covid capsules.

"I think that disappointment is a very common theme with time capsules," says Yablon. When sifting through capsule contents does deliver a thrill, it tends to be tactile — getting "to touch something that someone touched 100 years ago," he says. "They give that sense of connection across time."

That's if they're ever found. Most time capsules are lost, especially ones that are buried, says Waterman of the International Time Capsule Society. In those cases, the time capsules will be more meaningful to the people burying them than the ones digging them up.

Regardless of what the humans of 2120 might make of the scraps of fabric that the people of 2020 found precious, the act of packing up the symbols of a crappy year can be cathartic.

"That was what was great about doing this for 2020," says Leonard. "Put it in a box. Forget about it."