Allentown State Hospital Time Capsule Unearthed

On June 27th, 1904 elected officials, dignitaries, physicians, and the press gathered at a construction site in Hanover Township, PA (Lehigh County) to put a time capsule in the cornerstone of Pennsylvania’s newest mental institution: the Pennsylvania Homeopathic Hospital for the Insane.

Allentown State Hospital’s time capsule was found in the wall here. Lehigh Valley Ramblings.

And in 2020, I was lucky enough to be there when that very same time capsule was rediscovered. 

The hospital was the first state-run mental institution in Pennsylvania to treat people diagnosed as mentally ill or insane with homeopathic remedies. Homeopathic medicine attempts to treat disease and illness through natural remedies and by encouraging the body’s own natural response system to act (as opposed to allopathic medicine that cures disease by attacking/affecting the natural defense of body). At the PA Homeopathic Hospital for the Insane, treatment eschewed mechanical, drug, and chemical treatments and restraints and instead used “rest in bed, an ample supply of fresh air, nutritious food, hydrotherapy, individual attention and influence” and eventually exercise and “occupational therapy” (labor, almost always unpaid).

The hospital administration during construction in 1908. The time capsule was located near the base of the tower in the back.

Allopathic and homeopathic physicians feuded in Pennsylvania throughout the 19th century over which approach was better. The decision to dedicate this new Allentown institution to homeopathic treatment came after many years of lobbying from homeopaths, particularly the politically-connected Hahnemann Medical College and Hospital in Philadelphia and Lehigh Valley Homeopathic Medical Society (LVHMP).

Later that year, the president of the LVHMS called the new hospital “the greatest advance of Homeopathy has ever had in this state.” It was that big of a deal.

The hospital’s opening ceremony guest of honor was Governor Samuel Pennypacker. As all the attendees gathered, they listened to music from the Allentown Pioneer Band and paused for a prayer given by Reverend William Keiter of Bethlehem. Then, hospital architect Phillip Johnson presented a copper time capsule packed with documents and mementos of the day to the governor. Pennypacker gave a brief speech, placed the capsule in the center of the hospital’s cornerstone, and then everyone left for a hearty lunch.

Governor Samuel Pennypacker. Capitol Preservation Committee.

And since then the time capsule sat, undisturbed, in that cornerstone by the hospital’s main entrance for 116 years.

The hospital finished construction and admitted its first patients in 1912. It quickly filled to capacity and remained crowded for decades. The name of the institution later changed to Allentown State Hospital, and in 2010 it was closed by the state due to declining population and less need for large psychiatric institutions.

Allentown State Hospital has been sitting empty and slowly deteriorating for the last decade. Recently, the state government decided to sell the Allentown State Hospital complex recently, and will be demolishing all buildings still standing in the facility as part of that sale.

And that’s where I come in.

In the summer of 2020, demolition workers rediscovered the 1904 time capsule. It was still buried in the cement of the cornerstone, untouched by human hands since Governor Pennypacker laid it there all those years ago.

When historical artifacts or records get discovered in government buildings, the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC) gets called in to investigate. 

And so, I was sent with a curator from the PA State Museum to help open the capsule and inspect whatever was found inside.

On a hot July day, I drove up Route 78 to Allentown to meet with the demolition team at the main hospital building. It was hard to resist the urge to speed the whole way there, I was really excited to see what we’d find in the capsule. Would there be photographs? Artifacts? Anything from the Governor? As the miles zipped by I was getting closer to the answer.

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Cutting the time capsule out of the cornerstone.

Ironically, I got stuck in traffic about 20 miles outside of town, so it took me longer to get to the answers than I expected. By the time I got there the work crew had already cut the time capsule out of the cornerstone. But fortunately they waited for me to actually open it. 

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The time capsule fit snugly right in to the center of the cornerstone.

We brought the capsule inside and got to work. It was a square copper box, about a foot long and 9 inches high. Using pliers and just a little muscle, a worker deftly pried the lid off the box and we all excitedly peered inside. What did Allentown’s founders leave for us?

But as soon as we saw the capsule’s contents, our hearts sank. It was clear that moisture and condensation had gotten inside and had damaged almost everything inside. Even a little bit of water, over the span of many years, can ravage even the hardiest materials. 

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The time capsule’s contents right after the lid was taken off.

Going back and looking at the spot where the capsule was placed in 1904, we discovered there was a water pipe in the wall directly behind the cornerstone. And in that pipe, just inches away from the stone, there was a small hole about a centimeter wide. It seems that moisture coming out of that pipe had seeped into the concrete cornerstone and inside the time capsule itself. It wasn’t clear when the hole in the pipe occurred, but it definitely wasn’t new.

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This was the tiny hole that let the moisture into the time capsule.

Fortunately, not all was lost. Donning gloves and gently taking each item out of the capsule, we discovered that some of the items were in salvageable condition.

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Two bound books placed near the top had apparently absorbed the bulk of the moisture. When I held them they were completely saturated; it almost felt like holding a sponge.  You’d never know they originally had hard covers, they were…mushy.

This book was so saturated that the coins resting on top of it left impressions in its (originally) hard cover!
Part of the spine of the ruined book above, which had fallen off and was laying at the bottom of the time capsule.

The rest of the time capsule’s contents were loose documents, newspapers, and a few 1904 coins. They were all damp as well, but since they were single pages and not pressed closely together like the books, they were in much better shape. Drying these documents out would do the trick.

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As I carefully took each page out, I could feel the damp through my gloves.  Some pages were held together with metal staples and fasteners which were rusting onto the paper. There were a few instances where a wet page started to tear as we took it out of its original container, but fortunately everything could be removed more or less intact. Considering they were continuously wet for years, its incredible that everything still held together. Other time capsules discovered recently have fared much worse.

Of the time capsule contents, there were two newspapers from the 1904 dedication day that appeared to be in the best condition. I was surprised, usually newspaper is made of of low-quality paper that doesn’t last long. The two books were by far in the worst condition; they were totally unsalvageable. Fortunately, both were published materials and there are good-quality copies available in other archives and libraries (I checked).

In total, there were 11 different things in the time capsule:

  • 2 business cards for masonry and construction companies that built Allentown State Hospital (fair condition)
  • Blueprint map of hospital grounds (poor condition)
  • Meeting minutes [possibly from the PA Board of Public Charities?] (poor condition)
  • Unknown folded document (poor condition)
  • List of homeopathic physicians practicing in Pennsylvania c. 1904 (poor condition)
  • Typed notes [probably related to the Governor’s remarks and guests at the opening] (poor condition)
  • Allentown Morning Call, June 27, 1904 (fair condition)
  • Philadelphia Public Ledger, June 27, 1904 (fair condition)
  • Hahnemann Medical College and Hospital 1904-05 Annual Announcement (very poor condition)
  • Smull’s Legislative Handbook and Manual of Pennsylvania 1901 (very poor condition)
  • US Coins dated 1904- $1, 50¢, 25¢, 10¢, 5¢ (good condition)

Some of the documents were folded over and couldn’t be opened without ripping the pages. So their identification is difficult. 

After everything was accounted for, I packed the time capsule contents up carefully, put them them into travel containers, whisked them back to Harrisburg. There I could start to dry everything out and begin the work of salvaging as much as possible. 

In the State Archives, I found a big table and laid each document out on large absorbent pads. I removed all metal staples and fasteners from the pages so they could lay out separately. This helped everything dry out faster and not stick together. 

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48 hours later, and almost everything dried out really well. A few pages became brittle on their edges, but other than that they were much easier to handle and read. Unfortunately, the two books were totally beyond salvaging and still cannot be read. Good thing they were just copies.

At this time we’re still figuring out a storage solution and final decision on which contents to keep in the archives. Considering the age and location of this time capsule, I’m really glad that we were able to save as much as we did.

In closing, I’d like to share a few observations on time capsules from my experience here. If you’re thinking about making your own time capsule, here are few things that will help the person who will one day re-open it:

1. Don’t put any unique or one-of-a-kind documents or objects in your time capsule. Just assume that the contents will be damaged/degraded over time so don’t choose anything that you wouldn’t want to lose.

2. Location is important! A time capsule placed underground or anywhere where it can be exposed to the elements (like a drain pipe) can damage contents beyond repair even if the container is well sealed. A good location will also help ensure the time capsule gets re-discovered if its forgotten.

3. Document your time capsule. Write an inventory or checklist and put a copy in the capsule and publish it somewhere too. If the press is at your time capsule event, have them include the inventory in their reporting. Or you can copy it into your organization’s annual report or keep it safe with other family papers that get passed down.

Will every time capsule survive? Probably not. But for the ones that do, they’re a great way to connect our present day to the future. And they also will give a lucky discoverer a thrill when they open it up and get their hands on your history.

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