125 Stanford Stories

NO. 50
Student Life

Hidden snapshots of history

class year plaque
Class president John Lauritzen and vice president Jane Plumb do the honors in 1929. In those days, photos were touched up to enhance their reproduction in newspapers.
Stanford University Archives
class 0f 83 time capsule
A member of the Class of 1983 tosses her student ID into her year's time capsule.
Art Streiber/Stanford Daily
034.5 Right after Class of ’04 time capsule
The plaques will circle the Inner Quad and meet their point of origin in 2403.
Linda A. Cicero/Stanford News Service
class presidents
2004 class presidents Michael Lee, Mary Himinkool, Ryan Taylor and Shayna Fernandez fill their year's capsule.
Linda A. Cicero/Stanford News Service
grounds employee
Grounds employee Roy Cervantes puts final touches on the 2007 installation.
Linda A. Cicero/Stanford News Service
Dmitriy Brezhenv '13 tosses in a card and a cup from Slavianskii Dom, the theme house where he lived for two years.
Linda A. Cicero/Stanford News Service
Objects from the 2015 Time capsule.
Objects from the 2015 time capsule.
Linda A. Cicero/Stanford News Service

125 sealed capsules in the Quad hold mementos of Stanford student life

A museum lies beneath the arcades of Stanford’s Inner Quad, unseen and all but uncataloged. It rests in the time capsules beneath the class-year plaques that each Stanford graduating class has placed in the arcade pavement, one for each of the university’s 125 years.

If the capsules were opened – for only one ever has – the hundreds of objects inside would reveal how much life has changed in 125 years, both at Stanford and throughout the world. They might also reveal how Stanford has played a part in that change.

Stanford’s time-capsule tradition began in 1896, when graduating seniors proposed to university President David Starr Jordan that they replace a concrete paver in front of then-incomplete Memorial Church with a sturdy, long-lasting plaque bearing their class-year numerals in brass. Under the plaque, we are told, they placed a sealed tube with class papers and a scroll with the graduates’ names. Previous classes installed their plaques and capsules retroactively.

Today, the capsules hold mementos chosen by seniors that reflect their years at Stanford and the state of the world. They hold circuit boards, military dog tags, souvenirs of protests and parties, samples of snack foods, condoms, cassette tapes, CDs and DVDs, as well as news clippings, yearbooks, senior-class documents and Stanford IDs.

“We’re putting in some things we think might be obsolete in the future — like a vial of water, some fossil fuel, some saccharine, the Pill.” — Jamie Grodsky ’77

For Samuel Gould ’11, walking the long line of plaques with their buried capsules was a “spiritual practice,” a sort of labyrinth walk into the past and what he could learn from it. Gould noted in his Baccalaureate address that the line turns a corner in 1989 – the year he was born. It was also the fateful year of the Loma Prieta earthquake, which greatly damaged campus buildings but also inspired great resilience and reinvention.

“When I stand on ’74 I think about my activist mother graduating from high school having lost her faith in our nation because of Watergate,” Gould said.

“On ’41 I meditate on both my grandfathers, who served our country in World War II. …

“And when I reach the end and stand on 1892,” he said, “I look back and am humbled.”

No list is kept of the capsules’ contents. Nor is there any plan to unseal any capsules, though several of the earliest were temporarily uncovered during Memorial Church’s post-1989 renovation. Only the capsule of Stanford’s first class, in 1892, was opened, and then only for conservation, because it was made of cardboard. It contained a vellum scroll signed by 28 of the 29 men and women who received Stanford’s first bachelor’s degrees that year.

Still, news accounts through the years yield clues to the contents, and thus to the lives and thoughts of seniors at the time:


A class history, a class will, and copies of the Stanford Daily and other student publications


“Mostly paper stuff,” the Daily reported, such as photos, tickets and newspaper articles. The practice of including a signed scroll died out as classes got larger.


Tennis shorts

Aluminum pull tabs

Black armbands and United Farm Worker union emblems

Photos of streakers, a fad in 1974

Samples of housing draw numbers

Tuition checks from 1973 and 1977


The faux Daily Cal awarding the 1982 Big Game victory to Stanford

An issue of Stanford Report with statistics on tenured women faculty

A tape of Dancercize music

Bumper stickers saying “I (heart) You” and “Gag Me With A Spoon”

A photo of university President Donald Kennedy and Queen Elizabeth II, who visited campus in 1982


A cassette tape called A Guided Tour of Macintosh

Super Bowl relics (the 1985 game was held at Stanford Stadium)

Record albums: Purple Rain and Born in the USA

A can of New Coke

Notices of human rights violations issued to Stanford trustees’ cars by the Stanford Out of South Africa student group, which sought divestment from companies doing business in South Africa


A vial of dirt from Lagunita

A pack of condoms


A pager

Videos of the TV shows ER and Melrose Place

A news clipping about Stanford’s presence on the Supreme Court


Mementos of the 18 NCAA championships and 12 Olympic medals earned by Stanford athletes in the previous four years


A copy of the Starr Report

A Teletubbie


A baseball cap commemorating the reopening of Stanford Stadium


Military dogtag and military-issue name tape

Instant Indian noodles

When will the plaques and capsules circle the Quad and return to their point of origin? In 2403, according to Kennedy, who revisited his predecessor Jordan’s estimate that “in the nature of things, when the fair year of 2517 comes, we shall find ourselves at this point again.”

Jordan may have neglected to include in his calculations the large rosettes that mark the corners of the Quad pavement, like the one that separates the plaques of 1988 and 1989.

The Class of 2016 is the 125th to install a plaque and capsule in the Quad arcade. See what members chose to include.