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19th-century brass worker hailed for preserving time capsule

His box kept history intact for 159 years

Andrew J. Gavett left his mark on the box that held the State House time capsule.Museum of Fine Arts Boston

Paul Revere, Samuel Adams, and other names of historical significance stole the spotlight when conservators pulled a Revolution-era time capsule from a cornerstone of the State House last year.

But archivists from the Museum of Fine Arts, where the centuries-old findings will be on full display to the public beginning this week, say the true hero is a man who crafted the durable brass box that held Boston’s storied past together.

On the inside of the square container, chiseled out of cement at the State House on Beacon Hill in December, is a series of small dots, meticulously poked into the metal lid to spell out a name and address:


“Andrew J. Gavett,” the lid reads, “Brass Founder, No. 12 Hawkins St.”

When archivists initially removed the delicate materials inside the time capsule, headlines focused on the relics placed there by the likes of Revere, Adams, and Revolutionary War Colonel William Scollay.

But as the days ticked by and officials further examined the contents, they noticed Gavett’s markings.

“I became interested in him, and who he was, and why he got the job to make this box and get his name on the inside of it,” said Patrick McMahon, director of exhibitions and design at the MFA.

Once he deciphered the pockmarks, McMahon got to work, searching for the historical documents that would unravel Gavett’s story.

“We owe him one,” said McMahon. “It’s because of his handiwork, and because he did such a good job that this material survived for so many years.”

Adams — then governor — and others first secured the time capsule beneath the cornerstone of the Beacon Hill building in 1795, packed with coins and records from that year.

The capsule was initially removed in 1855, when emergency repairs were done to the building’s foundation.


The items were cataloged and cleaned, new objects were added, and Gavett created the new, brass container that would keep it all safe.

The son of a lamplighter, Gavett was born in Boston in 1818. By 1850, he was the owner of a steam-driven factory with 30 employees, where he largely made chandeliers. He was married to Susan Taft, and listed as living in West Roxbury in 1854.

McMahon believes Gavett may have been working on gas fittings for the new wing of the State House under construction at that time.

Gavett’s knack for completing labor-intensive jobs on short notice may have also helped him land the assignment. He had just two days to complete the box before it was placed back in the cornerstone for another 159 years.

“Within the two-day span that he had, he makes this box, and he does such a good job that everything that came out of the box in December was completely intact. Nothing got into this box,” said McMahon. “Here’s a guy who was a master of his trade.”

McMahon said Gavett gave his life for his trade. He died in 1859 from “metal fume fever,” a form of kidney inflammation that often affected brass workers who inhaled toxic zinc fumes.

Had Gavett not been bold enough to chisel his name into the lid, he would have been completely anonymous forever.

“He made sure he made his mark, and that he would be remembered,” said McMahon.

Steve Annear can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @steveannear.