CATONSVILLE, Md. - When the call went out for the stuff of life, Irene Mundy answered with a new toothbrush, eye drops and a sheet of Barney the purple dinosaur stickers.
The 92-year-old former teacher had scoured her shelves for the minutiae of daily life that might someday have historical significance and so ought to be preserved in a time capsule buried in front of her retirement high-rise.
Around the world, people are commemorating the new millennium by stuffing photos, toys and newspaper clippings into time capsules of all stripes, with visions of their discovery 25, 50 or even 1,000 years hence.
"It's just nonstop," says Janet Reinhold, director of Future Packaging & Preservation.
The Covina, Calif., company, which sells high-end time capsules for professional preservation, has seen business double in each of the last three years. Reinhold has sold about 1,000 capsules this year and expects to sell at least 50,000 before millennium madness subsides.
"America is going time-capsule crazy," says Paul Hudson, a history professor who co-founded the International Time Capsule Society and says 1,400 groups have registered capsules with the society.
The modern craze for time capsules began 60 years ago at the 1939 New York World's Fair. The Westinghouse pavilion displayed a torpedo-shaped capsule containing Depression-era items: a slide rule, Sears & Roebuck catalog, alarm clock and Mickey Mouse cup. Westinghouse buried the capsule inside a tunnel on the site and said it intended the items to stay undisturbed for 5,000 years.
A companion capsule went in nearby at the 1964 World's Fair. It contained more modern items, including a Polaroid camera, plastic heart valve, freeze-dried food and a Beatles record.
But the world's first and probably most scholarly time capsule is at Oglethorpe University in Atlanta. The "Crypt of Civilization," built atop a former indoor swimming pool, is 20 feet long, 10 feet high and 10 feet deep. It holds thousands of items ranging from Lincoln Logs, dental floss and newsreels of Adolf Hitler to a toaster, the works of Shakespeare and more than 640,000 pages on microfilm.
The crypt received its first items in 1938 and was sealed in 1940. Its massive steel door remains sealed - with any luck until the year 8113. The crypt's creator estimated that 1940 fell midway between the start of the first Egyptian time-keeping and 8113.
As 2000 draws near, groups in Canada, England, Cyprus, New Zealand and Fiji are pushing plans for large-scale capsule projects.
In New Zealand, a huge "Millennium Vault" stuffed with the paraphernalia of 20th-century life will be buried beneath a pyramid covered by a bronze relief depicting 1,000 years of New Zealand history.
A few firms will even pump out the oxygen and fill time capsules with Silica gel to soak up moisture or argon or nitrogen gas to preserve fragile contents.
The Time Capsule Society has one tip for people wanting to bury artifacts for posterity: Mark the spot.
An estimated 10,000 time capsules already out there have been forgotten, Hudson says. Perhaps only one in 1,000 are destined to be unearthed.
For more information on time capsules:
-- International Time Capsule Society: www.oglethorpe.edu/itcs
-- Smithsonian Institution: www.simc.si.edu/cal/timecaps.html
-- U.S. Time Capsule Site: www.ustimecapsule.com
-- International Time Capsule information: www.millennium.greenwich2000.com/events/timecapsule2000.htm