Blue Cross and Blue Shield Minnesota recovers forgotten time capsules

Sprawled out across several tables at the Minnesota History Center are documents and pictures from a time that history forgot.

"We didn't really know it existed," said Monica Engel, the vice president of government markets at Blue Cross and Blue Shield Minnesota.

When Blue Cross built its first major headquarters in St. Paul in 1950, its leaders buried a treasure without a map — at least in a spot no one remembered. But when leaders of the current Blue Cross and Blue Shield Minnesota decided to consolidate their present headquarters in Eagan and move across the street, they discovered a clue.

"And what we found is a reference in some blueprints that we had recovered from our main building," recalled Engel. "And the material really gave us a hint that there were some time capsules within the property of the main building."

Masons chiseled out a cornerstone dated 1951 and found nothing. But when they chiseled free the adjacent 1970 cornerstone, their curiosity paid off.

"They actually found two-time capsules, one that was from the 1950s and one that was from the 1970s," said Engel.

What they contained was a long-lost buried treasure sealed in copper boxes. The team had to cut open the box from the 1950s. The lid sealing the box from the 1970s easily popped off. The contents revealed reports, pictures, a St. Paul Pioneer Press newspaper, and an important marketing pamphlet that represents the founding of the insurance company.

"One of the pieces that I actually love is a piece here that references an artist's rendition of this piece that refers to the Hospital Services Association," said Engel as she held the picture from the time capsule.

The Hospital Services Association was formed during the Great Depression as a collection of hospitals that conceived the idea of offering affordable insurance to pay for an injury or illness requiring a hospital stay. The picture sketched by the artist contained a blue cross. When patients started inquiring about the insurance from the organization with the "blue cross," a brand was born.

"We had the opportunity to really provide coverage to members for less than a dollar a day. You could purchase 21 days in the hospital," said Engel of the first policies. "And so the business evolved from there."

What was born as an association of Minnesota hospitals to help patients pay their bills is now a network of Blue Cross and Blue Shield organizations across the United States.

The documents from the time capsules are extensive. There is a picture of the groundbreaking for the 1950 St. Paul headquarters. There is also a key presumed to open that original building. And there's even handwritten ballots from the board of directors voting in 1970 to move the headquarters to Eagan.

But what stands out to curator Kate Hujda at the Minnesota Historical Society is a typewriter-composed annual report from 1950. Inside the report is a graph that shows how the majority of claims paid by Blue Cross were to cover pregnancy and childbirth — a corporate documentation of the post-WWII baby boom.

"And you can see how much of their cases were covering pregnancy-related issues and just how important health insurance is to mothers and families," said Hujda.

Together, the documents in the time capsules capture a business promise of delivering more affordable health care that has remained consistent over 90 years. And the fascination about finding such timepieces is not lost on Hujda.

"We love time capsules because they are an embodiment of hope," said Hujda, who explained that the enduring hope is that someone, someday, will find meaning inside the buried treasure.

"I love seeing what an organization thought was important at the time, what really mattered to them so much that they wanted to bury it, in this sort of promise to the future," said Hujda.