A 1901 postcard from George Washington's home of Mount Vernon. The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection, The New York Public Library.

From pieces of Plymouth Rock to “I Love NY” mugs.  

Tourists can’t touch the recreated scenes inside the halls of George Washington’s childhood home in Mount Vernon, Virginia. Instead, visitors make do with the gift store. There, they can pick up Mount Vernon-branded Liberty Honey; children can leave with a Mount Vernon spinning top. On the shelves are Blue Canton China pieces and other official licensed products that promotional copy advertises “strive to capture the Washington’s tastes and personal style.”

None of the items for sale in the gift shop are the real thing, of course. They’re souvenirs: reproductions, portable memories, proof of travel. Throughout the history of the United States, the broad function of mementos like these has remained constant. What form they take and what, exactly, they represent, however, has changed quite a bit.

The end of Washington’s presidency coincided with the early days of American intercity exploration. After his death in 1799, the first president assumed what William Bird, the curator emeritus for the Smithsonian Institute, calls “a godhead status.” Curious and reverent visitors flocked, if they could, to Mount Vernon, hoping for some connection with the president’s life. Often, they left with pieces of it: a shard of the chipping mantelpiece, a sprig of ivy. Bird, who curated the exhibit Souvenir Nation at the National Museum of American History in 2013, says one of his favorite curios from that time is a tiny nut, allegedly found on the grounds of Mount Vernon, embedded with a compass.

Fragment of Plymouth Rock, left, and embedded compass, right, in the collections of the National Museum of American History, appear in the book, Souvenir Nation, by the museum curator William L. Bird. (Courtesy of the National Museum of American History)

Alongside the Mount Vernon memorabilia, Bird displayed an engraved chip of Plymouth Rock from the 1830s, and a piece someone broke off from the cornerstone of the Washington Monument in 1848. These early souvenirs, Bird says, were almost relics: fragments of much larger things that formed a “transcendental attachment” to the places that people visited.

In the first half of the 19th century, travel was still rare: a relative luxury. Early tourists collected these fractured mementos as proof of their adventures and prosperity. They were able to do so, Bird says, because at the time, there was no concept of historic preservation. That came about later, when the development of the U.S. railroad system took off in the 1860s, bringing with it a wave of tourism.

An 1868 article in The New York Times noted how:

Facility of locomotion in our age of steam has done much to make Summer pleasuring a general thing. So readily can the most remote and hitherto inaccessible regions be reached, and so accurately can the time that will be required for the jaunt to be computed, that what we may be allowed to call tourism has become a regularly organized branch of business…

That ease of transportation, though, stretched the natural offerings of places like Mount Vernon to a breaking point. The tourism boom left the president’s home in shambles; in 1853, Ann Pamela Cunningham founded the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association to purchase and protect the property. (This would come to be recognized as the first act of historic preservation; more would follow before the national act was passed in 1966.) By 1880, what was left of Plymouth Rock in Plymouth Harbor was cordoned off from public prying and designated a memorial.

But souvenir fever had ignited. Merchants capitalized on the impossibility of scavenging and began to offer manufactured trinkets directly to the public; by the late 19th century, Bird says, almost every government building in the capital had a little stall in front. Visitors might not come away with a piece of the building itself, he says, but “you could bring home a penknife, flash it, and say: ‘I got this at the Capitol!’”

An aerial view of the Chicago World’s Fair. (Rand McNally And Company/The Library of Congress)

The latter half of the 19th century also saw the first of the World Fairs. The Chicago Tribune wrote that these festivals:

…have yielded perhaps more souvenirs than any other series of events. Anyone who attended an official fair felt compelled to leave with a memento of the visit. Any item with the fair logo or linked to the fairs is collected, from posters to glassware, china, coin banks, buttons, books, programs, coins or tokens, jewelry and more.

The 1893 Expo in Chicago fell within a period of rapid economic growth in the United States. The demand for memorabilia was strong, and the market was equipped to meet it: mass production techniques were becoming more commonplace, and the Fair’s 27 million visitors could leave clutching identical trinkets. These often took the form of silver spoons, a craze brought back to the U.S. by leisure tourists returning from jaunts to Europe.

Still, these souvenirs were largely personal items, or perhaps vehicles to boast of one’s worldliness. As travel became more commonplace during the 20th century, souvenir shops cropped up all across the country, peddling local delicacies and oddities alongside cheap housewares stamped with the names of tiny towns and large cities alike.

By the early 1980s, the business had hit its stride: industry sales across the country reached new heights. The Associated Press took stock:

They can be tacky, tasteless trinkets or refined reminders of times gone by, but whatever the style, Americans and foreign visitors are spending record amounts this year on souvenirs. Gold plated cockroaches in Hawaii. Peanuts in Plains, Ga. Elvis belt buckles in Memphis. Bags of salt in—where else?—Salt Lake City.

The frivolity was a sign of the times, says Marita Sturken, a professor of media, culture, and communication at New York University. In the years following World War II, she says, the country had been dominated by a wave of consumption, an effort to forget the atrocities of the conflict. These lighthearted and whimsical souvenirs fit right in.

But the completion of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in 1982, Sturken says, brought a new dimension to the industry. The somber structure in Washington “opened up a new public debate about memory and loss,” she says. Before, there had been no site-specific space to reflect upon such tragedies in the United States. But that monument, and those that followed—especially the 9/11 Memorial in New York—complicated the nature of the gift shops and souvenirs that inevitably accompanied them.

“If you go into the 9/11 Memorial gift shop and buy, say, a snow globe, you’re still saying ‘I was there,’ but you’re also projecting a proximity to this event, this meaningful site, this national discourse,” Sturken says.

Standard “boosterism” souvenirs still exist; “I Love NY” shirts are sold alongside mugs stamped with a quote from a 9/11 volunteer. Their similarities, Sturken says, can be troubling. “What does it mean when this horrific event is commodified and purchased and integrated into our everyday life?” she says.

But souvenir culture itself, Sturken says, might be falling by the wayside. Recently, she took a group of her students to Berlin, and only a handful picked up some trinkets; fewer bought postcards. The rest, she says, took to Instagram and Snapchat. Perhaps selfies, she speculates, will make obsolete the kitschy souvenirs that have for so long gathered dust on shelves across America.

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