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Bring Home the Memories
by Bob Brooke

 

Whether it’s a pair of wooden shoes from Amsterdam, a beach blanket from Rio de Janeiro, or a silk scarf from Paris, holiday makers over the years have filled their luggage—and their homes----with souvenirs from their travels around the world.



It turns out that the tradition of collecting travel keepsakes dates as far back as 980 B.C.E. Archaeologists in Ireland discovered amber beads from Scandinavia, believed to be the very first souvenirs. Before there were souvenir shops and mass-produced curios, early travelers chipped off their own piece of the Plymouth Rock with a hammer left there for the purpose, or begged a clipping of hair from a famous figure.

While today’s travelers collect ‘I Love New York’ T-shirts or tiny replicas of Paris' Eiffel Tower, the first mass-produced souvenirs were pilgrim badges from shrines across Europe in 1400 A.D.

Tourists have purchased pieces of the Berlin Wall and taken fragments of George Washington's home at Mount Vernon. Yet the stories attached to them and the obvious significance they had to their previous owners reflect the need to make a personal connection with history.

What is a Souvenir?
A souvenir—from the French for a remembrance or memory, memento, keepsake, or token of remembrance is an object a person acquires for the memories the owner associates with it. A souvenir can be any object that can be collected or purchased and transported home by the traveler as a memento of a visit. The object itself may have intrinsic value, or simply be a symbol of a past experience.

Souvenirs allow visitors to take with them a memento of their visit. Souvenirs often include mass-produced merchandise—postcards, refrigerator magnets, miniature figures, mugs, bowls, plates, ashtrays, egg timers, spoons, and notepads. They can also include non-mass-produced items like folk art, local artisan handicrafts, objects that represent the traditions and culture of a region. But they can also include found objects, such as rocks, seashells, even plants.

In Japan, souvenirs are known as omiyage, and are frequently selected from meibutsu, or products associated with a particular region. Bringing back omiyage from trips to co-workers and families is a social obligation, and can be considered a form of apology for the traveler's absence.

As long as people have visited distant places, they have collected tokens of their travels
Vendors have sold souvenirs at popular tourist sites since the 14th century. Travelers on pilgrimages purchased trinkets and collected found items to keep a record of the journeys they made to holy places.

The Earliest Souvenir Collectors
The earliest vacationers were those wealthy enough to travel for extended periods of time. In the late 17th and throughout the 18th century, the Grand Tour was the ultimate European excursion. The itinerary, which typically lasted a year or more, included lengthy stops in England, France, and Italy. Travelers returned with a variety of paintings, prints, and miniature monuments to proudly display in their homes. For those who couldn’t afford the extravagant trip, international fairs and expositions brought the world to them. Since the first World’s Fair held in London in 1851, hundreds of millions of people have flocked from all over the world to attend these exciting events, which introduced new technologies to the world. Spectators enjoyed acquiring a variety of keepsakes to remember fairs, such as glassware and souvenir spoons.

As travel on steamships and railroads became more affordable during the late 19th century, a growing middle class began to take vacations. Tourists traveled to cities, seaside, mountain and desert resorts, where they purchased everything from indigenous crafts to ashtrays and collected matchbooks from hotels. Sailors’ valentines, transfer ware, ruby-stained glass, heraldic china are some of the more popular Victorian antiques. In later decades, the automobile and the airplane allowed greater access to remote areas.

Spoon collecting swept through the U.S. in the mid-19th century just before the souvenir boom from 1870 to 1960 as traveling became more affordable and the industry for inexpensive mementos flourished.

From the late 1800s to the 1930s, transfer-printed souvenir ceramics, which displayed an infinite number of destinations, historic sites, and commemorative events, enjoyed a golden age. Small paintings, souvenir picture books, and stereographs also served to remind travelers of their excursions. The picture postcard became popular in the 1890s. Following World War II, snow globes and other mass-produced items became commonplace at souvenir stands.

Ceramic Pictorial Souvenirs
Souvenirs allow people to reminisce about their travel experiences long after they’ve ended. And nothing did that better than ceramic pictorial souvenirs on earthenware and porcelain. This category of pictorial souvenirs is second in size only to postcards. While the English made most of the earthenware souvenirs for American consumption, those produced on porcelain, at least those from before World War II, generally came from central Europe: Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia.

C.E. Wheelock, who began business in 1888 in Janesville, Wiscnsin, was the first to make ceramic pictorial souvenirs in the U.S.. By 1894, he had moved to South Bend, Indiana, and had incorporated as C.E. Wheelock & Co. The sales techniques he used to promote his product contributed to his success. He divided the country into zones and sent out representatives to seek interest in the sale of souvenirs.

Typically, merchants would be approached by agents, who encouraged them to pieces made from postcards available of that town. The merchant decided on a selection of body types, ranging from plates to cups and saucers to pitchers and teapots. He and the agent would discuss the style of decoration and often would decide to include his own firm's name and address on the piece.

The agent would send the order back to the home office. Companies such as Wheelock’s that distributed the pictorial wares acted as middlemen. They employed no artists in America, but instead, jobbed out the work to European potteries. Steel engravings would he made from the postcard views, then transferred to the bodies. Afterward, artisans handcolored and gilded each piece. Within about six months, the merchant would be unpacking a container sent directly from the factory.

Some of the factories were small and relatively unknown while others were famous in their own right. At least 20 different central European factories produced porcelain pictorial souvenirs, in addition to two English firms: William Henry Goss, Limited, of Stoke, Staffordshire; and R.H. & S.L. Plant Limited of Longton, Staffordshire.

The beginning of World War II, brought an end to the production of these souvenirs. The war tore apart connections with central European factories, ties which were never re-established after it. Instead, importers turned to Japan, for the cheap labor required to make inexpensive souvenirs. Standards continued to erode, making those pieces produced from the turn of the 20th century through the 1930s all the more desirable by collectors.

Fortunately for today’s collectors, there are a number of quality antique souvenirs available at reasonable prices. Many examples of these pieces have survived because they were never intended to be used. Instead, people bought them for decorative purposes only, often giving them a place of honor in their china cabinets.


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