Souvenir Nation: Relics, Keepsakes, and Curios from the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History

Souvenir Nation: Relics, Keepsakes, and Curios from the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History - William L. Bird Jr.

To read an interesting article about the exhibit this book is based on, do click this link. It's quite fascinating.



One of my first memories of my Grandparents' house (on my father's side) is their refrigerator literally plastered with magnets from Maine, West Virginia, Kentucky, and other states. It seemed like they had one for every place and every time they visited anywhere. For me, souvenirs from places I've visited were not something with the picture plastered on it (though I do have postcards from various places stuffed in a drawer somewhere), but book about the event or area. Sometimes it was a quill pen as I attempted to write without a ballpoint (wonderful invention) or paper dolls when I was younger. But even with those, my memories tied the object to the place. Photographs may jog your memory or give you a glimpse of a place you've never been, but there is something about holding an object from a historical area or that was owned or touched by an important person. For subsequent generations, it's the closest we can come to many of these historic events and/or people. There is something that speaks to all of us about the collecting and owning of curios and keepsakes.


The author does a decent job of looking at the historical elements of souvenir and curio collecting and why it was focused (for the sake of history!) to change from taking pieces of famous places or things to items not too dissimilar from ours today. Make no mistake, this is not a text on the subject. Rather this is a treatment, an introduction, to the idea. I personally wished for more but for the average reader, it's a good choice. The short text also tells the evolution of the Smithsonian into the institution we know today. There was actually a great deal of contention over what it should actually be and some of the objects mentioned in here were caught up in the debate.


And what of the objects themselves? I don't think I could have concocted an odder, more eclectic mixture if I tried! Seriously, there's a little bit of everything in here. They are broken up into six sections with several objects coupled under a broad theme. Some of these were an oak cane from an original floor joint of Independence Hall, a carved wooden nutmeg from the Connecticut Charter Oak, a part cut from old ivy that grew at Mount Vernon, and a piece of fence rail split by Abraham Lincoln.


It is not just United States History represented here. There is a piece of the Bastille, Napoleon's napkin, a lady's glove with Lafayette's picture on it (?!), and a piece of the Berlin Wall. 


Then there were the items I was almost dying to touch: a piece of the bedrock under the Mississippi river, half of the towel used as the flag of truce by General Lee's representative at Appomattox Court House, and the pen used to sign the final armistice agreement for World War I. There are amazing objects and ones that almost repulsed me. It was all fascinating.


The collection and keeping of relics and souvenirs has long fascinated me. And as I was reading this, I brought out the two I have through the kind efforts of a friend. We were and are history buddies and share a love for learning and dreams of traveling to all those places we've read about. When she traveled to two particular places, she brought me back two things she knew I'd truly appreciate. One is a tiny rock, almost a pebble from a beach once code named Normandy. The other, larger one is from a place of immense sadness called Auschwitz. They are the only physical ties I have to places I desperately hope one day to see with my own eyes. But they mean even more to me then their ties to history (though those are weighty), they are reminders of a very good friend who understands and shares my love of history. And this was what truly struck me about all these objects; not only their ties to history but the stories behind who picked them up, received them as gifts, and how they finally ended up in a place where all of use can view them.