“Nobody sits us down and tells us to collect objects when we’re young,” writes Rolf Potts, “it’s just something we do, as a way of familiarizing ourselves with the world, its possibilities, and our place in it.”
Few of us would call ourselves collectors, but most travelers have, at some point or other, bought a keychain, pocketed a seashell, or saved a ticket stub from a vacation. Turns out, as Mr. Potts notes in a new little book called “Souvenir,” there’s more to this seemingly simple (perhaps frivolous to some) practice than meets the eye. For one thing, it’s a ritual that spans millenniums, dating back to the oldest described journeys. And, likely unknown to many travelers, academic researchers have classified souvenirs — even mass-produced items like “I Love New York” T-shirts and plastic miniatures of Michelangelo’s David — into various categories.
Which categories do the things I’ve bought or found in my travels fall into? I began wondering this when Mr. Potts, a travel writer and the director of a summer writing workshop at the Paris American Academy, mentioned to me in passing that there are names for different classes of souvenirs. Further, what’s really behind our need to bring home mementos? And what do the things we keep say about us?
If you’ve ever pocketed a pebble or saved a Champagne cork, you’ve got yourself what scholars call a “piece-of-the-rock,” a physical chunk of a place or experience, we learn in “Souvenir” (Bloomsbury).
Piece-of-the-rock mementos, along with another category of souvenirs that scholars call “local products” (“everything from Uruguayan leatherwork, to Mozambican piri-piri sauce,” Mr. Potts writes), predate today’s multibillion dollar mass tourism industry. These sorts of souvenirs stretch back to the earliest of journeys, when pilgrims brought home dirt from holy places as a religious souvenir.
Over time, intellectual curiosity became the driving motivation for personal travel. Yet even as travelers began collecting historical and scientific mementos, not just religious items, the things they brought home had echoes of sacred objects. In the 1700s, when Thomas Jefferson and John Adams carved slivers of wood off a chair in Shakespeare’s home in Stratford-upon-Avon, it was “as much an attempt to commune with the Bard’s aura as it was to commemorate a moment of travel,” writes Mr. Potts. (The wood chip said to have been taken by Jefferson is at his former home, Monticello, in Virginia where slicing off pieces of the furniture is not allowed.)
“Souvenir” reminds the reader that plundering was not unusual tourist behavior into the 20th century, especially with industrialization and better transportation allowing travel to flourish — not only among the wealthy, but also the middle-class. In the 1800s, “breaking off pieces of Plymouth Rock in Massachusetts was such a common practice that a nearby grocery kept a hammer and chisel on hand for tourists,” Mr. Potts tells us. During the 1876 American centennial, “tourists visiting the Capitol snipped off swatches of the gallery curtains (and carved off chunks of the Speaker’s desk) in the House of Representatives.”
By the close of the 19th century, cheap mass-market souvenirs were becoming alternatives to objects plundered from historical sites. And by the end of the 20th century, Mr. Potts writes that in tourist areas around the world, imported keepsakes had become the standard — and mass-produced souvenirs were a global industry.
Scholars group these souvenirs into different buckets, including “markers” (location branded items like T-shirts and teacups); “pictorial images” (postcards and posters), and “symbolic shorthand” (for example, Statue of Liberty key chains), with the latter two categories being emblematic of, though not exclusive to, mass tourism. The bulk manufacturing of such items underscores the relationship, or the lack thereof, between the souvenir and the place. As Mr. Potts observes after visiting a Paris gift shop, little Eiffel Towers sold there are manufactured in China and can be ordered online and shipped to Dubuque, Iowa, no plane ticket to France required.
What then, a traveler may ask, is the point?
“Souvenir” offers ideas about what may be in play when we seek mementos.
For instance, buying souvenirs may function as part of gift-giving customs, like the Japanese omiyage ritual.Or, the act of shopping for souvenirs may give the traveler a certain comfort: It’s a familiar activity in an unfamiliar place that also allows the traveler to conjure loved ones back home.
Whether purchased or found, procuring a souvenir may also “be a way of slowing down a real-time experience that is by definition ephemeral,” as Mr. Potts puts it. To combat disorientation, “the tourist thus collects mementos as a way of gaining power of moments that he doesn’t fully understand.”
For some, collecting mementos is a way to advertise worldliness, even though as Mr. Potts writes, many souvenirs end up speaking to “stereotypical shorthand rather than lived experience.”
For others, acquiring a souvenir is aspirational. Consider the large clamshell Mr. Potts found at Lake Michigan as a child. He viewed it less a souvenir and more “a totem of faith that I might one day travel beyond the landlocked prairies of my youth, see an actual ocean, collect a real seashell, and journey outward to farther shores.”
Indeed, in the end, “Souvenir” suggests that the meaning of a keepsake is not fixed (its importance to the owner can change over time) and that its significance is bound up in the traveler’s identity. “When we collect souvenirs,” Mr. Potts writes, “we do so not to evaluate the world, but to narrate the self.”
The story begins the moment we take a trinket off a shelf, buy it and walk out of the store. The object can then become part of our personal history, “a way of mythologizing our own lives,” Mr. Potts says. And ever more so in an age of Instagram, he told me recently, when conspicuous consumption plays out in real time, making the objects we choose to keep seem even more personal. He himself has had plenty of keepsakes displayed around his home (more often, he’s on the road) in Kansas — Asian masks, Bacchus beads from New Orleans, pebbles — things that remind him not merely of the places he’s been and the people he’s encountered, but of former life phases.
“Try as I might to articulate to other people the meanings and back stories of these objects,” he writes, “they ultimately exist as a kind of private sign language that only I can understand.”
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