We know you’ve got some in your home. They’re probably hidden away and you could never get rid of them.
No, we’re not talking about pests, but the innate human need to collect souvenirs from all the places we travel to.
So what compels us to bring home little trinkets that we’d never usually buy and are probably not useful at all?
Well, ever since the beginning of travel, there’s been the need to keep a concrete reminder of our journey.
Part of it’s to preserve a special memory; part to connect us to our history; a little part to make us feel more significant in this vast world. “I’ve been there, and I have this little piece of junk to prove it.”
Souvenirs are a big business, but just who started the whole thing – and why? Were memories (thousands of years ago) and then photos (once the technology became available) not enough?
Don’t try this at home…
Souvenir collecting has been going on ever since people began traveling to places away from home – and way back then, people didn’t travel for fun.
Travel was typically reserved for very important or solemn reasons such as religious pilgrimages.
Pilgrims would often face a long and arduous journey to visit a place of special religious significance—and so they darned well were going to take home something that symbolized their once-in-a-lifetime achievement!
Since there weren’t selfies thousands of years ago, pilgrims would – literally – grab a piece of a particular relic, temple, or tomb and take it back with them.
Even then, the keepers of religious sites knew that if people kept taking away chunks of their holy sites, there’d be nothing left. So they devised a plan – make a little trinket that looks like the site’s relics and let them have that instead.
Thus, the first souvenirs were produced.
Wooden trinkets and badges were sold to pilgrims so they had a memory of their journey and could also prove to disbelieving family members that they actually made it to their destination.
These became so popular that eventually small stalls, and then larger marketplaces, catered to the crowds on pilgrimage and the trinkets became more elaborate.
That’s right, marketing gimmicks are not just a modern business concept. These guys paved the way for a booming industry that would last, well, forever.
Dahling, I bought it for a song.
Class distinction was important in Europe, and of course once the U.S. was settled, our ancestors kept these class distinctions mostly intact.
And anyone who was anyone had to flaunt their wealth with a bunch of stuff to prove they were “better” than those in the lower classes of society.
Souvenirs in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries weren’t what we’d think of today (you know, like that shot glass with a cowboy on it that now sits in the back of your cabinet).
No, souvenirs were tapestries, glassware, expensive rugs, paintings and ornate sculptures that would be shipped home after your “Grand Tour.”
Then when your friends would come for tea, you could regale them with your travel stories and amazing purchases.
The goal? For them to leave full of jealousy and force their husbands to send them to far off places so they could keep up appearances too.
It wasn’t so much about the trip as it was about the ability to take it — and bring something home that proved your worth to others.
A spoon in the hand is worth…
No, that’s the wrong expression. But the other one — “born with a silver spoon in their mouth” — may have set off a popular souvenir craze that’s still going strong.
The Grand Tour of Europe was still a big deal into the early twentieth century, but along with grand purchases, travelers wanted to bring home something small and special.
We wouldn’t know, but it probably gets boring to be rich and having to buy the same old stuff all the time.
In addition, the middle class wanted to go to Europe and they wanted to buy stuff too.
But buying gilded sculptures and Persian rugs was still out of most travelers’ price range.
And so, the collector spoon was born.
Souvenir shops began to pop up all over Europe so Americans could take home a little something to prove they’d been there – just like the pilgrims of old and those who travel today.
By the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the U.S. had enough history under its belt to have some popular tourist destinations of its own.
And the same problem occurred as with those pilgrims long ago. People were taking home pieces of historical homes and properties.
It slowly became a big no-no as some began to realize these historical places should be preserved. And just like in the past, souvenirs soon replaced actually stealing historic property.
(Disclaimer: This is now also heavily frowned upon, punishable by the federal government in all its glory. Unlike the pilgrims of old, you will go to jail – and they’ll take your souvenir away.)
This problem was originally discovered in the U.S. when people traveled to George Washington’s home at Mount Vernon and took chunks of furniture, siding, shingles, you name it.
So in the first of its kind here in the states, the “Mount Vernon factory” grew plants and trees for people to purchase and made trinkets on the property for tourists to take home.
Gift shop, anyone?
“Wish You Were Here”
As more and more people had the means to travel, there was still the need to brag about their adventures – but sometimes the cost of the trip left little money for anything else.
This is where the most popular souvenir of all time came into existence – the lowly postcard.
In the U.S., the popularity of postcards exploded with the Expositions and World Fairs – and they cost as little as a penny!
It was the simplest of ideas, but the craze spread like wildfire and is still with us today.
And as automobiles began to be manufactured and “ordinary folk” were able to purchase them, the great American road trip was born.
There was probably no greater boost for the souvenir industry than the development of the Mother Road – Route 66 – with all the gaudy, plastic, neon beauty that captured the dreams of everyday Americans.
This was the Golden Age of souvenirs, and you could find literally anything you wanted that reminded you of your trip.
An alien that lights your cigarette with his eyeball? Check. A belt-buckle with a “genuwine” piece of bison hide? You got it.
The souvenirs held regional symbolism, there was something for everyone at every price range, and the industry was a boon to the U.S. economy. Jackpot!
But you didn’t answer my question…
Okay, so to go back to the beginning: Why do we buy these little things that we’ll never use and we usually hide away?
Well, because it makes us feel good.
It’s that simple.
We like seeing that ugly salt and pepper shaker shaped like a sombrero and a chili pepper at 5am on a Monday morning while we’re blindly reaching for a coffee mug.
We like wearing those “all I got was this lousy t-shirt” t-shirts on a Sunday afternoon when we can sit on the couch and not have to look decent.
Our souvenirs are always there, and when we catch a glimpse of them in the back of the cabinet or closet, they always make us smile.
Our souvenirs are our own personal history. They are memories of the good times when things aren’t so good.
That snow globe of the Empire State Building probably won’t ever see the light of day again in your house, but we bet you wouldn’t trade it for the world.
What are some of your favorite souvenirs collected on your travels? Do you have any special souvenirs that you’d never part with?
Please tell us in the comments below!