During America’s souvenir-hunting heyday, visitors to the White House used scissors to cut pieces of fabric from the president’s curtains. Citizens turned up at George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate with chisels and broke off marble chunks from the living room mantle. Tourists hammered away at Plymouth Rock and commemorated their visits by taking home shards of granite. "It seems crazy now," says historian William L. Bird. "People thought they were going to save the past by chipping away at it. You could put it in your pocket or your purse."
Bird’s new book Souvenir Nation (Princeton Architectural Press) highlights three centuries’ worth of hand-harvested relics, keepsakes, and curios belonging to Smithsonian Institute’s National Museum of American History collection.
Artifacts include a nut trinket gleaned from Washington’s backyard, Teddy Roosevelt’s can opener, John F. Kennedy’s boat-shaped tie clip, and a cane made from the floor of the Philadelphia building where America’s founding fathers signed the Declaration of Independence 237 years ago.
Most of these humble objects earn a place in the Americana pantheon by bearing mute witness to remarkable moments in time, explains Bird. Describing actress Laura Keene’s blouse, stained with the blood of an assassinated Abraham Lincoln, he says, "It’s a lady’s cuff. Without the [accompanying] note, you wouldn’t even know what you were looking at. With the note, you feel for Keene; the piece comes to life, and you’re able to connect empathetically to the historical experience through this mundane thing."
Bird, a curator at Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, notes, "Before you can have a national museum, you have to have a nation of savers, and that’s really what the book speaks to. As simple and low tech and unassuming as these things are, they speak quite eloquently to the idea of what a museum is about. The relationship you can have with the tiniest of things is really quite profound."
For a sampling of great American artifacts, and the stories behind them, check out the Souvenir Nation slide show.
[Images courtesy Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of American History, in association with Princeton Architectural Press]