Plymouth Rock fragment

America’s first generation of souvenirs were literally chipped away by tourists visiting the rock where Mayflower Pilgrims, according to oral tradition, landed in 1620.

As a relic, this Plymouth Rock fragment has everything going for it: a painted provenance attributing the piece to a lineal descendant of Governor William Bradford of Plymouth Colony, plus the date and time when it was chipped. In 1774, a team of 20 oxen tried to drag the rock to the Plymouth town square and accidentally cleft the formation in two along a horizontal quartz vein. The bottom portion of the glacially deposited rock remained behind on the Massachusetts shoreline and became known as "Mother Rock."

Oak Cane made from Independence Hall floor joist

Independence Hall, the Philadelphia building best known for its "Liberty Bell," hosted the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776 and the Constitutional Convention ratifying the U.S. Constitution in 1787. In 1873, during the installation of a new tile floor, 58 original wooden floor joists were removed and cut up by local entrepreneurs and turned into relics. This cane was made from one of those floor joists.

Compass embedded in a Mount Vernon buckeye nut

This nut is believed to have fallen from a buckeye tree on the property of George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate. Washington planted buckeye seeds on his land in 1785. This buckeye charm, embedded with a miniature compass and fixed with a ring suggests the object’s potential for providing historical and moral direction.

Souvenir Statue of Liberty

The "American Committee Model" is one of several thousand statuettes sold in the 1880s to finance the construction of a pedestal for the original, full-size Statue of Liberty. This six-inch version cost one dollar. A larger 12-inch model cost $5. The campaign raised enough money to construct the monumental stone pedestal through which visitors ascend to the statue’s crown and torch. French sculptor Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi’s image became an internationally famous symbol of liberty even before the finished monument was dedicated on October 28, 1886.

Laura Keene’s bloodstained cuff, worn at Ford’s Theater the night of Lincoln's assassination

Actress Laura Keene starred in the long-running 1858 stage comedy Our American Cousin. Facing a decline in New York theater audiences during the Civil War, Keene brought her company to Washington, D.C. for a two-week engagement at the John Ford theater. On April 14, 1865, President Abraham Lincoln watched Our American Cousin from a balcony box.

After John Wilkes Booth shot Lincoln, an urgent call came from the box requesting water for the president. Keene ran off the stage for water, went to the theater’s second floor, and held Lincoln’s head in her lap. His wound soon bloodied her costume, face, and hands and was absorbed in her cuff. Keene led the way for the men carrying Lincoln out of the theater.

Theodore Roosevelt's can opener

For his 1910 African expedition, Theodore Roosevelt brought this fish-shaped can opener so he could open tins of Boston baked beans, California peaches, and tomatoes. A keen enthusiast of “vigorous blood-stirring out of doors sport,” Roosevelt began planning his African safari before he retired from the presidency at the age of 50 in 1909.

The cast-iron can opener is inset with a small steel blade and appears to have been originally covered in golden paint.

Fountain pen used to sign World War I armistice

In Brussels, Belgium, on March 14, 1919, American delegates led by future U.S. president Herbert Hoover used this pen to sign the final World War I armistice that settled the terms of Germany’s surrender. The agreement was also signed by emissaries from Great Britain, France, Belgium, and Germany. The pen belonged to Hoover’s secretary Lewis L. Strauss, a former traveling shoe salesman.

Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Fireside Chat microphones

President Franklin D. Roosevelt, an early master of mass media, used these microphones for the "Fireside Chats" he delivered during the depths of the Depression. From 1933 until his death in 1945, Roosevelt gave radio talks to explain policy and bolster national morale. NBC executives insisted on white call letters on a black background because they made it more difficult for competing news organizations to remove the network branding from photographic negatives.

John F. Kennedy PT-109 tie clip

This bronze tie clip symbolizes the PT-109 Navy boat that John F. Kennedy skippered in the South Pacific during the Second World War. One night, a Japanese destroyer rammed the boat. The rescue of Kennedy and his marooned crew became the stuff of legend.

Created for Kennedy’s 1960 presidential campaign, the tie clip became a status symbol worn by family members, the president’s inner circle, and a stream of Oval Office visitors. Five clips were modeled in gold for the candidate to wear himself. Despite the cautions of his staff, Kennedy wound up giving away the gold ones along with the bronze.

Magnifying glass and chads from Broward County, Florida

Broward County Judge Robert A. Rosenberg used this magnifying glass to inspect chads during the 2000 Bush-Gore presidential election. Describing his job as “not unlike that of an umpire at a baseball game,” Rosenberg, who had astigmatism, had to remove his glasses to focus on the incompletely punched holes that resulted in the tiny fragments, known as chads, that hung by two or three points from questionable cards.

Alan Diaz’s Associated Press photo of Rosenberg, holding a ballot in one hand and the magnifying glass in the other, became the visual shorthand for this closely fought election.


Plymouth Rock Shards, FDR's Mic, And Hanging Chads: See The History Of America Through Small Objects

A new book, Souvenir Nation, showcases the weird and wonderful relics that chronicle U.S. history.

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."

John F. Kennedy PT-109 Tie Clip

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]

Add New Comment