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Early American souvenirs typically took the form of a piece of the place visited. A splinter chipped out of the molding at Mount Vernon, a chunk of stone chiseled from Plymouth Rock or bit of fabric clipped from a White House curtain. At one point the “national mania” for souvenir collecting threatened to destroy the very places visitors wished to remember. We talk with the curator of a new Smithsonian exhibit about the evolution of souvenirs and what we can learn from those early relics.
- William L. Bird, Jr. curator and historian, Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History; author, "Souvenir Nation: Relics, Keepsakes, and Curios from the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History"
Photos: Souvenir Nation Exhibit
Images courtesy of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.
MS. CHRISTINA BELLANTONIWelcome back. I'm Christina Bellantoni of the PBS News Hour sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi. And we are going to have a conversation about 'Souvenir Nation.' In our nation's early days, visitors to sites of historic significance brought away more than memories. They walked off with pieces of Plymouth Rock, where for a while a hammer was kept on hand in case you forgot your own. Swatches of fabric cut from the White House curtains and splinters of wood from, well, just about anything made of the stuff. They were seeking souvenirs.
MS. CHRISTINA BELLANTONIAnd before an industry cropped up to provide them readymade, they improvised. Here to tell us how we got into and out of that habit is Larry Byrd, who is the curator and historian at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History. He's the man behind the exhibit 'Souvenir Nation' on view now at the Smithsonian castle and the accompanying book of the same name, which has on its cover some very interesting trinkets that I think we're going to be talking about. Thanks so much for being here, Larry.
MR. WILLIAM L BIRD JR.Well, thank you, Christina.
BELLANTONISo I'm fascinated by this. I'm looking at, on the cover of this book, a lock of hair from Sir. Walter Scott. What exactly is 'Souvenir Nation?'
BIRD JR.Well, who knew? I mean, these are from what used to be the history collection in the United States National Museum. And it's a collection that goes back not too far into the 19th century. But as the museum grew bits and pieces of this were taken away and formed whole new collections. And the legacy collection today is sort of a residual bathtub ring, if you will, of unclaimed and not taken objects. And most of them are sort of these small little things that could've been cut or chipped away and taken as souvenirs when people traveled, especially in the 19th century.
BIRD JR.When you went to, let's say, Mount Vernon for example, you were almost expected to come away with a little bit of memorabilia of it, you know, a piece of wood, a chip of the mantle, you know, something from the garden. Or if you visited a famous person, you might ask them for a lock of hair and they would be obliged to give it to you if they were so inclined. But these things have sort of piled up in the collection that I curate. And it's really a kind of small deed democratic way that anyone could save the past, you know, by taking a little bit -- piece of it.
BIRD JR.And these are typically things -- small things of much -- they're bits and pieces of much larger things that loomed large in our imagination. And in such, they're really intensely personal ways that you can connect with that past and certainly to keep the memory alive in the thing that you can hold in your hand in a tangible way.
BELLANTONIAnd as people sort of reinvented the way that you visit historical sites, it's probably a little harder to take, you know, a rock from somewhere. I do get this -- I took one off Normandy Beach once on a trip with the president so I'm guilty of it.
BIRD JR.Yeah well, everyone has done this kind of thing. But when the collection sort of began to trickle into the museum, it was sort of closing out an era and people were beginning to appreciate this for what it actually is, which is just vandalism. But it actually was a kind of a hobby, if not an avocation of what was called relic hunting. And that's really from the beginning of the souvenir memory business today. I mean, overtime your attention was subtly shifted into -- or may not so subtly shifted into things that you could purchase, like a postcard in a gift shop. And there are even some transitional items.
BIRD JR.For example, you have a little -- it's a buckeye. It's a little acorn sized nut that fell from a tree at Mount Vernon that's imbedded with a compass. You know, well, the nut is from Mount Vernon but the compass is from nowhere in particular, you know. But pretty soon everything is from nowhere in particular. So, I mean, even the show today, when you go to see it in the castle it starts in a shop and it ends in a shop. So we sort of come full circle.
BELLANTONIWell, you can join our conversation and tell us if any of your ancestors might've had sticky fingers at historical sites. Give us a call at 1-800-433-8850, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Of course you can get in touch on our Facebook page or send a Tweet to @kojoshow. So Larry Byrd, curator of this interesting exhibit, we might think of keepsakes and mementos as being interchangeable terms. Bur what is the difference between the different types of items on display here?
BIRD JR.Well, in terms of using those words, keepsake, mementos, souvenir, relic or what we call them today historical artifacts, we sort of ennoble them, it's really one of, I think, emotional intensity. The keepsake being the most emotionally intensive and that would include a hair lock, for example. And it sort of goes on a sliding scale downward until the point where you get to the relic or the historical artifact, which is -- it may have a certain emotional intensity to it, and if you're lucky it does -- but the -- typically is a way just of dramatizing the passing of an historical event or a moment.
BELLANTONIDo you have a favorite in the exhibit?
BIRD JR.Yeah, people ask me that. And there's a little tiny piece of wood that's about the size of a fingernail that was chipped from the last railroad tie -- what was thought to be the last railroad tie at Promontory, Utah. We've all seen the famous photograph of the wedding of the rails, you know, the two locomotives that are pushed together on the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869. And at that ceremony people began to whittle away at the last tie into which the golden spike or spikes were driven.
BIRD JR.And so three weeks after that event, this eight-year-old boy was going through Utah with his mother. They stopped at Promontory, they got off the train and he was allowed to take his little pen knife out and whittle a little piece of the wood. And so it lives in a little manila folder in our storage area with a label. And when I saw that I thought, oh man, could it be true? And it turns out that -- he was three weeks after the ceremony and it turns out that travel writers wrote about this quite independently that as soon as the ceremony was over, people began whittling these things away. And they were just allowed to do it until they had to replace a tie. And they replaced one tie a week.
BIRD JR.So by the time he got there they were probably whittling on the third tie, which explains how he was able to do it or maybe was even suggested that he saw people doing it. But he kept it his whole life and then he mailed it into the Smithsonian, you know, in 1922. And there you have it.
BELLANTONIWell, it's such a testament too to the incredible curation that you all have, being able to keep track of all that and make sure you know which splinter is which.
BIRD JR.Oh yeah.
BELLANTONISo what do you think fueled this desire of so many Americans to literally have a piece of history they could take back home with them? What's that about?
BIRD JR.Well, if you think about it, again as I said before, it's a way that anybody, you know, with a pen knife and even an eight-year-old, can participate in saving the past. And for the longest time, saving the past or how you would save the past if you were a person of means is you would -- it was a function of art. It was a formal function of art. You know, you would have a portrait painted of yourself. You would have a landscape painted of your house. You might even commission a statue or a bust of yourself. Or maybe you might be lucky enough to have a medal struck in your honor or maybe a coin, a stamp, you know, that kind of thing.
BIRD JR.And all of those ways are on display in the museum today. And now with the opening of this exhibit, you know, this is also to do. But that's not to say that this means of chipping and taking fragments of things wasn't available to people of means, because people who traveled, you know, certainly did that and took advantage -- every advantage of that too. And it's reflected in the collection with the kinds of things we have.
BELLANTONIAnd what about sort of the historical nature? Are people trying to take a piece of heritage with them?
BIRD JR.Well, I think it's a way to just intensely -- it's intense personal meaning for people. It's a way to connect with the past. You're connecting by physically collecting, hunting, gathering. And most of these things are small. And they're sort of -- it's the kind of thing that would fit into a pocket or a purse, and they're really quite nondescript. I mean, even if you look at Plymouth Rock, it's just -- it's a piece of granite. And what is that?
BIRD JR.It's really the notes that they left, and sometimes affixed to if you're lucky, these things, these nondescript rather mundane objects that would've lost their significance if not for the note that someone thought to leave with it, which again attests to the personal level of engagement that these things have.
BELLANTONIThis is a destructive hobby to be sure, but what changed our national mindset on the ways that we collect these items?
BIRD JR.Well, you know, we have described it as vandalism. But to be fair in the absence of the museum idea or the museum as an idea, and certainly in the absence of a historic preservation movement, these things really kind of predate and for a while coexist with the development of those ideas as institutions. For example, I mean, if you went to Mount Vernon, it isn't until 1859 that anyone has the idea that the whole estate will be preserved in its entirety. So, well, why not take a little piece of it?
BIRD JR.You know, it's sort of inevitable that it may fall down, but then, you know, this whole idea of conserving things, and certainly that's the formal idea of the -- it's sort of the founding idea of the museum that these things are to be saved and to be taken out of circulation and treated with respect and dignified and that sort of thing. So really it's the advent of the National Museum and the historic preservation movement which begins in earnest at Mount Vernon one year away from the start of the Civil War.
BELLANTONIWell, tell us what your most cherished souvenir is and where did you get it? Give us a call at 1-800-433-8850. Send an email to email@example.com or of course Tweet to us at kojoshow. So Mount Vernon, just a few miles from here you just mentioned, is an interesting example of an estate where we can chart the evolution of souvenir taking and selling. So how did the caretakers of this property deal with that early phenomenon?
BIRD JR.Well, Mount Vernon is a really special if not an exceptional case because of the intense relationship that people have with George Washington and the legacy of Washington and the founding of the country, the Revolutionary War and on and on. And the way down there was typically by boat. I mean, you could go over land but until they put a trolley in, the way down was by boat. You would come from Washington or you would start in Alexandria and you'd be let off the boat for a couple of hours before the boat came back to pick you up and take you home.
BIRD JR.And so for those few hours the attendants at Mount Vernon had to be on their toes just to watch people and to make sure they weren't, you know, chipping away at things. And they lost interior furnishings to this kind of phenomenon. And over time they began to develop a trade in estate-made wooden things, canes and that sort of thing. So when you came up from the boat on the landing, the first thing you encounter is Washington's tomb. And there would be somebody there to sell you canes made from estate wood.
BIRD JR.So they're trying to, you know, channel it into some kind of a revenue-generating -- and they also would take things that were sort of renewable from the greenhouse. You know, you could. He had, there was a greenhouse and they would take plant cuttings and sell boxwoods and cuttings from boxwoods that you could replant, that sort of thing.
BIRD JR.But sometimes, you know, people would come off the boat and they'd be confronted with, you know, the sale of canes for example and they would question the person. Well, how do we know these are actually wood from the estate? Oh, well we would, you know, this represents that and so either not wanting to spend the money or on the way back to the boat they would just lope off into the woods and cut their own so just take it away. And then they were sure of the provenance of it and you know it was something that they had done.
BELLANTONIAnd it's all collected here in this exhibit. Well a lot of it is collected there. William, Larry Bird is a curator and historian at The Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History. We will continue our conversation after a short break. I'm Christina Bellantoni of the PBS "News Hour" sitting in for Kojo. We'll be right back.
BELLANTONIWelcome back, I'm Christina Bellantoni of the PBS "News Hour" sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi and I'm talking with Larry Bird. He is the Smithsonian's curator and historian at the National Museum of American History.
BELLANTONIAnd we're talking about the exhibit Souvenir Nation on view now at The Smithsonian Castle and the book "Souvenir Nation: Relics, Keepsakes and Curios from the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History." Larry, this is so much fun to talk about it.
BELLANTONII want to share an email we got from Charlie in Adams Morgan who sent this email to firstname.lastname@example.org. He tells us that he used to travel regularly to the Pacific Island of Iwo Jima, site of a major World War II battle of course. He said he would escort entertainers there to perform for Coast Guard personnel and one time as a souvenir one of those officers gave him a 1944 vintage Coca Cola bottle he'd found washed up on the beach.
BELLANTONIHe filled it with the sands from the beach and brought it home. A year later he showed it to a colleague who said that her father had fought in that battle. "I gave her the bottle and I have no regrets". I'm sure you must hear many, many stories of that. What are some of the stories behind some of these relics that you see, you know people that are handing off trinkets or making sure that they get to The Smithsonian for preservation in such a distinct way?
BIRD JR.Well, in many ways it's really not the thing so much as it is the story or the, you know, the memory of the thing. I'm wracking my brain for probably one of the better examples.
BIRD JR.We have, well, and this is one of the things you would never expect that we would have. We have a napkin that was described as Napoleon's napkin that was collected by a man who traveled to the courts of Europe and he was a friend with the future mother-in-law of our second secretary Spencer Fullerton Baird.
BIRD JR.And he knew, the man knew that this woman was an admirer of Napoleon or of Napoleon's executive ability which was something that I hadn't really studied much, much up on, but yeah, you can think of him as a monarch, as a ruler but you can also think of him as an executive, as he was in the 19th century apparently.
BIRD JR.But the napkin passed down through their family and the daughter of the Bairds gave it to the museum after the turn of the century so there it is. It's one of the first things you see in the show. I mean and every one of these things has a sort of a story like that.
BIRD JR.It's one of the things that were collected, passed on, deposited and then sort of consigned to the, you know, the outer reaches of the museum's collection.
BELLANTONIWell, let us know what you might have in your attic. Give us a call to join the conversation at 1-800-433-8850. Of course send a tweet to @kojoshow. Now Marty in Alexandria, Va. has heard a rumor about Francis Scott Key's house. I'm not sure we have an answer to your rumor but go ahead Marty, thanks for joining us.
MARTYCan you hear me?
MARTYOkay. I had heard a story that Francis Scott Key's house had been taken apart practically board by board and saved for the Smithsonian Museum but then later nobody could figure out where it was and it was kind of lost. I just wanted to hear what you had to say about it.
BELLANTONIWell, Larry Bird, not to put you on the spot, but are we hearing anything about Francis Scott Key's house and why is that something that might be important to this region?
BIRD JR.Well, yeah, it is important to the region and I think it's up in Frederick, Md. if I'm not mistaken. I'm not available to the internet at the moment, but that's the first place that I would start. But we do have -- I mean that's a common 19th century thing to dismantle some historic structure, typically a frame house and take it and set it up and display.
BIRD JR.One of the centennial exhibits in Philadelphia, you know, the world's fair, that kind of thing. That was frequently done. And one of the things that we do have in the collection is this tiny, little sliver. It's about the size of you know, the thickness of a Popsicle stick from a building in which Andrew Jackson practiced law in Salisbury, N.C.
BIRD JR.And it was taken and purchased off of its foundation and it was to be set up at the centennial in Philadelphia in 1876 and it never showed up. And the town is still looking for it if anybody knows where.
BIRD JR.But it's just the kind of thing, again, without a note. It's nondescript. It's a pile of lumber. What is it? You know, but here we have a little stick of it. It's stuck to the back of a business envelope with a note explaining what it is. It may be all that's left of it.
BELLANTONIAnd many of those items that you've been describing are pieces of wood or rocks or some little item but actually some of the items that you portray in the book and on display do resemble the types of trinkets you might find today that are more tourist-y.
BELLANTONISo tell us about this, on page 55 we've got this, basically a Statue of Liberty...
BELLANTONI...and this is from the 1800s.
BIRD JR.Well, Bartholdi, the French sculptor, the gift was of the statue itself, of Liberty, not the pedestal. You know, there had to be a fundraising campaign launched to build, to create the pedestal on which the statue would sit. And so the man that headed up the committee, the pedestal-building committee and was also Bartholdi's American agent, a man named Richard Butler (sp?) arranged with Joseph Pulitzer of the New York World for a publicity campaign.
BIRD JR.So if you gave a dollar to the campaign you were given a little six-inch replica Statute of Liberty that had been made with the sculptor's full approval and knowledge and for $5 you got a slightly larger version of the same thing. And you know, Butler was, you know, he got around a little bit. I mean he was a man of means and wealth.
BIRD JR.He was a rubber manufacturer and he came down to The Smithsonian and he left one of these little statuettes and they were looking around and they said, well gee, I guess he should get the credit so they accessioned it as a gift in his name.
BIRD JR.And the statue is interesting. It's slightly a more copperish color than the pedestal but the thing comes apart and you can figuratively complete the construction by placing the statute on the pedestal. But that's what you got for a dollar. But this is the way that the figure, the image of Liberty was publicized around the country.
BIRD JR.I mean people got their first looks besides, you know, looking at it in a newspaper ad or magazine ad, at the back of a magazine, the line drawing. But this is actually what it will look like. This is what you will see.
BELLANTONIAnd of course you'd have to go and see this on display at the exhibit, but I'm looking this page in the book and it doesn't. The Statue of Liberty actually looks like she's put on a few pounds in this little trinket here so.
BIRD JR.Oh no, that's the way. In fact, that is the mother of all of the little plastic trinkets that you see today, you know, here from here to New York and back. I mean, that is it. You cannot get closer to the real deal than that and it was made with Bartholdi's complete knowledge and cooperation.
BELLANTONIWe've got Bert from Washington, D.C. on the phone. He has a story about when living in Sweden and going to a museum there, go ahead Bert, thanks for joining us.
BERTThank you, we had the privilege of taking many visitors to the Vasa Museum which as you probably know was taking a disaster of a shipwreck and turning it into a wonderful treasure for the country of Sweden. I was horrified when one of the visitors I took said, oh I was here in the 1970s when they were just restoring it and I took a chunk of wood from it and gave it to a friend's mother and you know I've never seen that again.
BELLANTONIWow, what do you think of that Larry Bird, the curator and historian of The Smithsonian's National Museum of American History?
BIRD JR.Well it's hard to know what that is. I would say that approach is vandalous so. Yeah, but there's always that, there's always that line that you cross between, I mean is it inevitable that something is to be destroyed or, you know, there's just so much of it that can never. They're not going to miss this little bit.
BIRD JR.It's, you know, I think now conservation is, you know, the wise, the wisest policy, just, you know, let it alone. Go find, take an Instagram photo of it, you know, do something with your.
BELLANTONIAnd so many places are so careful about that with velvet rope and things. So our awesome production team in the control room has found some answers for Marty who was asking about Francis Scott Key's house.
BELLANTONISo there was a June column by Answer Man John Kelly in The Washington Post and it looks like the National Parks Service were custodians of the Key House, not The Smithsonian and evidently, according to this article they did lose pieces of it back in the early 1980s. So, thank you Marty for raising that question, now we have it answered.
BELLANTONIAnd again if you want to join our conversation and tell us about some of your favorite historic relics you might have up in your attic give us a call at 1-800-433-8850. Send a tweet to @kojoshow or send an email to email@example.com So what is the fascination with hair? We talked a little bit about this hair on the cover from Sir Walter Scott. How did people, how did collecting hair become a thing?
BIRD JR.Well it's definitely a kind of piece of Victoriana in the 19th century at least the way that I think of it. I mean it's the closest that you can actually get to a person and it's kind of an endearing kind of a keepsake. And the one that, the collection that we have that people talk most often about is one that was made by a man named John Varden and Varden is often described as the first curator and is also alternately described as a janitor.
BIRD JR.But he made a kind of a complete hair index of presidents of the United States starting with George Washington and it went to Franklin Pierce. So he's working in the 1850s and either repurposed things that he found in the collection or he actually added to them. But he considered it his personal collection and I mean it's the kind of thing in terms of a display.
BIRD JR.It's one of the longest existing displays. It's actually kept as a complete display in its original frame today. But it's very much a part of the times. I mean, but still today, I mean people keep hair locks of children, loved ones, that sort of thing.
BIRD JR.But he extended it out into the kind of showmanship, you know, museum, you know going that he was of a complete piece.
BELLANTONIKind of a little creepy but interesting and of course I should point out thanks you very much to the Answer Man who is the person who came up with that answer on Francis Scott Key in this June column. So we're going to take Bill in Vienna, Va. talking about tradition of relics. Thanks for joining us Bill.
BILLYes, thank you very much. I'm a long-time fan, first-time caller.
BELLANTONIWe love to hear that.
BILLThank you, I couldn't help, but think that there is enormous tradition of the conserving and worshipping and collecting of relics dating even before the Middle Ages that some of this chipping off of a piece of wood from Mount Vernon might have a relationship to.
BIRD JR.Oh, you're talking about perhaps religious relics?
BILLWell, religious and also not necessarily religious, you know lots of hair from a person that was considered important. This would be along the same line of thinking I imagine.
BIRD JR.Yeah, no there is a very long tradition in the United States and of course even longer in Europe which is where a lot of this comes from and it really is, it's hard to know just how far back to push it every time you come up with an example. Someone comes up with a slightly earlier one and on and on and on. But yeah, it is a long. I didn't mean to imply that this was anything recent by any stretch of the imagination.
BIRD JR.But in terms of it becoming a commodity and certainly something that relates to the beginning of The Smithsonian's collection or the National Museum's collection. This really is of a relatively recent phenomenon and by that when I say recent I'm thinking like the 1820s.
BELLANTONIRight, interesting, now David from Alexandria, Va. you have a very interesting story about a trinket that you have.
DAVIDAh yes, thanks for taking the call. It was interesting to listen to this narrative and think of how they pre-regulated item collection kind of scenario here in America and I felt like that was something I really saw in the Iraq War, particularly in my first deployment in 2004.
DAVIDIt was a very fresh environment. A lot of the palaces that were being occupied, that we occupied for that decade still had a lot of the furniture or little pieces of chandeliers and whatnot and of course the soldiers were just naturally unearthing and taking them.
DAVIDOne in particular was this, and if you Google it you can probably find a historic image of it, a gigantic bust of Saddam's head that was placed on top of the Presidential Palace that was subsequently pulled down and someone got the bright idea to take the bust and then a welding torch and cut them into about two by two square inch pieces with little authenticated sticker on the back of it and sold it.
DAVIDI mean the guy probably made millions off of that thing. There's got to be dozens of Iraqi vets wandering around with a real or imagined piece of the Saddam bust from the top of the Presidential Palace. I remember walking through the rubble of Tariq Aziz's house after we hit it. It had been hit in the initial invasion and watching them literally taking little pieces of chandelier, busted brick and sticking it in their bags.
DAVIDSo I hope 30 years from now when I'm walking The Smithsonian there will be a fascinating exhibit of Iraq War collection similar to the one we're talking about now.
BELLANTONIVery possible, thank you David for sharing that story and Gretchen in Manassas, Va. has a very different story of what's been taken and collected over the years. Go ahead Gretchen.
GRETCHENHi, can you hear me?
GRETCHENHi, yeah I just wanted to share with you the fact that when I was growing up my father, wherever we would travel, all over the world he would always sneak a little pinch of the plants, Buckingham Palace or Versailles or Monticello and he would bring it home and then he would root it and plant it in our yard.
GRETCHENAnd I can remember being, you know, terrified that we were going to get caught stealing a plant and yet when I got home I was secretly, actually very pleased that my backyard was filled with living, growing history from all over the world and I think that I loved that the fact that we were connected somehow to history from wherever we went.
GRETCHENI loved the fact that you know this history is this rolling, evolving series of events and yet somehow in my yard we could be a part of it. I loved that.
BELLANTONIThe perfect closing thought. Thank you very much Gretchen. I really appreciate it and I want to thank Larry Bird who is a curator and historian at The Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History. Make sure to check out the exhibit Souvenir Nation, which is on view now at The Smithsonian Castle and that's now through August 2014 approximately and this has been a really interesting segment so thank you very much.
BELLANTONI"The Kojo Nnamdi Show" is produced by Brendan Sweeney, Michael Martinez, Ingalisa Schrobsdorff, Tayla Burney, Kathy Goldgeier, Elizabeth Weinstein with help from Stephannie Stokes.
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