Well before snow globes, T-shirts, and key rings became plentiful, early Greek and Roman travelers returned from their travels toting silver miniatures of area temples, small glass bottles resembling the goddess of luck, or souvenir portraits of themselves painted in front of sights like the Parthenon. In the fourth century, as Holy Land pilgrimages became commonplace, the most iconic souvenir was the Palm of Jericho (two crossed palm fronds), which became so emblematic of the journey, the travelers came to be called “palmers.”
These and a treasure trove of other fascinating deep dives into the history of travel keepsakes can be found in the recently published book “Souvenir” (Bloomsbury, $14.95), by travel writer Rolf Potts.
One misguided period close to Bay Staters’ hearts was 19th-century America, when travelers tended to pilfer historic sights, including Plymouth Rock. At the time, breaking off pieces of the rock “was such a common practice that a nearby grocery kept a hammer and chisel on hand for tourists who’d forgotten to bring their own,” Potts writes. The practice was finally outlawed and what was left of the rock was cordoned off. (Nowadays it’s fenced in under a granite canopy.)
By the end of the 20th century, manufactured trinkets, many made in German factories before China took over, had become the norm worldwide, and mass-produced souvenirs had grown into a multibillion-dollar global industry. Potts walks us through the origins of some of the most popular vacation memorabilia, including postcards and the still confoundedly ubiquitous souvenir spoons. He also examines the history of the more somber side of mementos, those depicting crimes and tragedies.
Overall, the book, as do souvenirs themselves, speaks to the broader issues of time, memory, adventure, and nostalgia. Whether one collects shells and rocks or refrigerator magnets and drink coasters, we’re creating, as Potts writers, “object-narratives, which resonate with private meanings no written autobiography could ever achieve.”Diane Daniel can be reached at diane@bydiane