When I was a child, I loved to play outside, but when the weather was too hot, I would retreat into the air-conditioned house to read or play.
One of my favorite past-times was playing with paper dolls. I had all sorts, but my favorite was an old set I found in the back of a closet. It was a Colonial Williamsburg set. The clothes had been cut out by someone else long before I found them. The dolls had been reinforced with thin and well-used cardboard, but they still ignited my imagination.
Growing up I visited Colonial Williamsburg and Jamestown many times. I loved the history. I loved the stories: Captain John Smith, a mercenary soldier who kept the men of Jamestown working; Captain Christopher Newport, the one-armed Privateer, and George Wythe, the first law professor at William and Mary. I loved the beautiful houses — the St. George Tucker House, the tiny Mary Stith House — but I especially loved the Governor’s Palace with its amazing gardens and maze.
At the end of every visit, we would take a walk through the souvenir shops to find some small treasure to remind us of the day.
Souvenir translates from the French as “recollection” or “memory.” Back then, the word meant a small take-home treasure. The is first seen in the English language around the end of the 18th century, to refer to objects that remind us of a certain place or time.
Tourists have been buying souvenirs for thousands of years and souvenir trends have changed over the years.
“Souvenirs, an omnipresent facet of modern tourism, trace their roots to the ancient Mediterranean. In the Roman Empire, the common languages of Greek (koine) and Latin, standardised coinage and centralised bureaucracy increased the ease of travel, all of which helped a culture of souvenirs flourish. Indeed, a broad range of souvenirs commemorating places emerges from the archaeological record. These are not just trivial mementoes. Souvenirs then and now offer a remarkable window on how people develop shared visions of places, how they conceive of such foundational ideas as authenticity, and how we create emotionally meaningful personal relationships. Souvenirs perform vital work in shaping how people come to know their world and its landmarks. By taking ancient souvenirs seriously, we can glimpse how a country understood themselves and their cultural heritage.”Mary Popkins, Associate Professor at Case Western University in Ohio
The types of souvenirs we buy have changed over time.
The ancient Romans and Greeks would buy souvenirs in the form of the deities they saw in temples.
In the Middle Ages the primary form of extended travel was to visit Holy Sites. A Pilgrimage provided the traveler with many memorable experiences. Unfamiliar places, new people and a wealth of stories to tell back home. The souvenirs purchased were oftentimes in the form of inexpensive badges or small bottles filled with Holy Oil or Holy Water. These items would serve as proof of their devotion and as a story prompt.
By the 18th century the wealthy sons of Virginia might go to school in England and then go on the Grand Tour of Europe. The Grand Tour was a traditional trip taken by upper class young men and some women, with the goal of exposing them to the artistic riches of France and Italy, thereby completing their education.
On these extended travels such Virginians as Robert Carter III or William Byrd II might buy a few souvenirs to remind them of their time away from Virginia. Grand tourists would return with crates full of books, oil paintings, medals, coins and antique artifacts to be displayed in libraries, cabinets or drawing rooms.
It is about this time, the late 18th century, that paper dolls originated in France where they had moveable limbs and were very much like puppets. A London company started commercially producing paper dolls in 1810 and paper dolls came to America 2 years later.
From the 1930s to the 1960s, paper dolls experienced a golden era, as paper proved affordable during the Depression and remained available in World War II’s ration economy. Paper dolls are mess-free, portable, and encourage creativity. Unfortunately, paper dolls are not as popular today.
Another very popular souvenir from my childhood were silver spoons with colorful inlays of different tourist attractions. These spoons would oftentimes be placed in special display racks to show off all the places visited.
Silver spoons have been popular since at least 1500 to commemorate births. Wealthy Americans traveling to Europe picked up on the trend, which had been popular in Europe since the mid 1800s.
The first souvenir spoon in the US was designed in 1889 by Galt & Bros of Washington, D.C. to commemorate the 100th anniversary of George Washington’s inauguration. The Martha Washington spoon followed shortly thereafter.
By 1891, souvenir spoons were being created for every town, fair, animal, school, and potentially historic event. Like buttons, spoons were small and easy to collect and display. Events like the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893 played a role in the growth of the trend. The souvenir spoon tradition allowed people to collect keepsakes, and it made them feel worldly. They were convenient mementos and gifts. The silver spoon fad lasted until WWII, when people focused on other things and time moved forward.
Today, when I walk through a souvenir shop — and I always do– I find a plethora of small, inexpensive keychains, coffee mugs and tee-shirts.
But where are the paper dolls?
Souvenirs have changed over time, though the end result is the same — to show the many places we have visited and to open a conversation on our thoughts and experiences of those places.