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The curious history of holiday souvenirs – what compels us to buy them?

The Telegraph logo The Telegraph 06/09/2018 Annabel Fenwick Elliott
MARRAKECH, MOROCCO - JANUARY 5, 2018: A vendor selling souvenirs in the ancient section of Marrakech, the medina. Valery Sharifulin/TASS (Photo by Valery Sharifulin\TASS via Getty Images) © Getty Images MARRAKECH, MOROCCO - JANUARY 5, 2018: A vendor selling souvenirs in the ancient section of Marrakech, the medina. Valery Sharifulin/TASS (Photo by Valery Sharifulin\TASS via Getty Images)

It's certainly not 'cool' to collect souvenirs. Most of us who partake do so somewhat sheepishly, meandering the cluttered aisles of an airport gift shop in search of the least offensive made-in-China fridge magnet to commemorate our holiday, which was almost definitely not in China.  

American writer John Walker Harrington called it in 1906 when he declared his country's "incipient mania for cherishing the useless" to be reaching fever pitch. Tacky souvenirs, he wrote for American Magazine, "brought to this country in the baggage of tourists" and "propagated with amazing rapidity", were getting silly.

"Unless such manifestations are checked, millions of persons of now normal lives and irreproachable habits will become victims of faddy degeneration of the brain."

The mass-production of cheap(ish) souvenirs - a term that in English dates back to the 1700s - did indeed reach epic proportions during the 20th Century, in line with the spread of travel and the emergence of tourism as we know it today.

But this was inevitable. Humans have always like collecting things, and boasting about where they've been. Holiday souvenirs are the pocket-sized tokens that scratch the itch.

Academic researchers have pinpointed five categories for the items we collect on our travel: "piece-of-rock", meaning physical fragments like shells; "local products", think Swiss chocolate and Moroccan rugs; "pictorial images", including postcards and calendars; "markers", i.e. mundane objects like T-shirts and mugs which are branded with a particular location; and "symbolic shorthand", accounting for miniaturized Eiffel Towers and New York snow globes.

The first two, as the new book, Rolf Potts’ Souvenir, delves into, are the sorts of keepsakes we've been collecting since the very beginning, while the last three are all mass-market products that are relatively new in form. Let’s peer a little closer.

A tankard depicting the face of U.S. President, Donald Trump, is displayed in a souvenir shop in central London, Britain July 11, 2018.  REUTERS/Simon Dawson © Thomson Reuters A tankard depicting the face of U.S. President, Donald Trump, is displayed in a souvenir shop in central London, Britain July 11, 2018. REUTERS/Simon Dawson

Where did it all start?

We know early humans decorated their caves and rounded up objects inside them - so in a sense it's always been in our nature to hoard items of importance to us. We were also innate hunter gatherers, routinely on the move, accumulating items along the way.

As far as recorded cases of travel souvenirs go, these date back as far as Ancient Egypt, and include those - for one - of Prince Harkhuf, who travelled to Sudan around 2,200 BC, and brought back with him leopard skins, ivory and incense to present to the pharaoh.

By the time the ancient Greeks and Romans had laid down their roots, manufactured keepsakes like painted pots and miniature silver monuments had become something of an industry around sites with particular cultural significance for travellers passing through - Alexandria among them.

Souvenir plates featuring portraits of current and late Chinese leaders (R-L) Xi Jinping, Deng Xiaoping, Zhou Enlai and Mao Zedong are displayed for sale at a shop next to Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China, March 1, 2018. REUTERS/Jason Lee © Thomson Reuters Souvenir plates featuring portraits of current and late Chinese leaders (R-L) Xi Jinping, Deng Xiaoping, Zhou Enlai and Mao Zedong are displayed for sale at a shop next to Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China, March 1, 2018. REUTERS/Jason Lee Souvenirs in the age of pilgrimage

Here’s where the concept really began to evolve. When we weren’t busy conquering our neighbours, and long before we travelled for pleasure, it was for pilgrimage, and everyone wanted to bring home a so-called piece-of-rock as a momento: a small trophy to prove they'd completed it.

Which started to become problematic as Christian pilgrimage to Jerusalem came into fashion in around 500 AD. Particularly popular was the Chapel of Ascension, a spot commemorating Jesus' supposed last days spent on Earth before ascending to heaven.

"Tradition asserted that the footprints of Jesus could still be discerned in the exposed dirt," writes Potts. "Eager to possess a bit of the dust that had touched the messiah's feet, visiting pilgrims began to spirit away fistfuls of the sanctuary floor in such profusion that the shrine's caretakers were forced to haul in fresh dirt every few weeks."

Some pilgrims were downright obnoxious in their insuppressible urge to take a piece of the Holy Land home with them. Potts cites one notorious example of the man who'd been allowed to kiss the True Cross on Good Friday, and managed to chew off a small hunk of it to steal away in his mouth.

Not dissimilar, today, is a football fan's desire to own a shirt worn or signed by their favourite player, as if said player's essence could somehow be transferred by mere touch.  

Scholar Beverly Gordon remarks: "People feel the need to bring things home with them from the sacred, extraordinary time or space - for home is equated with ordinary, mundane time or space."

By the Middle Ages, perhaps in response to overzealous pilgrims like the cross-muncher, relics - tokens sold with the promise (almost always false) that they'd belonged to or have been touched by religious icons - were doing a roaring trade.

"Peasants' skeletons were passed off as those of saints, and duplicate relics - including multiple heads of John the Baptist - abounded in competing basilicas across Europe and the Near East," Potts states.

Gradually, however, intellectual curiosity surpassed pilgrimage as the main motivation for travel, and as more of the world was explored, objects were sought out less for veneration and more for education, presentation, and sheer novelty.

A souvenir of Pope Francis is seen on display prior to Pope Francis visit to Peru from January 18 to 21, in Lima, Peru, January 12, 2018. REUTERS/Guadalupe Pardo © Thomson Reuters A souvenir of Pope Francis is seen on display prior to Pope Francis visit to Peru from January 18 to 21, in Lima, Peru, January 12, 2018. REUTERS/Guadalupe Pardo Those funny little spoons

"If one were to pinpoint a single moment when souvenirs came of age as an organized, globally minded American industry," Potts writes, "it might well be the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893, which attracted 28 million visitors to Chicago over the course of six months."

Among the many keepsakes on offer, he explains, the most popular of all were the commemorative spoons, which sold by the tens of thousands and prompted contemporary newspapers to herald a "souvenir spoon craze".

But this wasn't by chance. It was a calculated effort, backed by a clever marketing campaign on the part of American silversmiths. In a promotional pamphlet distributed two years prior to the expo, the Jeweler's Circular Company of New York announced: "From Maine to California, from Minnesota to Florida, the cry is for souvenir spoons."

One company wove an intriguing story that the fashion in Europe among esteemed travellers was to collect a spoon from every country they visited. It was entirely fabricated, but it struck a chord, the self-invented industry cashed in, and location-branded spoons remain in gift shops around the world to this day.

Postcards

Ah, the humble postcard. Pointless really (Dear Granny, we're having lots of fun on the beach, the end) except perhaps to put a literal stamp on the fact that we're on holiday.   

This is a form of souvenir which didn't spread until the late-19th Century, but once it took hold, was a phenomenal success. In the year of 1904, people in Sweden - with a population then of 5 million - sent more than 48 million postcards. By 1906, distribution company the Post Card Dealer was reporting sales of 750 million in the UK and more than one billion in Germany.  

Today, post is passé, but many of us put the same effort as we did browsing the gift shop for the nicest, most envy-inducing postcard, into framing the nicest, most envy-inducing Instagram shot.

What makes a good souvenir?

Potts spent several days at the Las Vegas Souvenir & Resort Gift Show, the industry's largest convention, in the hope of answering this question.

"Most souvenirs, I learned, are designed to be eye-catching, small in size, easily portable, not too fragile, and not too expensive," he says.

"Travellers often don't think about souvenir purchases until they walk into a gift shop so qualities like attractiveness, simplicity, novelty, or humour are meant to inspire an impulse buy."

As for the more quirky and original articles, tourists aren't as keen, on the whole.

"Statistically speaking, T-shirts, hats, key chains and bottle openers sell far more, year in year out, than more imaginative or specialised keepsakes," he notes.

Summarising the entire concept neatly, one salemsmen who'd been in the business since 1971 told him: "At the end of the day, people don't get too philosophical when they go to a big tourist destination. They just want something that proves they've been there.”

  • Souvenir by Rolf Potts, is available from Bloomsbury; £7.55

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