A piece of Plymouth Rock collected in 1830 (all images courtesy of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History)
Before there were souvenir shops and mass-produced curios, early travelers chipped off their own piece of the Plymouth Rock with a hammer left there just for the purpose, or begged a clipping of hair from a famous figure.
Now some of these souvenirs have been assembled in Souvenir Nation, an exhibition that opens today at the Smithsonian Castle in Washington, DC. Presented by the American History Museum and organized by curator William L. Bird Jr., it’s also accompanied by a book that delves into this obsession with taking a bit of a place home with us.
The focus is on American travelers, but there are also pieces of the Berlin Wall and the Bastille along with fragments of George Washington’s home Mount Vernon, and even his coffin. What might be most remarkable about the DIY souvenirs is that they’re not remarkable at all, just scraps of wood and mundane chunks of rock. Yet the stories attached to them and the obvious significance they had to their previous owners reflect that need to make a personal connection with history, both in our own stories of travel, and in the greater story of the nation and the world.
Here are just a few of the mementos on display in Souvenir Nation:
A piece of George Washington’s coffin
Statue of Liberty Souvenir, 1885
Piece of the Bastille
Fragment of the Berlin Wall
Can opener from Theodore Roosevelt’s African expedition
Lock of Sir Walter Scott’s hair
A portrait of Lafayette on a lady’s glove from 1824
Stone from the dungeon of Joan of Arc
A tie bar of the World War II craft PT-109, which was commanded by John F. Kennedy
A jailed for suffrage pin created by the National Woman’s Party in 1917
Napoleon’s napkin, 1815
“Hair of Presidents of the US with Other Persons of Distinction”
Souvenir Nation is at the Smithsonian Castle in Washington, DC through August 2014.