The last time you took a trip somewhere special, did you get a souvenir? If you didn’t, you are probably in the minority. For some reason, many of us want to take home a physical reminder of some place we visited. And shops everywhere are eager to help us do so. Why else would travel destinations pack stores with fetching picture post cards, neon key chains, t-shirts and other tchotchkes bearing the name and imagery of the place visited? Was there ever a time we weren’t eager consumers?
It certainly wasn’t after the Industrial Revolution, when products were more easily created and distributed. We were just gaining momentum when it came to collecting. Chances are good your great-grandparents were bombarded with potential collectibles at travel portals, as we are today.
The word souvenir is derived from the Latin word “subvenire,” meaning “come to mind,” and the later Old French word “souvenir” meaning “to remember or come to mind.” So what makes the best souvenir? That probably depends on the individual, but there must be a reason so many items within the genre tend to be the same, regardless of where you are. Based on antique hunting, that’s nothing new either.
Antique stores and online auction sites today are filled with the discarded consumer items of yesteryear. That saying “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure,” couldn’t be truer in today’s collections. (Just peruse some of Libby Cierzniak’s old “Indianapolis Collected” stories if you still need convincing.) Some of what you’ll find in flea markets nowadays was practical, useful, daily life stuff, and some of it was more frivolous or sentimental. Souvenirs tended to fall in the latter category. Oh sure, the odd ashtray or salt and pepper shaker could be justified as a practical souvenir and home item, but the flags, pins, postcards and lapel pins? Not so much.
An interesting aspect of these old mementos is how specific they can be. Postcards, particularly, tend to represent a wide swath of buildings and events available in a place, and can be specific to a neighborhood, store or… amusement park. While you may find some fun perspectives of these entertainment venues, the most personal souvenirs are photos of the people taken there. The following otherwise unremarkable image of a young lady sitting on a wooden chair has far greater interest because it is labeled as a “Souvenir of Wonderland” in Indianapolis, mailed in 1906 to Amboy, Indiana. These one-off images took an on-site photographer, with a far more sophisticated set-up than today’s quickie digital capture of you and your friend in motion, screaming on your way down a roller coaster. Wonder what the experience was like? And why did she decide on this as her souvenir?
My guess: she wanted to let someone know she’d been there. And at the end of the day, isn’t that what souvenirs are really about? The picture shows you were there. As you think about your relatives wandering the streets of Indianapolis of yesteryear, as residents or visitors, wouldn’t you love to know where and how they spent their time? What doorways they walked through, what fountains they admired, where they sat and contemplated their surroundings? What caught their eye? We can’t know that, but we can know what architecture greeted them at the time, what shops or diversions were available to them. And that’s at least something to spur a few daydreams forward.
If only our local amusement parks left behind detailed diagrams of the property layout, our imagination would have far less work to do. As many articles as exist about Wonderland, I’ve yet to find a detailed site map explaining where each feature, ride or where on the property the photos were taken. Did such a map of the park exist? It would certainly be interesting to know the minutiae. This 1908 Baist map may be the closest we’ll ever have to that.
Who wouldn’t love to find something like the following, which appeared in a Minnesota paper, when the “Midway Amusement Park” was proposed (see below). The map is so detailed, you would have been able to find exactly where photos were taken. Or where a souvenir card, like the handwritten, flocked one above, was acquired.
The only other antique looking map of an early amusement park I’ve come across is this fully labeled (after the fact) Coney Island stunner originally published in 1905.
So, if you were visiting Indianapolis circa 1906, what do you imagine you might have wanted as your souvenir?
Here’s a small starter list of vintage souvenir items you might have found in the early 1900’s; some of which you may still find today from purveyors of antiques:
- engraved glass pitchers
- relief image spoons
- painted plates
- pillow cases
- felt pennant flags
- lapel buttons/ pins
- salt and pepper shakers
- hand mirror
- handheld fan
- autograph book
- post cards
- toothpick holders
And what’s missing?
Do you collect any of the above? Please share!