Who here doesn’t have a collection of mini monuments, fridge magnets, key rings and mugs collected on vacation? For as long as humans have been traveling, we’ve had an inexplicable urge to bring back some sort of object that reminds us of our trip, and that’s the focus of a new exhibit by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. But don’t be fooled, you won’t find any mugs or magnets here.
The collection displays some of the world’s oldest souvenirs and harks back to a time when travelers clearly didn’t have to contend with airport customs officials. You see, back in the early days, there were no souvenir shops attached to museums where you could pick up your trinkets, so tourists eager for a knick-knack just took whatever they wanted. On display is one traveler’s souvenir of a napkin that belonged to Napoleon, and another tourist’s odd collection of hair, including tresses that belonged to George Washington.Other souvenirs that would clearly be illegal to buy or take today include pieces of the Berlin Wall, a fragment of Plymouth Rock and a piece of marble chipped off the cornerstone of the Washington Monument. It wasn’t until the late 1800s that we started catching on that taking home actual relics and historical objects was a bad idea, and it was this realization that sparked a boom in souvenirs — as shops started manufacturing the kitsch Eiffel Tower statues and collectible teaspoons that we know today.
The Roman Empire is remarkably familiar to the modern eye. It had highways, indoor plumbing, religious tolerance, and even fashion violations such as wearing socks with sandals. It’s like a primitive version of our own culture, with more similarities than differences.
And now it turns out they had tourist trinkets too.
A press release from Hadrian’s Wall Trust announces that a new book examines what may be the earliest known tourist mementos in the world. “The First Souvenirs: Enamelled Vessels from Hadrian’s Wall” is published by the Cumberland and Westmorland Antiquarian and Archaeological Society. It looks at three artifacts dating to shortly after the Hadrian’s Wall was built in 122 A.D. Three enameled pans bear the names of forts on the western portion of the wall. Some archaeologists believe these were mementos for visitors to the empire’s latest symbol of power and prestige.
Editor David Breeze says, “Remarkably it seems that Hadrian’s Wall was a tourist attraction soon after it was built. None of the pans were found on the Wall, but in southern England and France. As souvenirs they may have had no other function, though it has been suggested that they might have been used for wine drinking by veterans of the Roman army.”
Souvenirs for Roman tourists have also been found at other popular destinations such as Athens, Ephesus, and Alexandria. With the best transportation network in the ancient world and a large monied class, the Roman Empire could support a tourist industry.
Hadrian’s Wall stretched across northern England 84 miles from the Roman fort of Segedunum in the city of Newcastle-Upon-Tyne to Bowness-on-Solway, on Solway Firth., the traditional boundary of Scotland and England, and for two centuries the northernmost border of the Roman Empire.
For more information about the wall and its history, check out my series on hiking Hadrian’s Wall.
Upon returning from many trips abroad, I find I am unable to part with what many would consider the “garbage” that accumulates during your travels. I’m not talking about banana peels or tissues – more like readily disposable items such as mass transit tickets, nightclub flyers and entrance passes to monuments. For example, I have a used subway ticket from Stockholm that I like to keep in my messenger bag. Or there’s the pack of playing cards I picked up in Buenos Aires. Each item is relatively mundane and not really worth displaying, yet it holds a highly personal story.
Every time I stumble upon these items again during my day-to-day life, it causes me to pause for a moment, remembering where the item came from and how I acquired it. For instance, I remember the 20 random minutes I spent in the crowded Stockholm subway station office trying to buy the tickets pictured above. Or that rainy day in Buenos Aires where we had nothing to do and decided to play poker, wandering around for about an hour in search of cards and trying to explain the concept of “playing cards” to local store owners in Spanish.
What do you do with these items? The more ambitious put them in scrapbooks, but I like to think of these disposable travel items as something altogether different – as “youvenirs.” What is a youvenir you might ask? For me, it’s any highly personal travel memento with little monetary value – that fleeting item that you’ve managed to hold onto because of a memorable experience or highly personal anecdote. It’s for this reason that a youvenir is fundamentally different than a souvenir. Souvenirs are items you purchased with the intention of remembering and commemorating your trip – that beautiful colored glass bottle, an embroided sweatshirt that says “San Francisco” or a jar of Spanish olives you bought in Madrid.
I find myself collecting fewer and fewer souvenirs these days – there’s something about artificially buying an item just to remind me of a place that rings false. But a youvenir on the other hand is grounded in my personal experiences. As artists like Marcel Duchamp or Robert Rauschenberg have demonstrated, there is something profoundly interesting about everyday objects – something mundane and disposable yet incredibly meaningful depending on your personal context and experience with it.
I like to think that the more each of us travel, the less we acquire souvenirs so we can “brag” or give gifts to our friends and instead begin collecting youvenirs – items that have little monetary value but speak specifically to the unique emotions and experiences each of us attaches to travel.
What do you think about the concept of youvenirs? Do you have any memorable items you’ve acquired that would qualfiy? Click below to see our gallery of examples of “youvenirs” and leave some comments about your own favorite youvenirs below.