Before there was a [US] national museum, we had a nation of savers
June 12, 2013 9:49 AM   Subscribe

"In the early 1800s, a hammer was kept near Plymouth Rock for the pilgrim who had forgotten to bring one. By the end of the 19th century, what was left of the rock was fenced off within a memorial." "The United States, it turns out, was a nation of casual plunderers from the start. Visitors to Mount Vernon snapped splinters from the moldings; beachgoers in Massachusetts chiseled off chunks of Plymouth Rock; tourists snipped fabric from the White House curtains. By the early 19th century, newspapers were referring to illicit souvenir hunting as a “national mania.” "

See more: Souvenir Nation (flash preview of the book), and more images of a few of the tiny artifacts, from a behind-the-scenes Smithsonian "tweetup" tour.
posted by filthy light thief (49 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite

 
Hey, at least we just deface our own monuments, as opposed to going to other countries and defacing theirs.
posted by Cash4Lead at 9:55 AM on June 12, 2013


Oh, this is fun. But it goes back even farther - it wasn't unknown for crowds of faithful to literally tear apart the bodies of those thought of/acknowledged as saints, to keep a snippet of body, or clothing, or hair for themselves.

I worked for a museum linked to a genealogical society a while back, and it was interesting what people in the 1800s and early 1900s thought of as maintaining authenticity. If you salvaged a ship and turned it into furniture, or gavels, or a decorative box, that seemed to be just as valued. So you take a tree from near George Washington's campsite, turn it into a bunch of small decorative objects, and hand them out.
posted by PussKillian at 9:57 AM on June 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


And we still do this .

Who doesn't have a Burner friend that keeps a little, "Playa" in a bottle?

"Take only pictures, leave only footprints" is something we have to tell people, in Wilderness Areas, etc.

Anyways, those photos are creepy. Like, country-relics, or something. Hmm, Pilgrimages.
posted by alex_skazat at 9:58 AM on June 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


Hmmm. I like this post. I'll just chip off a few letters here and there to remember it by.

"In the early 1800s, a ham was kept near Plymouth Rock for the pilgrim who had forgotten to bring one. By the end of the 9th century, what was left of the rock was fenced in moria. The United States, it turns out, was a nation of casual plunder tart s. "

I don't think anyone will notice the difference.
posted by yoink at 10:00 AM on June 12, 2013 [14 favorites]


We apparently inherited the habit from our European ancestors. I recently finished Charles Mackay's epic 1841 tome Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds (great reading for the misanthrope), where he covers this in the chapter on relics.
posted by neckro23 at 10:00 AM on June 12, 2013


Reminds me of the trinkets containing chips of the "rock of Golgotha" you can buy at church-side markets pretty much anywhere in Christendom.
posted by Ice Cream Socialist at 10:00 AM on June 12, 2013


Hey, at least we just deface our own monuments, as opposing going to other countries and defacing theirs.

Except Europeans went to entire continent and -


well, you know the rest.
posted by alex_skazat at 10:02 AM on June 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


Oh, this is fun. But it goes back even farther - it wasn't unknown for crowds of faithful to literally tear apart the bodies of those thought of/acknowledged as saints, to keep a snippet of body, or clothing, or hair for themselves.

Yes. In religion, a relic is a part of the body of a saint or a venerated person, or else another type of ancient religious object, carefully preserved for purposes of veneration or as a touchable or tangible memorial.
posted by filthy light thief at 10:03 AM on June 12, 2013


The United States, it turns out, was a nation of casual plunderers from the start.

Probably some Native Americans could have told you this.
posted by DU at 10:04 AM on June 12, 2013 [15 favorites]


It ain't just the US, either - I went to see Stonehenge last summer, and was disappointed that they kept crowds a good 30 yards away. The guide explained that it was because they'd had a problem with people chipping off bits of Stonehenge now and then over the past couple thousand years.

And apparently the Apollo 11 Astronauts didn't just take moon rocks for study - they took a couple rocks expressly for the purpose of chipping them up into little teeny pieces so Richard Nixon could give the leader of every single nation on earth a present.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:04 AM on June 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


Probably some Native Americans could have told you this.

Anything but a casual endeavor.
posted by mkb at 10:05 AM on June 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


I've just this week finished reading Mark Twain's Letters From Hawaii, back in 1866 when he was still a red-headed journalist working for the Sacramento Union. His fellow tourist, "Brown" is something of a souvenir hunter...
When I digressed from my personal narrative to write about Cook's death I left myself, solitary, hungry and dreary, smoking in the little warehouse at Kealakekua Bay. Brown was out somewhere gathering up a fresh lot of specimens, having already discarded those he dug out of the old lava flow during the afternoon. I soon went to look for him. He had returned to the great slab of lava upon which Cook stood when he was murdered, and was absorbed in maturing a plan for blasting it out and removing it to his home as a specimen. Deeply pained at the bare thought of such a sacrilege, I reprimanded him severely and at once removed him from the scene of temptation. We took a walk then, the rain having moderated considerably. We clambered over the surrounding lava field, through masses of weeds, and stood for a moment upon the door step of an ancient ruin - the house once occupied by the aged King of Hawaii - and I reminded Brown that that very stone step was the one across which Captain Cook drew the reluctant old king when he turned his foot steps for the last time toward his ship.

I checked a movement on Mr. Brown's part: "No," I said, "let it remain; seek specimens of a less hallowed nature than this historical stone."

posted by ormondsacker at 10:10 AM on June 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


Is this really so surprising?

In a time before photography or souvenir shops, wouldn't you want something to take with you to remind you of where you'd been?

That being said, people who pull this kind of stuff in modern times are just assholes. Though I wonder how I should feel about people who grab souvenir baggies of sand from a beach that they enjoyed, or a rock or two from a national park.
posted by sparklemotion at 10:19 AM on June 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


I do the same thing with my own possessions! My daughter is graduating HS tomorrow and yesterday I tore off a piece of the lunchbag she used for the past four years to put aside. I could have kept the whole thing, but that lunchbag has a lot of miles on it -- it's not pretty.
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 10:20 AM on June 12, 2013


Wait, is this a regular brown paper lunchbag? For 4 years? HOW WAS THIS SORCERY PERFORMED.
posted by elizardbits at 10:23 AM on June 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


"In the early 1800s, a ham was kept near Plymouth Rock for the pilgrim who had forgotten to bring one. By the end of the 9th century, what was left of the rock was fenced in moria. The United States, it turns out, was a nation of casual plunder tart s. "

Ooh. Neat post, though it looks a little off for some reason. Still, that just means no one will probably notice if I grab a few letters for myself...

"In the earl 1800s, a ham was kept near mouth Rock for the grim who had forgotten to bing one. By the end of the 9th century, what was left of the rock was fenced in mora. The Unitetates, it turns out, was a nation of casual under tarts."
posted by wanderingmind at 10:24 AM on June 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


It seems like the classic American attitude of "Fuck you, got mine" is almost as old as our beloved country.
posted by Our Ship Of The Imagination! at 10:34 AM on June 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


Cool! Interesting that this book focuses exclusively on national-myth type souvenirs. You could do a whole series on the various things people want a piece of.

The "relic" idea goes much farther back than Christianity, even. As soon as there are recogizable civilizations, there are special objects that people fought over, stole and stole back, collected, hoarded, monumentalized, and took or distributed pieces of. It's an expression of a kind of inclination toward talismanic magic that human beings are a bit susceptible to, I think. To have a piece of a thing is to have its qualities, or a permanent connection with the story of that thing.

WE spent a couple of classes' worth on this mysterious attachment to the object that people have in my museum studies program. The prof had us interrogate the idea "objects have meanings," and she told a story of a workshop she attended on this topic where when someone challenged the idea that objects can be imagined to physically embody their users or owners, one of the fun tactics of the leader was to toss a sweatshirt around the room and ask someone to put it on. After the person put it on, she said "That sweatshirt was worn by Jeffrey Dahmer." At which the horrified victim all but flailed it off themselves. Oh, so you really don't believe objects take on any aspect of their owners?

The Washington cult thing was amazing. Every museum around here has something he touched. All I can think is that it was really something pretty familiar to us - celebrity culture. He was one of few people of that era you could call "famous," he was a hero, he was read about and talked of.

It seems like the classic American attitude of "Fuck you, got mine" is almost as old as our beloved country.

Well, it's older, really, because it's not just American. For instance, a few years ago when I was at Pompeii for a week I got pretty blase about repeatedly hearing about all the cool stuff that was here before the French nobility came and stole it. Etc.
posted by Miko at 10:39 AM on June 12, 2013 [3 favorites]


What always astounds me is how people will go to great lengths to deface and plunder for a souvenir, then shove it on a dusty shelf for a couple years until it finally gets stuck in a box in the attic or tossed.

My preeecioussss....
posted by BlueHorse at 10:43 AM on June 12, 2013


Is this why we can't have nice things?
posted by The Underpants Monster at 10:51 AM on June 12, 2013


Hey, at least we just deface our own monuments, as opposing going to other countries and defacing theirs.

Don't tell that to Colonel McCormick.
posted by hydrophonic at 10:54 AM on June 12, 2013


There's something deep going on, here. I'd actually love to read some scholarly research on the predisposition towards keepsakes.
posted by odinsdream at 10:58 AM on June 12, 2013


When the ZR-1 Shenandoah went down in a line squall, the nearby citizenry descended on the scene and stripped it bare like fish bones, and it's reported they took clothing and rings from the dead, even. The love of relics is peculiar and intense.

That said, somehow I ended up with the complete childhood bedroom of my dead friend in my storage unit a couple months back, so it's not something that's entirely alien to me.
posted by sonascope at 10:59 AM on June 12, 2013


Hey, at least we just deface our own monuments, as opposed to going to other countries and defacing theirs.

The Tribune Tower in Chicago begs to differ.
posted by srboisvert at 11:02 AM on June 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


Plymouth Pebble, we locals call it.
posted by Melismata at 11:03 AM on June 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


Probably some Native Americans could have told you this.
- and -
a few years ago when I was at Pompeii for a week I got pretty blase about repeatedly hearing about all the cool stuff that was here before the French nobility came and stole it.

I think there's a significant difference between plundering and taking a "relic." The former is the desire to have the whole thing as your own, while the latter is a memento of something they have seen or somewhere they have been. Europeans didn't take souvenirs of the Americas from the native people, they claimed everything they saw as their own (more or less). Sure, enough people will chip the Plymouth Rock and Stonehenge that it will be no more, but it's slower than taking pottery from Pompeii.
posted by filthy light thief at 11:06 AM on June 12, 2013


As a non-American I had heard about Plymouth Rock but had no idea what it actually was or even whether it was an actual rock. I always imagined it as a gigantic thing worthy of its notability...kind of like The Rock of Gibraltar or Percé Rock.
To see that it's a tiny little thing the size of a coffee table is kind of a shock.
posted by rocket88 at 11:11 AM on June 12, 2013


Oh, just remembered a story I read a few days ago about a beach covered in or composed almost entirely of beach glass, and how despite being told not to, people will show up with big bags to just haul away all they want. Of course the place is now a fraction of what it once was. Can't search for it now but will look for the link unless someone beats me to it.
posted by PussKillian at 11:12 AM on June 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


Speaking of defacing, you can go to Mammoth Cave (you really should) and see ~150 year old "smoke writing" that tourists of the day paid to have applied to the ceilings of the caverns.
posted by mmascolino at 11:18 AM on June 12, 2013


That piece of the Bastille was singularly unimpressive. I read somewhere that entrepreneurs back in the day carved entire replicas of the prison from single stones collected from the rubble. Never seen one, myself. Certainly wouldn't want to have one, not with that kind of history.

What I do have, among the familial odds and ends accrued over the years, is a small piece of oak from the Frigate Philadelphia. It was (allegedly) taken from the wreckage sometime in the early years of the last last century and given to a cousin in recognition of his interest in the early US navy. Given the wreck's ephemeral nature, this particular souvenir lies easier on the conscience than would chipped bits of, say, Angkor Wat.

I suppose I shall have to run it by the Smithsonian or some such, see if they're at all interested in its care and feeding.

(Fort Bragg, California Glass Beach link here)
posted by BWA at 11:22 AM on June 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


That said, somehow I ended up with the complete childhood bedroom of my dead friend in my storage unit a couple months back, so it's not something that's entirely alien to me.

...and the award for the thread's most disturbing aside goes to...
posted by leotrotsky at 11:27 AM on June 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


Oh, just remembered a story I read a few days ago about a beach covered in or composed almost entirely of beach glass, and how despite being told not to, people will show up with big bags to just haul away all they want. Of course the place is now a fraction of what it once was. Can't search for it now but will look for the link unless someone beats me to it. [Fort Bragg, California Glass Beach]

They should just put up some signs: "Please litter (glass only)."
posted by cosmic.osmo at 11:38 AM on June 12, 2013


Is this why we can't have nice things?

Well, you *could've* had the nice things, had you gotten there earlier.
posted by FatherDagon at 11:39 AM on June 12, 2013 [9 favorites]


Is there where I get to tell you guys I have a chair that Eddie Rickenbacker more than likely sat on?
posted by marxchivist at 11:47 AM on June 12, 2013


Let's see - here's a period room with furniture made from the Frigate Augusta and a lock of Lucretzia Borgia's hair and Sarah Vowell touches on the subject throughout Assassination Vacation - here's an excerpt ...

God, I love this topic.
posted by PussKillian at 11:51 AM on June 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


That's right, Sarah Vowell is great on this topic. I forgot that she wrote a lot about that.

I'd actually love to read some scholarly research on the predisposition towards keepsakes.

You might like this:The Meaning of Things: Domestic Symbols and the Self, by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a brilliant scholar best known for his book Flow.

Google Scholar has some things that are free and look good. There's one below. Perhaps between this and the one above, there will be some good stuff in the bibliography to follow up. I know there is this interesting intersectional body of work about objects, meaning, and humans and how objects and meaning interact (like how stories change the value of an object, which is what Significant Objects is all about, or in fact some of the British Museum's History of the World in 1000 Objects), or how objects become divorced from original meanings and opened to new interpretations, etc. This stuff has been getting renewed attention now that haptics are kind of a deal in tech. However, I haven't done much looking into that body of work myself so I'm aware of it only tangentially. It's totally interesting, though, and I hope to read about it in depth sometime.

On Souvenirs and Metonymy: Narratives of Memory, Metaphor, and Materiality.

And maybe only somewhat related, I've been kind of tracking this interesting blog lately, Holding the Moment of Holding: Trying to understand what happens when you give someone an object to hold. The thing with humans/objects is one of those simple-seeming topics that ends up getting crazy existential fast.
posted by Miko at 12:23 PM on June 12, 2013 [4 favorites]


Sometimes we take dangerous objects. Trinitite is a man made radioactive substance picked up by tourists at the site of the first Atom Bomb tests. I think it is now illegal to take trinitite.
posted by Gungho at 12:33 PM on June 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


Is this why we can't have nice things?

We can. We just have to chip off little bits from larger nice things.
posted by davejay at 1:50 PM on June 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


The United States, it turns out, was a nation of casual plunderers from the start.

Have you even been to the London Museum? You think the limeys scored all that during an episode of Storage Wars: Giza?

Clip it for your auntie, we call it vandalism; nick it for an empire, its the cultural wealth of nations
posted by MiltonRandKalman at 2:04 PM on June 12, 2013 [3 favorites]


Probably some Native Americans could have told you this.

Take only what you and a Compañia can haul; leave only communicable diseases.
posted by dhartung at 2:06 PM on June 12, 2013


Speaking of defacing, you can go to Mammoth Cave (you really should) and see ~150 year old "smoke writing" that tourists of the day paid to have applied to the ceilings of the caverns.

Speaking of caves, there's video (which I can't find) from the '50s of a Carlsbad Caverns guide "playing" stalactites in the cave by hitting them with a flashlight. During the video, he - oops - breaks one off.

My own story is maybe more to the point. On a long weekend in 1963, some of us took advantage of a drought in upstate NY to push through a usually-flooded passage at the end of a very accessible, well-known, and completely bare cave. Because of the drought, there was a small air space above the water. We went through into an incredible fairyland of all kinds of formation, on every surface. It was absolutely gorgeous. It turned out that minor digging at the far end of our discovery connected it to another well-known, easily-accessible, and completely bare cave. In a few years, our discovery also became well-known and easily-accessible, and for some decades now has also been completely bare, as people have carted off every last vestige of the beauty that was there. Humans. What can you do?
posted by Kirth Gerson at 3:15 PM on June 12, 2013


Kilroy was here.
posted by blaneyphoto at 5:32 PM on June 12, 2013


Na, that's not why Stonehenge was fenced off.

Thatcher's war against raves, ravers and hippies and protestors, that's why Stonehenge was fenced off. Chipping bits off granite indeed - pfft
posted by glasseyes at 5:41 PM on June 12, 2013


This is also how they figured out that Napoleon was killed by his wallpaper. They found a chunk of it in an old scrapbook that matched the pattern of that in the background of a deathbed portrait. Full of arsenic that got released in the damp air on Saint Helena. When he fell sick, his doctors told him to stay indoors and get plenty of rest...in the bedroom of doooooooooomm.
posted by sexyrobot at 6:15 PM on June 12, 2013


Oh, just remembered a story I read a few days ago about a beach covered in or composed almost entirely of beach glass, and how despite being told not to, people will show up with big bags to just haul away all they want. Of course the place is now a fraction of what it once was. Can't search for it now but will look for the link unless someone beats me to it

That's Glass Beach in Fort Bragg, CA, on the north coast. When I was first there 10 years ago, it was remarkable. Now the beach glass looks like you could buy it in the aquarium department at Walmart. And people still pick through it and plunder after storms and especially high tides.
posted by mudpuppie at 7:40 PM on June 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


When they announced that one of the ships I served on in the navy was being decommisioned, stuff started disappearing at a ridiculous rate. They actually ended up having to station guards to check people's stuff coming off the ship for "souvenirs." We had to suffer the last several months without such niceties as tools, clocks, label plates, etc. Not that label plates would help, because once you figured out which valve you needed to operate, there was no handwheel.

Later, I got an engraved chunk of metal which was supposedly part of the ship's hull.
posted by ctmf at 7:49 PM on June 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


Wait, is this a regular brown paper lunchbag? For 4 years? HOW WAS THIS SORCERY PERFORMED.

I had a physics teacher in high school who had done this. It looked to be nearly mummified in masking tape. (He was also a ham-radio guy, K2SDD in big letters on his belt buckle.)

One of my fellow students worked up the courage to ask him about it. "Mr. Meltzer, how old is that lunch bag, anyway?"

He looked at it, lovingly. In a slow, measured voice he replied: "Oh....older than you."

I really miss that guy.
posted by Wild_Eep at 6:17 AM on June 13, 2013


My grandmother had stolen a small cast iron boot from the Caldwell-Boylston House in South Carolina many years ago. Since then, my mom and I have taken up the game of "stealing" it from each other. It's fun to steal.
posted by slogger at 11:34 AM on June 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


Europeans didn't take souvenirs of the Americas from the native people, they claimed everything they saw as their own (more or less).

They had flags.
posted by homunculus at 8:37 PM on June 13, 2013


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