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The Relic-Hunting Vandals Who Saved American History

Before we had postcards, refrigerator magnets, and keychains made specifically as souvenirs for tourists, people still wanted something to remember a particular place or event. Not everyone understood the concept of historic preservation; they just took items or pieces of items in what we would call vandalism now. Some of those souvenirs would be inscribed with identifying information, but often they only had a story, and sometimes not even that much. The National Museum of American History accepted such mementos, and last year presented them in an exhibition. Curator William L. Bird talked to Collectors Weekly about these historic souvenirs and the stories behind them.   

Collectors Weekly: Have Americans always collected souvenirs?

William L. Bird: Yes, I think that’s true. You can make a distinction between a souvenir and a relic, but the overarching concept is something that has an actual connection to a place.

In the Smithsonian collection circumscribed by the exhibition and book, these objects were initially relics, and then they became classified as souvenirs. It took me a while to realize the operative search words were “relic” and “relic hunter.” Increasingly, into the late 19th century, those words often appeared in the same paragraphs with “vandal” and “vandalism.” For example, during the Lincoln presidency, there was a woman so obsessed with the White House that during a tour, she cut pieces of fabric from the drapes—these big, heavy, ornate velveteen draperies. She was escorted from the grounds and told to not come back, but it’s hard to imagine anybody doing that casually today. 

In this interview, we also get a fascinating rundown of how the Smithsonian Institution’s mission has changed over time. The picture above is a fragment of the Washington Monument's 1848 cornerstone, broken during construction. Read the whole article on these souvenirs at Collectors Weekly.

(Image credit: The National Museum of American History)


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