Recently, my wife Diane and I spent the day aboard the Belle of Cincinnati with our daughter’s family. We all had a good time, even though the diesel-powered Cincinnati attraction isn’t a real steamboat, like our own Belle of Louisville, and despite the fact that it poured down rain the whole time.
When the four grandchildren started getting restless, Diane invoked the mandatory “indulgent grandparent rule” and said to the kids, “Let’s all go to the gift shop where grandpa can buy you a souvenir.” “What fresh hell is this?” I thought to myself.
Being crammed into a tiny gift shop with four active children who can’t make up their minds in trying to decide what overpriced trinket to buy wasn’t my idea of a pleasure cruise.
We ended up buying sailor hats for the two youngest children, post cards for the oldest — who collects them — and a snow globe for the middle girl, who announced that she was now officially collecting them. I even got into the spirit of things and bought an enameled pin for my collection. Diane got a deck of cards.
Later, I taught our oldest granddaughter a card trick. She liked it so much that we gave her the souvenir deck to take home. I had forgotten that we had just bought sailor hats, when we visited the Wisconsin Maritime Museum and toured a submarine. But let’s face it, can you ever have, too many sailor hats?
When I was a child, I collected souvenir pen knives. The fancy ones had compasses built into the handles and leather sheaths. When we went on vacation, my father would always buy me a new one, even though my mother thought they were too dangerous. Fortunately, the knives were about as sharp as a teaspoon. My main connection for pen knives were the Stuckey’s stores, immediately recognizable by their bright blue roofs. This chain, noted for their Pecan Roll, was founded by W.S. Stuckey Sr. in 1937, evolving from his Georgia pecan stand.
Although pen knives were my obsession, I was also fascinated by the many exciting souvenirs, especially the politically incorrect “Hillbilly” wood and corncob items and the “Made in Japan” Indian items. After a decline throughout the 1970s, I’m happy to say that Stuckey’s has seen a rebirth with W.S. Stuckey Jr. at the helm. There are now 200 franchised stores, including five in Northwestern Indiana.
People have been collecting souvenirs throughout recorded history. In 330 BC, Alexander the Great loaded up 3,000 camels and mules to cart back souvenirs from his visit to Persepolis, the capital of Persia. You can just bet that there were plenty of Persian sailor hats, snow globes and pen knives among that cargo.
Canadian writer Charles Gordon, author of “The Canada Trip,” says, “We live in a souvenir society, a world in which everything we do, everywhere we go, has to be commemorated.”
This mania has fueled the growth of the souvenir market. In America, it has expanded from small operations near tourist destinations into a billion-dollar industry.
Over the past few years, we’ve started visiting Myrtle Beach. The beachfront roads are lined with pancake houses and souvenir shops. T-shirts, beachwear and ocean-related souvenirs predominate.
The grandchildren like getting puka-bead necklaces and nothing quite says fun in the sun better than a shell covered jewelry box or picture frame. We got a Myrtle Beach thimble for a friend whose mother collects them. On our first trip, Diane bought a hand-woven sweet grass basket. I thought it was expensive at the time, but on our second trip, many of the roadside basket stands were abandoned and prices had skyrocketed. I only wish our retirement fund was doing as well. Perhaps we should invest everything in sweet grass baskets.
When we lived in Florida, the souvenir industry, like everything else, was dominated by the Walt Disney Company. Once, when our children were small, we took them to Disney World. We spent the whole day indulging them and spending, what seemed to us, to be a fortune. By the exit gate, a Disney employee was selling balloons in a last-ditch attempt to snag our final cent. Predictably, the children started insisting they had to have a balloon as a souvenir. Although our sweet well behaved babies seemed to have transformed into grasping monsters, we reluctantly relented. When we got to the van, the interior was so incredibly hot after being in the Florida sun all day, that the balloons immediately burst. Holding strings attached to their burst balloons, the overly tired children cried themselves to sleep on the way home. Those balloons must have been pretty good souvenirs after all, since I can remember it all so well.
I have a very kind and considerate colleague who often brings me souvenirs from his travels. I especially like a tie with the logo from the World Cup Cricket finals, but my favorite thing he has given me is a flintlock pistol that is really a cigarette lighter. While the gun is very cool, what is much more amazing is how he ever managed to get it through airport security from Pakistan. Our oldest son once brought me a walking stick from Norway that had a top like a pickax and airport security sounded the red alert. He was lucky to get back into the country — but a gun-shaped container full of lighter fluid evidently was no problem.
As opposed to the stuff I’m attracted to, Diane’s souvenirs tend to be practical, like the breakfast bowls and plates from England decorated with sheep and a Shawn the Sheep hot water bottle. We also have a modest collection of Christmas ornaments, commemorating things like visiting the Statue of Liberty, Fort McHenry and Washington D.C. Washington Post writer Sarah Ban Breathnach says souvenirs are “… the emotional touchstones, yet secret saboteurs of family vacations.”As vacation time approaches for many families, perhaps it is time to develop a souvenir strategy. Breathnach, proposes three basic rules: 1. Adequately budget for souvenirs; 2. Plan ahead by determining the type of souvenirs you might want to collect; and 3. Listen to your heart. Make sure there are no regrets by imagining how you’ll feel about the souvenirs you bought (and the ones you rejected) after you get home.
Perhaps my favorite souvenir is the flat heart-shaped stone I picked up in Sugar Creek on a trip to Turkey Run Park. It’s no penknife, but it is one of a kind and can anything be more authentic than a rock.
Based on a column appearing in the Southern Indiana News-Tribune.