The idea of investigating the history and purpose of souvenirs came to me many years ago after I returned from a trip to Bar Harbor, ME and Acadia National Park with two friends from college. We all attended school in the Midwest years ago, and now that I was living in the Northeast I wanted to take them to a unique New England destination for our reunion. We drove up from my home in Massachusetts over Columbus Day weekend. At the time, the restaurants and stores were enjoying one last gasp before closing down for the end of the tourist season, which created an informal festive atmosphere around the town. That year, the color change in trees came bizarrely late, and I have never again seen such a brilliant blanket of reds, oranges, yellows, and browns as I did that weekend.
After spending the day in Acadia, we wandered into town to walk among the remaining tourists and find a place to eat. As we passed lines of souvenir stores, I occasionally suggested we stop in to look around, but my two friends were resistant to such an activity and quickly nixed my suggestions after browsing in one of the shops.
Why, I asked myself after we returned home and went our separate ways, were they so resistant to souvenir shopping? For me, it was a perfectly natural thing to do whenever I visited a tourist destination. These reflections led to wondering about the history of souvenirs and their purpose. I tucked these ideas away as something to explore as a research project at a later date.
I continued to write down thoughts and reflections on souvenirs until I confronted one of my college friends with my impression of our experience in town and my ideas about souvenirs. He challenged me to write a “Defense of Souvenirs.” I never formally wrote that essay, but in many ways, this project is a result of the notes I continue to gather even now to make my defense. It turns out that souvenirs are much more consequential to our lives and much more complicated than even I originally thought. Their defense did not require an essay. They required an entire project.
My friends and I creating a souvenir during our reunion.