Kitschy Keepsakes From Family Car Trips Remain the Stuff of Memories
I used to have a collection of beaded Indian belts--the kind made in Taiwan, not Navajo country--bearing the names of places I visited when I was growing up: Springfield, Ill., the Missouri Ozarks, Kentucky Lake in the southwestern part of that state. At some misguided moment, I threw them away. Now the only souvenir belts I have are recent acquisitions reminding me that I’ve been to Santa Fe and Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico.
Suddenly and inexplicably, I have grown wistful for the kitschy travel souvenirs I bought and abandoned in my life: belts, tea towels, cedar boxes, silver spoons and the snow globes that produce preposterous blizzards on the beaches of Honolulu and Miami. Nostalgia and regret are common as we grow older, especially among aging baby boomers like me, who amassed those souvenirs on family car trips.
Such bric-a-brac is still popular at shops catering to travelers, like Stuckey’s, a chain of roadside gas, snack and souvenir stores that has become an institution on American highways since it was founded in the mid-'30s. “Cedar boxes always sell, year after year,” says Williamson S. Stuckey Jr., the company chairman and son of the founder. The boxes with pictures of Niagara Falls are especially strong sellers, he says, even at stores that are nowhere near upstate New York.
Certain antique and old-timey travel souvenirs have become valuable collectibles. Jen Segrest, a self-styled snow globe fanatic from Cincinnati, says she’s seen snow globes on eBay, the Internet auction site, for $200. At Global Shakeup, an Internet snow globe store based in Pasadena, most of the offerings are more reasonably priced, about $5 to $10. But Global Shakeup also has such treasures as a Hawaii-under-glass snow dome, featuring dolphins, beaches, high-rise hotels and a built-in music box that plays “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” for $35.
Segrest, a graphics designer who started her collection with a Mammoth Cave, Ky., snow globe and now doesn’t have enough shelf space to display all of them, says quality varies widely among the snowy souvenirs. “The good ones have white bases and blue backs with hand-painted scenes inside,” Segrest says.
The Design, Architecture, Art and Planning Library at the University of Cincinnati has a world-class collection of almost 400 snow globes on display throughout the stacks. These include examples from China, Stonehenge and several from New York City with the World Trade Center. “At the time we buy these things,” says library head Jane Carlin, “we don’t think things will change.”
But, of course, things do. The octogenarian mother of a colleague found a silver souvenir spoon of the Golden Gate when she was a little girl growing up in Kansas. She buffed it up and still proudly shows it to friends, who don’t immediately see what’s special about it. Then she points out that it shows the Golden Gate without the bridge, which wasn’t completed until 1937.
Volumes have been written about silver souvenir spoons, which bear pictures of people and places on the handle or the bowl. The Royal Ontario Museum in Canada has an important collection of silver souvenir spoons, all made before 1913 and given by Toronto lawyer George Ferguson Shepley to his wife. Jane Bradley, co-owner of Antiques Etc. in New Castle, Colo., has a small but beloved collection of spoons dedicated to sights on the western slope of the Rockies. Her favorite, from about 1910, portrays a girl in a bathing costume, diving into the thermal pool at Glenwood Springs. “The spoons talk to you,” Bradley says. “Souvenirs now are mass-markety, plastic, impersonal.”
Susan Jessup, retail director for Aurora, Colo.-based Xanterra Parks & Resorts, says the gift shops at Yellowstone, Mt. Rushmore and the Grand Canyon used to be full of kitschy items, like ashtrays with such lines as, “Put your butt here.” Now, says Jessup, “We work to buy gift and souvenir items that are really interpretive of the park.”
For those of us who favor tacky keepsakes, there’s still Stuckey’s, the roadside purveyor of pecan rolls and silly souvenirs. The company, founded in rural Georgia by pecan merchant Williamson S. Stuckey Sr., foundered in the ‘60s and ‘70s after being sold to Pet Milk Inc. But in 1985, his son and two partners repurchased the company, which now has 200 franchise stores in 19 states.
Stuckey’s buyer Chaz Grimaldi says that when gas was cheaper, people paid for their fuel with a $20 bill and used the change for snacks and junk. Despite the increased price of gas, tacky souvenirs remain popular. He has noticed a resurgence of interest in salt and pepper shakers, shot glasses, key chains with pictures of state flowers or birds, bobble-head figures and dashboard hula girls. “Our stuff is fun to look at,” Grimaldi says.
Stuckey Jr. says the kitschy keepsakes are all “part of the American way.”
That’s how I see it too. So I’m going to start collecting beaded belts again, unashamed.