Tourist trappings: why we all love a tacky souvenir fridge magnet | Homes

There is a magnet shaped like Finland, a bottle opener adorned with Austrian edelweiss and an “I Dubai” mug that all come from the very same place. In Charles Zhao’s factory in Wenzhou, China, sentimental markers of places visited and sights seen are made, sold and shipped around the world. There’s a comedy apron that looks like lederhosen; an embroidered badge of Santorini; a keyring shaped like a London bus.

Fifteen years ago, Zhao gave up an “enviable civil service job” to start his company, Talmud. He began by printing promotional gifts – fridge magnets and coasters adorned with the logos of different businesses. But the promotional gifts industry is turbulent, Zhao says, “because the real big brands change their promotion plans almost every year”. He looked for something more stable. He turned to souvenirs.

“The tourist souvenir market is actually a relatively mature market,” Zhao says – he sells around £3.5m-worth of product to wholesalers annually. While Covid-19 temporarily put things on pause, the industry quickly recovered. Aside from the pandemic, Zhao says the souvenir market “has not changed much in recent years”.

That’s something you probably already know. Whether glancing at a German gift shop or scouring a Spanish stall, you’ve likely noticed that many souvenirs are fairly standardised – a neon shot glass here, a miniature building there. Of course, it hasn’t always been this way. According to Lucy Lethbridge, author of Tourists: How the British Went Abroad to Find Themselves, the first British tourists were medieval pilgrims and the first souvenirs were cockleshells brought back from the Spanish shrine of St James (the shell was the saint’s emblem).

What has kept us buying trinkets for hundreds of years? Souvenirs are unique objects that at once reveal how we perceive others (the most popular souvenir bought in France is a beret) and how we want others to perceive us (“Oh, this old thing? It’s from a small shop in Paree!”). By learning about our keepsakes, we can learn about ourselves.

“It’s proof, isn’t it? It’s proof of your adventure,” Lethbridge says. There’s evidence, she adds, that the ancient Greeks took back funeral figures – “shabtis” – from Ptolemaic Egypt, and her book explores everything from bones foraged from the battlefields of Waterloo to stucco surreptitiously peeled and pocketed from the Baths of Titus in Rome.

Our long history of bringing stuff home perhaps indicates that souvenirs satiate something deep within us – a primal psychological urge. But, Lethbridge notes: “The souvenir came into its own with mass industrial manufacture.” In 1851, the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations launched in London and 65,000 visitors marvelled at wonders from the world. There were silver-enamelled handicrafts from India, an eighth-century Celtic brooch from Ireland and firearms from America. This, Lethbridge writes, is when national differences became “encapsulated” in objects – when a single item could come to represent an entire country. At the Great Exhibition, an emu’s egg epitomised New Zealand, in the same way a miniature Eiffel Tower epitomises France today.

“Paris didn’t have an Eiffel Tower before 1887, so that it should have become the symbol of Paris is interesting,” Lethbridge says – the cathedral of Notre-Dame, after all, was built in the 1100s. “But, of course, it makes a very good souvenir,” Lethbridge says of the Iron Lady. “It’s instantly recognisable, it can be miniaturised on a keyring. As an idea, it’s portable.”

Carolyn CurtissA portrait of Carolyn Curtiss with her collection of Eiffel Tower souvenirs in her home in St. Paul, Minn., on Thurs., October 13, 2022. Curtiss has 687 miniature buildings in her Minnesota home; 134 of them are Eiffel Towers. The 56-year-old is president of the Souvenir Building Collectors Society, a hobbyist group with 200 members. Photo by Jenn Ackerman @ackermangruber
Iron ladies: with her collection of Eiffel Tower souvenirs in her home in St Paul, Minnesota. Curtiss has 687 miniature buildings; 134 of them are Eiffel Towers. Photograph: Ackerman + Gruber/The Observer

A 2021 report from travel company Club Med revealed how countries are encapsulated today. According to its research, maple syrup is the most popular souvenir from Canada, while visitors to the UK prefer to pick up an umbrella. The top-selling souvenir from Brazil is a hammock, Australia’s is a boomerang, while tourists in Russia love a matryoshka doll. Meanwhile, we bring back clogs from the Netherlands, Moomin mugs from Finland and chocolate from Belgium.

“There are certain things that have taken hold in the collective imagination,” Lethbridge says. Of course, an umbrella, hammock, boomerang, mug and a pair of clogs aren’t easy to display uniformly in a cupboard, which is why some well-travelled tourists prefer to pick one type of souvenir – and stick with it.

In 1981, Tony Lloyd’s wife bought a magnet from Amish Country when the couple were holidaying in New England. It depicted a horse and carriage, and Lloyd couldn’t really have cared less. But in 1987, when the couple moved to Australia for a year, Lloyd was invited to dinner at a colleague’s house. What he saw there changed his life.

“I’d never seen a fridge covered in magnets,” Lloyd says, “I’d only seen them in the shop.” Inspired by his colleague’s collection, he decided to pick up magnets while travelling around Australia. His first was from the Sydney Opera House. “And at the end of that year,” Lloyd says, “I came home with 200 magnets.”

Today, Lloyd, now 70, has more than 5,550 magnets lining the walls of his Cardiff home. A retired primary school teacher, he has been gifted him some by his pupils, but most were picked up on his travels. “They’re very reminiscent of a happy holiday or somebody I met or somebody who met me,” says Lloyd, who has visited 117 countries.

Every day when Lloyd walks past his magnets, “it sparks a memory of an event or a road trip or visiting people”. One Las Vegas magnet even reminds Lloyd of the time he and his son were in a car crash. But why magnets?

“I like uniformity,” says Lloyd, who describes his magnets as “miniature works of art”. His hallway, dining room and kitchen have all been lined with sheets of steel so he can display his collection. “They’re very visual, I was an art and design teacher, so I love the art and design of it all. I know they take up space, but they don’t take up depth as they’re flat on the wall.”

Lloyd has invented a word to describe himself. He’s a “thurangist” – inspired by the fact coin collectors are numismatists and people who study flags are vexillologists. But he also, with a laugh, calls himself a “collectomaniac”.

Carolyn Curtiss has 687 miniature buildings in her Minnesota home – 134 of them are Eiffel Towers. The 56-year-old is president of the Souvenir Building Collectors Society, a hobbyist group with 200 members that was founded in 1994.

Curtiss’s collection started with a miniature Statue of Liberty she bought when she was 10. She now has landmarks made of silver, pot metal, crystal, bronze, rubber and resin stored in eight bookcases at home. “Thankfully, I live close to an Ikea,” she jokes. One souvenir that always makes her smile is a little Eiffel Tower made of tiny plastic baguettes.

Metal fatigue: a favourite is the model Eiffel Tower made of tiny plastic baguettes.
Metal fatigue: a favourite is the model Eiffel Tower made of tiny plastic baguettes. Photograph: Ackerman + Gruber/The Observer

Lethbridge says the fad for miniaturisation was first ignited during the 18th century when it was fashionable for the upper classes to embark on a Grand Tour across Europe. “In Rome in the 1780s, visitors could pick up biscuitware reproductions of classical sculptures, faithful in every detail, but in luggage-friendly dimensions.”

Every time she travels, Curtiss brings scraps of silk and bits of bubble wrap “to cradle the next treasure”. But still, airport security can be tricky – inside scanners, her souvenirs often look like lumps of unusually shaped metal. “You have to be prepared for added scrutiny.”

When she visited Shanghai, she had to buy extra luggage to transport the souvenirs she bought because each came in its own decorative box.

Curtiss’s father is also an avid collector of souvenir buildings – he has more than 1,000. But unlike her father and some others in the society, Curtiss only collects buildings from places she has actually visited. She has so many Eiffel Towers because her family used to holiday in Paris once a year. “I have to have a connection to it in some way,” Curtiss says. She calls each building “a palpable postcard”.

Our souvenir collections say something about us – we came, we saw, we conquered the gift shop. Yet Curtiss clarifies that she doesn’t collect to show off about being well-travelled – she believes different souvenirs have different purposes.

“People buy T-shirts so they can socially interact with others about their travels and experiences. As in, ‘Oh, I see you have been to the Canary Islands,’” Curtiss says. “While building collecting” – for her – “is mostly introspective and personal.”

The question of authenticity has almost always plagued souvenirs. When tourists began to arrive in Brussels just days after the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, they scavenged skulls and old shoes from the battlefield. But by 1817, demand had outstripped supply and boys hawked bones, hair, buttons and bullets of dubious origin.

By 1913, Cook’s Traveller’s Handbook to Belgium and Ardennes warned tourists: “It is hardly necessary to say that buttons, spurs, helmets or sword handles can be purchased cheaper in Sheffield or Birmingham, where they are manufactured, than on the field of Waterloo.”

Lethbridge says many 19th-century European souvenirs were made in Birmingham – the phenomenon of one factory spitting out “local” trinkets isn’t really all that new. Lloyd knows that most of his magnets are made in China, but he doesn’t care – more “authentic” magnets, like a plaster-cast one he bought in Cuba, have shattered over the years, while he’s been unable to find magnets in some places he’s visited, such as Bangladesh and Mozambique.

Stuck on you: a set of 70 souvenir refrigerator magnets.
Stuck on you: a set of 70 souvenir refrigerator magnets. Photograph: Roman Belogorodov/Alamy

If worries about authenticity are age-old, so is snobbery. In 1877, domestic expert Mrs Florence Caddy published Household Organisation, in which she suggested that travellers buy household objects and display them artfully – a quaint wooden pail from Antwerp, perhaps. Lethbridge notes that, “As in all things, the choice of souvenir was a marker of class. The further removed the object was from its origins, then the more vulgar it was considered by arbiters of taste: a wooden pail is one thing, but a paperweight shaped like a wooden pail is another.”

Lethbridge’s book contains various examples of such snootiness. In 1909, the Journal of Decorative Arts mourned that the globe had been “ransacked” and reduced to replicable images; while in the 20th century, philosopher Walter Benjamin called souvenirs “an assault of memory”. In the 1960s, art historian Gillo Dorfles wrote that, “The world, as it appears to the tourist, vomits kitsch all over itself.”

Yet what, exactly, makes the “authentic” superior to the mass-produced?

An emphasis on authenticity can, Lethbridge notes, be beneficial when it helps preserve ancient artisanal crafts – “an object that is ‘made’ is a valuable commodity in a world where most things are ‘produced’.” And Curtiss says that resin miniature buildings have less detail than metal ones. “Most of them are Chinese now, which is not a bad thing, it’s just its a different look from something that was made in 1920.”

Lethbridge says that objets trouvés – found objects such as pebbles picked from the beach – can be powerful mementoes. But there is a certain honesty, she adds, in buying something from a souvenir shop. “The tourist in search of authentic will balk at the keyring or the novelty T-shirt,” Lethbridge says, “but the purer tourist – the tourist who knows that they are a tourist – won’t have a problem with a Union Jack bowler hat.”

What next for the souvenir? It seems that, increasingly, we’re eating them. “Food is a locus of authenticity now,” Lethbridge says, “One of the really big differences about tourism of the past 30 years has been the emphasis on food.” Victorian, Edwardian and even midcentury tourists rarely mentioned edibles. Today, we’re “much more interested in food than cathedrals”.

Lethbridge herself brings back “enormous blocks of Parmesan cheese” from Italy, even though she could get the same stuff at Waitrose. “But when I bring them back they have Italian writing on the wrapper,” she says, “and I get that little tourist thrill.”

Cheese, much like any other souvenir, is “a token of adventure” for Lethbridge – but of course it is a far more ephemeral one. Perhaps now that we’re able to capture so much on our camera rolls, we don’t need as many physical trinkets. Lethbridge notes we’ve become more “subtle” in our tastes. “Because we travel more widely than even our parents could ever have imagined, then maybe we’re a little more jaded.”

Does this mean Charles Zhao should worry about the future of his factory? It can be difficult for academics to collect statistics on souvenirs, but in a keynote speech given at the University of Lapland’s souvenirs conference in 2021, Goldsmiths tourism professor Michael Hitchcock said: “Circumstantial evidence suggests that there is still an interest in having personalised ‘cabinets of curiosities’ at home that can be shown to members of the family, as well as guests, serving as stores of memory and topics for discussion.” Zhao has no complaints. “Business is very good,” he says.

Lethbridge notes that today, many young people have developed a sort of ironic appreciation for what some consider tat. “I mean, 50 years ago it may be that tourists took home kitsch things because they thought they were beautiful,” she says. “Nowadays, the young know that kitsch is kitsch, but it’s very knowing, it’s a sort of camp aesthetic which is popular.”

It seems unlikely that – after hundreds of years – people will suddenly stop wanting something tangible from their trips. “Travelling is always a happy experience,” building collector Curtiss says. When looking at one of her miniatures, she fondly recalls not just the place she visited, but the act of purchasing the souvenir itself.

“It just brings back happy memories,” she says. “Sitting in a café after you’ve been to a market and found a building that you’re really happy with, and you can’t wait to get it back out of its paper bag to look at it and cherish it.”

Tourists: How the British Went Abroad to Find Themselves by Lucy Lethbridge is published by Bloomsbury at £20. Buy it for £17.40 from

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