If you’re curious about the history of ordinary objects, you’ll want to add the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History to your bucket list. Within its walls, the museum holds hundreds of artifacts that once belonged to key figures in American history or were present at key events. Most objects are small mementoes that would be completely blase if not for the historical association–such as a linen napkin Napoleon used at breakfast and pompously gave to an American traveller as a souvenir, or the fountain pen delegates from across the world used to sign the armistice that ended World War I; others are fragments of significant landmarks–such as a scrap of wood from a building where Andrew Jackson studied law or a chunk of the Bastille wall. Among these are Victorian collectibles that connect us to a lost era in an unique way.
“The reproducible mementos that we think of today as souvenirs only partially satisfy a deeply emotional urge to save and connect with a longingly ached-for past,” writes William L. Bird, Jr., in his preface to the new book Souvenir Nation: Relics, Keepsakes, and Curios from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, which offers a glimpse into the Smithsonian’s collection of ordinary relics. “If the past could be touched, it could be chipped away, excavated, carted off, and whittled into pocket sized bits–giving form to persons, places, and events that lingered forever in the act of possession.”
As it turns out, our beloved Victorian era was a key stage in the development of America’s souvenir culture. “The Civil War propelled the practice of relic hunting to new heights,” Bird explains. “While leading artists of the day revisited battles in cyclorama paintings and monumental sculptures, battle-hardened soldiers documented the history unfolding before their very eyes with everyday objects.”
The maple armchair, desk chair and pinewood side table shown here, for example, were removed from Appomattox Court House by Colonel Edward Washburn Whitaker and General Philip H. Sheridan shortly after Grant and Lee signed the 1865 armistice that ended the Civil War.
While this antebellum Limoges punch bowl belongs among beautiful Victorian collectibles in its own right, it garnered additional historical importance due to the Civil War. In 1865, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton ordered Union troops to empty the Confederacy headquarters in Richmond, Virginia. As the headquarters were based in a grand mansion, even everyday objects like this punch bowl were considered ripe for Federal confiscation. As a result, the bowl has been preserved for 150 years in excellent condition.
Learn more about the Smithsonian Institution’s Victorian collectibles archive here–or pick up a copy of Souvenir Nation.
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By Elaine K. Phillips