During the romantic steamship/Titanic era, the leisure class always enjoyed collecting art or furnishings during their extensive travels, the “Grand Tour.” These were generally items that would serve as remembrances of the trip and offer a personal touch to furnishings back home. Visiting the sea? Find a lovely coral or seashell. A beautiful city? Strike a bargain with a street artist for his painting.
By contrast, today’s souvenir business mocks the old traveler’s careful search and thoughtful cultivation. Whether this started with the advent of the screen printed tee shirt, the coffee mug, or the jumbo pencil, I can’t say.
Moms know that souvenirs lose their luster almost as soon as you pass through the exit turnstile. They are positioned to pit us against our whining, begging kids. The “exit through the gift shop” strategy is right up there with corn syrup and toucans/rabbits/tigers selling cereal as a great con.
Even authentic souvenirs have their issues. A friend who spent time abroad in Columbia relates that she wanted to buy one of the beautiful ponchos made by villagers, but when she imagined it with her stateside black skirt or khaki pants, she realized it just “wouldn’t translate.”
As a warning, here are some of the most ridiculous souvenirs:
Hats. My son once wanted a confederate soldier cap for his souvenir at Old Alabama Town in Montgomery. I played the “because I said so” veto because, really, it’s more than a gift shop conversation to explain why that cap would not be well received. I figured a Union cap wouldn’t be welcome, either.
Exception: Mouse ears. When your kids are little, the Mickey and Minnie hats are a must.
Stationery items. Who else has the horse and carriage pencil sharpener from American Village? At least it’s useful, despite being too cumbersome for the notebook pencil holder. A simple pen is preferable to snow globes, spoons, and bottle openers that look ridiculous once you get home.
Hair braids. Self explanatory, especially if you saw the brightly sunburned girl wearing cornrows and a formal dress to dinner on your last cruise. Getting her picture taken, no less.
After many family vacations, experience has taught me that the best souvenirs are your photos. A scrapbook or journal lets you relive the fun and becomes more meaningful with time, unlike faded tee-shirts.
Most licensed character products can be found in a retail store at a better price. When the kids are under 5, have a “prize” ready for them at the end of the day. Once they get older, offer them cash to spend and remind them of what they can buy with the same money at home.
For yourself, remember that outlet malls are never far from major attractions, and new shoes will translate just fine back home.