Before smartphones let us flood our friends’ newsfeeds with vacation photos, we needed more concrete proof of our travels. For me that meant concrete from the Wall when I went to Berlin, a deco keychain from the Raleigh Hotel when I went to Miami Beach, and white candlesticks that seemed to be burning everywhere I went in Stockholm.
When we collect souvenirs we get to capture the emotions of a particular moment in a particular place. It’s a behavior we’ve had for centuries, and one that’s in the spotlight at “Souvenir Nation,” an exhibit opening at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.
Early collectors were essentially casual thieves. They’d hammer off pieces of Plymouth Rock, whittle off boards from the USS Constitution, and shear off locks of hair from early presidents. The historic preservation movement in the 1900s sought to curb this appetite, as it was leaving behind many a bald politician or crumbled monument. Although there are still plenty of modern magpies -- Barbara Walters famously nips napkins every time she visits the White House.
Many of the objects in the exhibit have never been displayed before, as without the history attached, they look no different than your everyday shred of fabric or splinter of wood. A plain-looking white dish towel was used as a flag of surrender during the Civil War, a standard-issue radio microphone carried the voice of FDR during his Fireside Chats, and an unremarkable stone was removed from the walls of Joan of Arc’s dungeon.
Admission to the Smithsonian castle is free, a savings that can be combined with all the other deep discounts we’ve found that make a visit to the nation’s capital particularly affordable right now with Travelzoo's Featured Destination: Washington D.C. page. Flights start at $136 roundtrip and hotels are slashing prices as much as 60%. That means at the end of your trip you’ll still have plenty of the most valuable presidential souvenir: dollar bills.