The idea of a ‘souvenir’, as a physical keepsake of a place or event, is not a new concept. It’s been around for as long as people have been bringing home exotic treasures from far-off lands, or trying to preserve the memory of past events in physical objects. From the explorers of the distant past, to the ‘grand tourists’ of more recent times, people have taken the material culture of the world and turned it into tangible tokens of personal experiences. It’s a quintessentially human trait and one that, I think, ties into the overall tendency of people to hold onto what has gone before.
Over the last few years in Christchurch, we’ve found a multitude of artefacts from other places, many of which may have been souvenirs of past experiences, people or events to their owners. There are two, however, that stand out, not because they may have been treated as keepsakes, but because they seem to have been intended as such.
Both are cups and both are decorated with reference to places: one with the words ‘A Present from Timaru’ and one with an image of the Bridge of Remembrance in Christchurch. The latter has to have been made after the construction of that bridge in 1923, and objects matching the description of our Timaru cup were being advertised in the Timaru Herald in the early 1900s (Timaru Herald 13/7/1901: 1). The fact that both cups reference a place suggest that they were intended as travel souvenirs, keepsakes of visits to Timaru and Christchurch and, in the current age of global tourism and mass produced mementos, it’s easy to make that connection. Today, souvenirs are inextricably linked with travel, especially travel for leisure.
However, it wasn’t always so. For much of the 19th century, souvenirs were linked with events – with commemoration – rather than with anything approaching tourism. Newspapers of the 19th and early 20th century are filled with accounts of souvenir hunters, waiting eagerly at bridge openings to snag some of the ribbon, or casing the venue of a royal or dignitary’s visit to find a keepsake (New Zealand Herald 29/4/1910: 4; Te Puke Times 11/06/1920: 2). There are occasional descriptions of people returning from elsewhere with souvenirs, but they are almost always gifts, not purchases or acquisitions (Bruce Herald 3/6/1868: 4). A memorable exception to this is the party of townsmen who returned to Oamaru with a couple of boulders from Moeraki (or the ‘Devil’s Foundry’, as they referred to it; North Otago Times 17/8/1865:2).
Consequently, the fact that our cups, especially the ‘Present from Timaru’, appear to have been made to be souvenirs of travel is one that raises some interesting questions about the emergence of a souvenir culture and the greater framework of tourism, or travel for leisure, in New Zealand. Especially as it is such a key part of our national identity in the present day.
As we have mentioned many, many times here on the blog, the 19th century was a period of increasing global exploration and travel. The European settlement of New Zealand is itself evidence of that, but that long distance colonisation was accompanied and followed by increasingly regular travel between and within the northern and southern hemispheres. Much of this travel was commercial in nature, centred around international trade, politics, personal health and, to a degree, professional advances. Yet, tourism – travel for leisure – in the sense that we think of it today remained very much the province of the elite, who could afford both the time and the expense (McClure 2004: 79-80).
It wasn’t really under the late 19th (1880s onwards) and early 20th century that traveling for the sake of travel, the notion of going to see a place rather than visit a person, took off. In New Zealand, much of that very early ‘tourism’ seems to have been associated with the natural appeals of the country (much as it is today). The 1880s saw increasing numbers of mountaineers and tourists in and around Mt Cook, for example, leading to the construction of the Hermitage in 1884. Similarly, the Pink and White Terraces saw numerous tourist visits prior to their destruction in 1886, one of our first (and, perhaps, greatest) examples of a natural tourist attraction (McClure 2004: 79-80).
It can be difficult to determine from the available evidence, but travel between cities – urban tourism, if you will – is not referenced nearly as much. Don’t get me wrong, people were travelling between towns and villages from the earliest years of European settlement, but for different reasons and with different levels of comfort. Before the construction of the railway between Timaru and Christchurch, for example, travel between the two towns took the form of a sea voyage from Lyttelton or an overland carriage journey of 16 hours or more, often in bad weather and uncomfortable conditions. One description of the overland trip, written in the 1860s, calls it an “alarming undertaking”, greatly fatiguing “even for gentlemen” (Garner and Foster 2011: 90). It seems to have been a journey undertaken only when necessity called for it, rather than because a person simply wanted to. Even after the construction of the railway between the two settlements in the 1860s, the kind of travel that we now consider tourism – the kind that establishes a demand for souvenirs – still doesn’t appear to have been commonplace. Not until much later in the century, at least.
There are a number of interesting questions to be asked here, not least among them how and why our society shifted from viewing travel as a means to an end and starting viewing it as an end in and of itself. It’s a shift in perspective that seems to be tied up with a number of other changes in society as a whole. Among them is the the gradual transition from a society in which leisure is a luxury of the elite to the one we have now, where it can be considered a necessary part (a basic right, even) of ordinary life for everyone.
Souvenirs themselves are quite the contrast in meaning, as mass-manufactured objects that are simultaneously uniquely personal mementos. They’re also part of another shift in social perspective, I think, from a largely practical material culture, to the more frivolous form of consumerism found in the present day. They may take the form of practical objects, like our cups, but souvenirs are usually bought to be tokens of memory, not because they’re useful. There’s an element of display inherent in their purchase as well, which raises all kinds of interesting ideas regarding how souvenirs of travel are used in the modern world to project a certain image (this sparked a conversation in the office this morning about the hierarchies of travellers, from backpackers to luxury holiday-makers and how we judge people based on the kinds of things they bring back from trips).
Sadly, the discussion that these questions deserve is way beyond the scope of this particular blog post, but it’s certainly something to think about the next time you buy a souvenir or travel just to see something new in the comfort of modern transportation.
“I well remember one of my companions laughingly alluding to the time when our great-grandchildren, a hundred years thence, would be steaming over the plains, lolling back in a comfortable railway carriage, and wondering what sort of men their great-grandfathers could have been to have lived and laboured contentedly in a land without such a convenient means of getting about the country.” – Alfred Cox, 1884.
Bruce Herald. [online] Available at http://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz
Cox, A., 1884. Recollections: Australia, England, Ireland, Scotland, New Zealand. Whitcombe and Tombs, Christchurch.
Garner, J. and Foster, K. (eds), 2011. Letters to Grace: writing home from colonial New Zealand. Canterbury University Press, Canterbury.
McClure, M., 2004. The Wonder Country: Making New Zealand tourism. Auckland University Press, Auckland.
New Zealand Herald. [online] Available at http://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz
North Otago Times. [online] Available at http://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz
Te Puke Times. [online] Available at http://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz
Timaru Herald. [online] Available at http://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz