Souvenir Nation” by William L. Bird, Jr.

c.2013, Princeton Architectural Press
$24.95 / $29.95 Canada
176 pages



You must have rocks in your head.

Surely, if not there, you’ll find them in the family room, the bathroom, and your child’s bedroom. Yes, your kids bring home rocks – along with driftwood, broken shells, a butterfly wing, and a cupful of pens with hotel names on the side, all keepsakes that somehow became important remembrances of summer fun.

To the average person, none of those things are worth a dime but to your family, they’re priceless. And in the new book “Souvenir Nation” by William L. Bird, Jr., you’ll see what odd treasures (real and imagined) reside in the Smithsonian Museum .

It seems horrifying today but the fact is that after George Washington died, there were no formal plans to preserve his estate. Visitors to the “crumbling” site “pried shards and fragments from Washington’s home” until 1852, when a distant nephew hired an entrepreneur to sell bits of it, including wood from the area around Washington’s tomb. Indeed, splinters of one of Washington ’s coffins (he had several) were also eventually parceled out.

Over the years, Americans collected bits and pieces of things they considered important and bequeathed them to various museums and government entities tasked with accepting those items. In 1835, funds from the estate of British natural philosopher James Smithson became available to establish a museum here in the States. Founded in 1850, it would be named the Smithsonian Institution.

The history of the Smithsonian itself is long, and includes argument, ego, and transferral of artifacts from one branch to another. In this book, author William Bird, Jr. devotes his attention to objects from the collection of the Division of Political History, National Museum of American history, Smithsonian Institution.

Some items are odd: a piece of ivy from Mount Vernon ; a napkin used by Napoleon; and locks of hair from presidents and “Persons of Distinction.”  Others almost missed being saved: the table and chairs used at Appomattox , and a dress cuff stained with Abraham Lincoln’s blood. And then there are things that delight: pieces of Franklin Roosevelt’s birthday cake; a suffrage pin; an Eisenhower and Nixon campaign bucket, and Teddy Roosevelt’s can opener.

Start “Souvenir Nation” and you may be tempted to put it down. The beginning of this book is filled with a long history about a history museum; it’s dry and somewhat hard to follow because it’s not very linear.

Stick around, though.

Author William L. Bird, Jr. gives readers this information in order to understand the significance of the tidbits and ephemera in the second half of his book. Without that prior knowledge, many of the items almost seem like junk. With it, each item (complete with pictures!) is more intriguing than the last.

Not quite as captivated by the first part of this book as I was with the last, I still found it very browse-able and good for a nice vacation-on-the-sofa kind of day. If that’s what you need, or if you’re a historian or pop-culture fanatic, “Souvenir Nation” will be a nice addition to your book collection.

Terri Schlichenmeyer is based in Wisconsin.