American history, hacked to bits

How we used to remember our nation’s past: with a chisel

As the nation celebrates its independence this week, souvenirs and emblems of America’s history abound: flags, replicas of the Statue of Liberty, T-shirts depicting the Liberty Bell. But behind the postcards and key chains lies an older kind of American souvenir: a chunk hacked off of a treasured national monument to take home with you.

Today, our national monuments are venerated and generally treated with respect—few would dream of carving off a piece. But this notion of historical preservation did not arise strongly until the mid-19th century, when people saw that there were only so many pieces of Plymouth Rock that you could chop off before nothing was left.

As a secular, patriotic tradition became established around the founding of the United States, many people wanted to take home a piece of that history—and some were willing to attack it with pocketknives and tack hammers in order to do so. These fragments—mostly small enough to be carried away in a pocket or purse—were held closely by those who collected them. Some were eventually donated to the US Patent Office’s history collection, which beginning in 1883 was transferred to the National Museum on the Mall in Washington. Most are nondescript and would likely have been overlooked or lost if not for their accompanying notes, which attest to the social value of objects whose chain of possession—their provenance—was all.

Purchased without further thought from a shelf in a gift shop, today’s souvenirs are the material descendants of the bits and pieces of wood, metal, and stone that reveal how Americans thought about the past and how it would be saved. But the mass-produced mementos that we think of today as souvenirs only partially satisfy a deep emotional urge to save and connect with the historical past, an urge which itself has a history.

Next month, the Smithsonian Institution opens a new exhibit on souvenir collecting. Many of the artifacts will be in just this category: pieces of important objects that were carved up in order to be remembered.

Richard Strauss/Smithsonian Institution

Plymouth Rock fragment

  • Plymouth, Mass. 1830

  • Plymouth Rock was a boulder-size glacial erratic (a nonnative rock transported by a glacier) standing out on the shoreline of what is now Plymouth, Mass. According to oral tradition, the Mayflower Pilgrims landed on or near the rock in 1620.

  • In 1774, well-meaning antiquarians attempted to relocate the rock from the shore to the protection of the Plymouth town square, and it was accidentally cleaved in two, with a “Mother Rock” remaining onshore while the other chunk went into town. In 1880, the Pilgrim Society of Plymouth cemented the two major pieces together, and in 1920 the entire assemblage was moved a short distance to a new protective cage on a waterfront promenade, where it may be seen today.

  • This 4-inch-by-2-inch portion was chipped from the Mother Rock in 1830. While no noticeable pieces have been taken from the rock since 1880, earlier pieces and fragments may be found in museums and private collections.

  • Gift of the heirs of Mrs. Virginia Fox, 1911

Richard Strauss/Smithsonian Institution

Washington Monument cornerstone fragment

  • Washington, D.C., 1848

  • The 24,500-pound marble cornerstone of the Washington Monument was laid on July 4, 1848. But construction came to a halt for lack of funds in the mid-1850s. Not until the nation’s centennial in 1876 did Congress turn once more to what in the intervening years had become a national embarrassment.

  • Joseph Meredith Toner, a Washington
    doctor and amateur historian who had helped lead the revival of the effort to complete the monument, collected a piece that broke off as workmen shored up the cornerstone. He took great pride in showing it. “I am not a vandal,” he later volunteered to a reporter, who noted that Toner bundled his prize in a gauzy bandage “wrapped around the small chunk of marble as carefully as the swaddling clothes around the ghostly form of an Egyptian mummy.”

  • Transfer from Joseph Meredith Toner manuscript collection, Library of Congress, 1961

Richard Strauss/Smithsonian Institution

Wooden compotes made from
the Washington Elm

  • Cambridge, Mass. 1924

  • George Washington was said to have accepted his commission as the head of the Continental Army on July 3, 1775, beneath the branches of an elm tree at Garden and Mason streets in Harvard Square. On Oct. 26, 1923, the tree, long dead but carefully attended by the city’s arborists, toppled into the street. The Cambridge police quickly cordoned off the tree to protect it from relic hunters who arrived armed with saws. The city’s arborists carted the wood off to a local warehouse for safekeeping.

  • Ultimately, the city sent a labeled slab to each state governor, with two gavels made from branches going to each state legislature, and a specially polished piece of the trunk went to Mount Vernon. The remaining slabs and unfinished pieces were distributed to the public. These small compotes, or cups, are believed to have been turned by a private woodworker from that supply. They were given to the museum by the wife of Smithsonian secretary Leonard Carmichael, who, before coming to the institution, was the president of Tufts University.

  • Gift of Mrs. Leonard Carmichael, 1976

Richard Strauss/Smithsonian Institution

Piece of a stud with a nail from the East Room of the White House

  • Washington, D.C. 1902

  • The 1902 renovation of the White House’s East Room and conservatories left a pile of architectural remnants heaped on the mansion’s North Lawn. For three weeks during June and July of 1902, this debris was eagerly identified, fussed over, and carted off by White House visitors, both tourists and visiting dignitaries. Relic hunters especially sought ornamental plasterwork, hand-cut wood lathe, and studs and cut nails dating to the mansion’s original construction.

  • With the exception of the attached affidavit, the provenance of this stud with a nail from the East Room is now unknown. It is believed to have been cut to size, planed, and labeled by one of several enterprising relic hunters who built a market for collectibles from White House remnants, one stud at a time.

  • Transfer from US Patent Office, 1902

William L. Bird Jr. is a curator and historian at the Smithsonian Institution and the author of “Souvenir Nation: Relics, Keepsakes, and Curios from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.”
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