Summer Vacation Souvenirs

by Jim Trautman.


The regular readers of the Chronic Collector in the summer issue of the Wayback Times might notice a pattern. Through the years I have written about pennants, road maps, postcards and items related to collecting memories of past summer trips as a child or adult. This issue, I want to focus on the many other items that are collected as souvenirs on summer holidays to remind us of our visits to a specific place. These include pens, charm bracelets, View Master reels, coffee mugs, drinking glasses, decals, and metal or plastic models of famous buildings in the city or town visited on the trip.

Starting in the 1920s, the major driving force behind the increase of summer travel was the automobile. The sale of automobiles skyrocketed, thanks to Henry Ford, the assembly line, and Ford’s idea that his workers should be able to afford what they manufactured. By 1929, there were more than four million autos in the United States. The motel was invented in California and served as cheap roadside accommodation for travellers which also led to a surge in road trips for vacationers.

View Master reels of Lake Louise, Alberta and the Santa's Workship, North Pole, New York
View Master reels of Lake Louise, Alberta and the Santa’s Workship, North Pole, New York

Even during the depression summer vacation travel increased and the public travelled to major events such as the 1933 Century of Progress in Chicago, Illinois. In Canada one major attraction was a visit to the *Dionne Quints home in Ontario. In Portland, Oregon, William Gruber an organ maker/photographer contacted Harold Groves whose company Sawyer Postcards was one of the major makers of coloured postcards of the period. Gruber had been working on a new type of revolving photograph to replace the larger bulky sterographic cards. The new invention which debuted at the 1939-40 New York World’s Fair was the View Master made of Bakelite. It became an instant hit and soon the reels were being produced for every major tourist attraction. At first they were single reels, but in early 1950 View Master multi reels appeared on the market. View Master had competition from another company that produced Tru-Vue reels which fed through their viewer straight down and were sold mostly in 5&10 cent stores. Rather than compete View Master purchased the Tru-Vue company.

After World War II and the start of the Baby Boom summer travel increased at a fantastic pace. In the United States the interstate highway system was created, not so much for tourists, but as a part of the national defence system. To enhance the driving experience rest stops were constructed along the entire route. At first these were simple places where travellers could stop, but eventually the rest stops grew into large buildings where travellers could have a quick meal and also check out the souvenir shop inside the building. I grew up literally across the road from Exit Nine of the New Jersey Turnpike in New Brunswick, New Jersey. I have a tall drinking glass in my collection that says ““118 Miles of Effortless Driving.”” There is also a map of the entire Turnpike with each stop shown.

A 6" New Jersey Turnpike drinking glass - "118 miles of effortless driving
A 6″ New Jersey Turnpike drinking glass – “118 miles of effortless driving

In Canada, somewhat later to be completed, was the Trans-Canada Highway System. Tina and I spent our honeymoon in 1969 travelling the Trans-Canada from Expo to Lake Louise, Alberta. At the end of the trip our 1968 VW was filled with souvenirs including a Pierre Trudeau hand puppet purchased at the Four Corners in Ottawa, moccasins and soap stone carvings. Our trip on the highway was memorable; we would find spots where the road had not been completed and just ended. Trying to pass logging trucks on the incline was nearly impossible, but when we did manage it and looked in the rear view mirror on the way down they would be gaining on us. Most rest stops in Ontario have been updated, but if you visit you will often still find a souvenir shop where you can choose from items like coffee mugs, glasses and t-shirts, to have a keepsake of your travels.

One of my favourite souvenirs is from the Magnetic Hill, Nova Scotia, “where cars coast uphill.” I have a large ceramic cup in my collection from a visit in 1988. It was purchased at the Magnetic Hill Inn where they had a giant magnet at the top of its post.

An 1867-1967 Canadian Centennial Souvenir mug
An 1867-1967 Canadian Centennial Souvenir mug

Snow globes have been a major souvenir and in my collection I have several including one from Niagara Falls from the 1930’s. Inside the globe is a picture of the falls and when you shake it snow flakes appear – or maybe it’s the mist from the falls. Snow globes can usually be dated by their base. The early ones had heavy bases that were sometimes made of metal. After World War II plastic bases appeared.

1930s Niagara Falls, Ontario, snow globe.
1930s Niagara Falls, Ontario, snow globe.

Designed mainly for young ladies, souvenir charm bracelets appeared in the 1950s.Most bracelets had six to eight charms, tiny replicas of states, cities and provinces. Each charm represented an interesting place to visit while in the area. One bracelet of Hawaii had a charm for each of the seven main islands. For Ontario there were many different charms including the Parliament Buildings, Queens Park, Niagara Falls, and a Canada Goose for WaWa. Several for Alberta have a western motif.

When we think of souvenirs the one item that does come to mind is usually a building. Favourites are the CN Tower, Parliament Buildings, Skydome, Empire State Building, and, in my own collection, the Montreal Stadium constructed for the 1976 Olympics. Souvenir buildings have been around for over 100 years. The first buildings were constructed in Europe and were designed for the rich and their “Grand Tours.”

A 7" Empire State Building, New York City
A 7″ Empire State Building, New York City

The two main manufactures of souvenirs were located in Chicago, Illinois. Rehberger and Banthrico manufactured metal banks and orders for them were often taken from banking institutions to be given away as a gift to new customers. Eventually the two companies moved into the area of making miniature buildings and selling the items in souvenir shops across North America. The early souvenirs are more valuable since they were made of metal and had fantastic detail. Later, as demand grew, plastic and less detailed buildings were sold. An early version of the Chrysler Building made in 1930 of cooper, brass, and silver with magnificent detail will cost the collector over $1,000 today.

Floating pens are another popular item with an image of a city or building in a small chamber filled with liquid.

In 2017 one of the major interests of souvenir collecting is focused on the centennial year of 1967, which paid tribute to Canada’’s 100th birthday. Souvenirs manufactured for the centennial year not only focused on Canada, but the major event that celebrated our birthday – Expo in Montreal. Coffee cups, pens, dishes, snow globes – the souvenirs commemorating the event seemed endless. One of my local Salvation Army stores has plates commemorating 1967 up for auction that I might make a bid on. I have found in the last few years items from that period are becoming more difficult to find at yard sales and second-hand stores. Maybe it is due to the fact that Canada is celebrating its 150th birthday this year and interest has increased.

Wax Sinclair Oil dinosaur from the 1964-65 New York World's Fair and a small tray given away at the USS Steel Building. The image on the tray is of the giant Unisphere which was the symbol of the fair.
Wax Sinclair Oil dinosaur from the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair and a small tray given away at the USS Steel Building. The image on the tray is of the giant Unisphere which was the symbol of the fair.

The main focus of the 1964-65 New York’s World’s Fair was the Unisphere globe with satellites circling around it. It was built by United States Steel and was constructed by Mohawk iron workers from Quebec. My favourite souvenirs are from the Sinclair Oil building at the fair. These are dinosaurs that were made when you put a coin in a slot, chose the dinosaur you wanted and the machine created it out of wax. If you google “dinosaurs” and “World’s Fair” you will find images of full-sized dinosaurs on barges, being floated down the Hudson River to the Fair Grounds. I found another variation of this when I visited the Museum of Science and Technology in Chicago where their souvenir machine created an image of an early steam locomotive.

If you are going on a trip to North Creek, New York, located in the Adirondacks their unique souvenir is garnet from the Barton Mines. When our daughters were young, Tina and I took them to the mine which is an open pit. Admission includes a movie, tour and an opportunity to search for some garnet to take home as a souvenir of your day at the mine. The company uses the garnet to make nail files and other items for factories. As part of the admission visitors are given a nail file with information on one side and the Barton logo.

1950s car window decals of places visited on summer holidays
1950s car window decals of places visited on summer holidays

One item that has disappeared from vacation souvenirs over the decades is the auto window decal. In the 1950’s these brightly coloured decals were purchased to chart the family vacation on the side or back window of your car. In the United States the major manufacturer of decals was the Lindgren-Turner Company of Spokane, Washington. Decals were made for every state, province, city and major tourist attraction. Many of the decals have the exact image that was found on a pennant of the period. Reelfoot Lake shows a fish hanging from the letter T on the decal. Most decals measured 4 1/2″ by 3 “ and were like a tiny educational tool. Every state and province decal contained a map with the capital city embossed on it. The practice of placing them on your car windows became illegal due to safety concerns of restricted visibility. Today, when found unused, many sell in the $8 range while rare decals can fetch up to $40.

With summer vacation upon us remember to visit rest stops or other shops and see what is available. You’ll enjoy pulling out the souvenirs to bring back those nice memories on a cold, winter night or when the kids are grown. This year should be fantastic source of excellent with the sesquicentennial celebrations being held nation-wide.

If you are travelling into the United States google Roadside America for strange and out-of the-way places and museums.

*As a side note, only two of the Dionne quints are still alive and now received only about six cards on their birthdays. Until about twenty years ago there were thousands of cards with well wishes.

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