The Tacky Tourist Mug

Humans have been collecting souvenirs to commemorate their travels for a long time. 

Amber beads from Scandinavia, found in Ireland and dated to around 1,000 BC, are among the first objects to be classified as ‘souvenirs’ by archaeologists—probably because the scientists could figure out no practical use for them, the very definition of a souvenir. By the middle of the first millenium AD, religious authorites in Europe had become so tired of pilgrims breaking off pieces of holy buildings and statues to take home that they began manufacturing and handing out tiny ampullae filled with holy water to stem the vandalism. These soon proved too expensive to produce in mass quantities, so cheaper badges were substituted. Thus we can blame the church for the rows of junk in most modern gift shops.

Wealthy nineteenth-century travelers on the Grand Tour of Europe commonly had compact portraits painted of themselves next to famous landmarks such as the Arc de Triomphe. Anyone else see a direct line of descent to the selfie stick?

These days, as mentioned, the word ‘souvenir’ generally calls to mind Elvis snow globes (the largest gift shop in the world is in Las Vegas), Chinese Inca figurines, and T-shirts. Yet the drive to take home some essentially inconsequential memento of exotic travels remains strong in us. How to assuage it without becoming an item of ridicule in the local paper on one’s death?

Roseann hit upon an excellent solution a few years ago, on a trip to Egypt. We’d hired Land Cruisers with camping and cooking equipment, but the only cups included were plastic throwaways. In a parking lot near the Pyramids she scanned the offerings of a group of vendors, and picked out a spectacularly hideous mug with Pharaonic motifs done in gold leaf. I chided her for contributing to the Chinese-ification of the souvenir trade until she turned it over and found it was made right there. And she had a nice ceramic mug for the rest of the trip, while I drank coffee from Dixie cups (we never found another souvenir mug dealer).

That mug (which she referred to as her ‘tacky tourist mug’), judiciously packed, made it home, and a tradition was born. Now we have an ever-expanding collection of mugs from destinations as diverse as Ushuaia and Steamboat Springs. While some remain decidedly on the tacky side—witness the Pope Mug from Argentina—many others simply commemorate a favorite town or cafe. And we never run out of coffee mugs for visitors.