Souvenirs from the
Which came first,
The tourists are back!
On a sultry night in July the sidewalks of Market Square are thick with them, so thick that I am forced to step into the street where an especially dense clot of visitors has solidified. At its nucleus a jazz trio is performing on a small oriental rug spread on the stonework between the two up-ended canons that flank the ancient door of the Portsmouth Athenaeum. Even the air is thick with a visible mist that slows navigation against the tide of tourists, teens and cops on bikes. The trolley, on its final run of the evening, extrudes another mass of bodies into the porridge and disappears down Congress Street.
It's usually the newcomers who rail the loudest against the crowds. "Portsmouth is being overrun!" they cry, though scant years before they walked these same congested streets, tossed a buck in some minstrel's open guitar case and dreamed of owning their own slice of Portsmouth charm. That goes double for the neuvo riche of New Castle who, drawn to the elegant hotel on the hill there, now want the stately Wentworth-by-the- Sea flattened before it can draw more like-minded visitors to these recently subdivided shores.
But tourism, like it or not, is the thick grease that keeps this region's economic machinery running. If you don't believe me, just step inside the Athenaeum some Tuesday or Thursday afternoon when the crowds on the street have thinned and the new exhibit there is open. It's called "History in Your Hand" which isn't exactly true, since the 300-odd items on display are locked inside glass cases just out of reach.
After more than a year of Herculean scavenging, historians Deborah Child and Joyce Geary Volk have assembled the largest collection of Portsmouth souvenirs ever seen by the public. Okay, it's a room full of old junk. There are plates, post cards, coffee creamers, bookends, booklets, paperweights, cups, spoons, even a delicate porcelain shoe. Everything in the room is branded with a picture or words that make it a bona fide souvenir of Portsmouth, New Hampshire.
This stuff was sold to visitors here from 1870 to 1930, the first "golden age" of Portsmouth tourism. Technically you could say every visitor not born here was a tourist at some point. That goes for David Thompson in 1623, George Washington in 1789, Daniel Webster in 1804 or me in 1969. I've been here longer than all of those guys combined, but by Yankee law, I'm still on the waiting list for citizenship.
This is a marvelous and free display for the common man, and should go a long way toward debunking the Athenaeum's image as a private haven for scholars only. Items are arranged to answer key questions, like: Who bought these souvenirs? Who made them? What sites did they visit? What is most striking is the sheer number of items imprinted with pictures of old Portsmouth houses, mostly the same ones we know today. The Warner House, the 1713 brick mansion near the post office, tops the list. As early as the 1850s, tourists were being shown inside where a basket of Revolutionary War-era clothing was reportedly kept by the door. The image of the Portsmouth door itself become a symbol of a city that welcomed tourists to come, tour and hopefully spend.
Long before reconstructed towns like Sturbridge Village, Colonial Williamsburg and Plymouth Plantation, tourists came to Portsmouth. Back when we were clever enough to have railroads, visitors could arrive in speed and comfort. As the nation healed following the Civil War, people got interested in history. It's easy to forget, but citizens of the later 19th century saw themselves as very modern. They had the telegraph, trolleys, photography, factories. There was a burgeoning middle class of people, many immigrants, who felt little connection to America's colonial roots.
Portsmouth, with an abundance of historic houses, was accessible and located on a scenic river. Portsmouth also had a sense of its own place in history. Long before the Internet, local writers like Thomas Bailey Aldrich and Celia Thaxter spread the word in popular magazines. The state of New Hampshire promoted the region to boost a sagging economy. The hype worked; tourists made a bee-line for the "Old Town by the Sea." Printers cranked out all manner of guide books, walking tours, view books, post cards and pictures for sale.
When Longfellow wrote a poem about Martha Wentworth, Portsmouth's "Cinderella" became a romantic figure nation-wide. So people naturally wanted to see the Wentworth-Coolidge House where she married NH's elderly British Governor. When Thomas Bailey Aldrich died in 1907, his house on Court Street became a shrine, one of the first historic house museums in the country. Photographer Wallace Nutting used the Wentworth-Gardner Mansion as his backdrop to create a nostalgic vision of colonial America, and his photos raked in the profits. By 1919, with the opening of the John Paul Jones House, Portsmouth had found its first true inflation-proof source of income. Old houses just get older. Visitors were not terribly interested in the facts of history. They just wanted to stand in the vicinity of greatness, to combine their average lives with the romance of the past -- and bring home a little momento for the kiddies.
Tourists then, as now, had a ravenous appetite for cheap keepsakes. Merchants responded. Factories in German and Italy perfected ways to print colored photos onto porcelain and sent their salesmen door to door to colonial towns like ours. Victorian audiences doted on that kind of bric-a-brac. Today, when a Paul Revere Pez container goes for $75 on ebay.com, you can imagine what old bric-a-brac fetches.
So they continue to come, and despite an occasional muffled curse, I for one am glad for the tourists who help, in their way, to keep our historic houses standing. What's missing today, it seems, is the reverence for the past that Victorians felt. We've lost our worshipful hearts and sense of awe for the founding fathers. And that may not be a bad thing either. One Boston newspaper at the exhibit features Portsmouth in 1923 at its tercentenary with the bold headline: "Three Centuries and Still American." That meant our white colonial heritage had not yet been tainted, the article implies, by the influx of Greek, Russian, Italian, Irish, Black and Jewish immigrants. Thankfully, that type of thinking is almost a memory here.
If we do not worship our forebears enough, today, to take home a set of dishes imprinted with the historic Langdon, Lear or other homes, we have not fully lost our American tendency toward hero worship. This weekend the crowds are clustered too around the state pier where the tall ship Bounty is berthed on a weeklong visit.
This is not the actual Bounty, of course, but a replica, scaled up to allow movie cameras for the filming of the 1962 film "Mutiny on the Bounty". I was down there yesterday evening and the captain was reminding visitors that this was the "authentic ship" on which Marlon Brando made his classic film. "And don't forget to touch the ship's wheel," the captain reminded us. "It is the actual wheel used from the original Bounty film ship used in the 1935 version of the movie starring Clark Gable."
The crowd gasped in admiration. Not the "original" actual Clark Gable?
Man, that tall ship must be old! Souvenirs are available at the booth
by the big yellow tent. No pushing, please. There's plenty for everyone.
Article by J. Dennis Robinson
Article and page design
© 1999 SeacoastNH.com. All rights reserved.
The exhibit "History in Your Hand" is open until November 30 at the Portsmouth Athenaeum. Gallery hours are 1-4pm on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. For more information call 603-431-2538.
Don't miss Dennis Robinson's new column "Seacoast Rambles" every other week in Foster's Sunday Citizen at your local newsstand.
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