How Souvenirs Became Irresistible to Travelers

From key chains to chess sets, seeking out travel mementos is a shared human experience.

When 40-year-old Illinois resident Rita McNeely and her husband Chris travel, they always purchase a chess set. It may seem like a big thing to lug around, or potentially a significant expense, but the reasoning behind it is actually quite sweet. Chris and his grandmother had a close relationship, and they both shared a love of travel. One day they’d hoped to take a trip together. But during Chris’s senior year of college, his grandmother became ill and passed away.

“He always admired her chess set made of obsidian from her road trip around Mexico in the 1970s,” McNeely tells me. “So, wherever we go, he hunts down a unique chess set as an homage to his grandmother. It's like he's taking a piece of her home with us every time.”

Souvenirs (chess sets or otherwise) also allow you to take a little piece of the place you’re visiting home with you. They're essentially physical memories you can bring back.

“Humans have a natural desire to preserve memories,” explains Nilou Esmaeilpour, a registered clinical counselor and founder of Lotus Therapy in Vancouver. “When we have an enjoyable, transformative, or unique experience, a souvenir can act as a tangible memento of that moment in time, allowing us to revisit those feelings whenever we see or touch the item.”

It’s not a new tradition, either. The practice of buying something in order to remember a trip dates back more than a millennium.

Woman at a souvenir shop in 1975, Mont Saint-Michel, Normandy
-/Contributor/AFP/Getty Images

Way back in 980 BC, Irish travelers headed out to Scandinavia. When they returned to the Emerald Isle, they carried along what’s believed to be the very first souvenir: amber beads, the Daily Mail reported in 2014. But the first mass-produced souvenirs didn’t begin filling up luggage until 1400 AD. These were things called pilgrim badges, little tokens religious pilgrims could collect from different shrines they visited in Europe—similar to today’s secular practice of getting guitar picks from Hard Rock Cafe or coasters from bars around the world. The pilgrim badges solved a big problem in the fledgling souvenir world; pilgrims previously had just chipped bits of religious sites off buildings to bring home as a travel trophy. The badges were an easy, vandalism-free option.

Starting in the 1600s, when wealthy teens toured around Europe as part of their journey to adulthood, the souvenir industry really got its footing. Those wealthy teens brought home local finds, which eventually turned into the touristy tchotchkes we know today, like decorative spoons, key chains, and landmarks in miniature.

women browsing key chains
Imgorthand/E+/Getty Images

These souvenirs, Esmaeilpour says, are more than just trinkets, though. They’re actually a part of the narrative we create about ourselves.

“They can symbolize experiences, aspirations, and personal growth,” she says. “By displaying or using souvenirs, people can subtly communicate aspects of their identity to others. For example, a souvenir from a challenging hike can symbolize perseverance, while one from a foreign country might showcase one's adventurous spirit.”

The souvenirs are basically your trophy for completing some accomplishment, whether it’s a place you’ve been or a challenge you met.

For people that buy the same souvenir—like a magnet or a deck of cards—from every destination, the items take on even more meaning. It’s something called the “endowment effect,” Esmaeilpour says, where each item you purchase gains more value after you buy it. The item begins to hold more meaning. For repeat souvenir buyers, that meaning takes the form of an ever-growing collection.

“The act of collecting gives people a sense of continuity, progression, and achievement,” Esmaeilpour says. “Each addition tells a new chapter in their life’s story. There's also a certain satisfaction derived from the hunt—finding that perfect piece to add to one’s collection.”

Souvenirs also have a tendency to bring people together, even if that’s not the express purpose for most people purchasing.

couple shopping for postcards
Betsie Van der Meer/Stone/Getty Images

You probably don’t buy souvenirs with the intention of deepening your relationship with friends that come over to your house. But on some level, the purchases help us feel like a larger part of our community. How many times have you randomly started telling a story of how you got that weird cat vase, or the thing that no one really knows the purpose of that you have on display?

Chicago residents Lauren and Alex Ocello feel this one. In Germany, they purchased a decorative otter sculpture with a stopper in its mouth, but no visible reason why it might have such a modification. It’s also inexplicably wearing a wizard cap. The couple has created a whole backstory to the otter, about it being a sale item that never sold and the stall owner being thrilled to unload a piece they loved but just couldn’t get rid of.

“Seeing that silly thing makes us happy because of the story we concocted and the item itself, and then fondly remembering that day in Munich,” Lauren Ocello says.

As I was researching for this piece, people around the globe shared stories of the souvenirs they’ve bought, ranging from magnets in Portugal to snow globes in the Midwest. Some people have turned it into a game, trying to outcompete their sibling for the strangest souvenir purchased. Others have scooped up souvenirs to honor someone (like those chess sets), or to support the local economy. One family has even made a practice of taking business cards from every restaurant they visit and writing notes about the meal on the back as a reminder of the food. Nearly two hundred comments converged into a little souvenir community of people talking about the objects they love.

“Sharing the story behind a souvenir allows us to connect with others,” Esmaeilpour says. “By recounting our experiences, we can bridge gaps between our world and that of our listener. This can lead to increased social bonding and understanding.”

As for me, I’m not immune to the siren call of souvenirs. I always wanted to grow up and live in a house full of items I bought on my travels. But now that I’m an adult, I’ve realized that’s not entirely feasible when you don’t have, you know, basically a mansion to store all the things. So instead I purchase yarn or fabric from every country I visit.

I share every new skein of yarn or yard of fabric online, so my friends and family can follow along with my progress. It’s my own way of building a community out of one that didn’t exist—mainly because I’m visiting most of these places alone. But this habit has brought my husband and me closer, too. Now, when we go somewhere together, one of the first things he researches is yarn shops.

Eventually, my souvenirs will be made into an international blanket, a throw filled with memories from everywhere I’ve been. And on the plus side, I only need a small space in my closet for all the yarn storage.

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Jennifer Billock is a contributor for Thrillist.