Thinking about where to vacation this summer? Ask for suggestions from Laurence Williams, a hotel consultant in Chatham, Mass., and he'll show you his nearly 600 pieces of vintage souvenir china instead of glossy travel brochures. Mr. Williams and a growing caravan of treasure hunters covet as hot and affordable collectibles what some folks dismiss as tacky relics of long-forgotten journeys.
One souvenir-china collector reports paying as little as 10 cents at a flea market for a piece of nostalgia; others say their costliest keepsakes are worth $100 to $200 each. Pieces made in Germany, Austria and England between 1885 and World War I are particularly sought-after. Cobalt blue souvenirs are in demand, as are those bearing the top distributors' marks. Look for "Wheelock," "Jonroth," "Jones, McDuffee & Stratton, Boston" (for years Josiah Wedgwood's exclusive American agent) and "R&M;" logos on mementos tucked away in cabinets or attics.
Lyn Iversen paid 50 cents for his first piece of souvenir china at a yard sale eight years ago. "It was a pretty little dish showing a Midwestern courthouse and marked 'Germany' on the back. I realized it was something special and old from the style and building, and it got me wondering if anything existed from the town I live in," he recalled. Although his collection numbers about 300 items -- organized state by state on shelves in Victorian china cabinets -- he's still searching for a small ceramic vase, cup, plate, pitcher, tray, bowl, bell, toothpick holder, thimble or anything else proclaiming itself "Souvenir of Fortuna, California" and bearing a colorful image of his community.
Local pride also motivates collector Wayne Miller, 39, of Red Wing, Minn., who has about 125 pieces of souvenir china from his small town and neighboring areas. He buys mostly at flea markets: His most recent acquisition was a $22 small gold-handled, cobalt blue cup of some sort. "I don't know exactly what it is," he conceded. He purchased his favorite item at auction nearly five years ago. It's a dinner-size calendar plate for 1910, a souvenir of the G.O. Miller store in White Rock, Minn., a relative's business.
Mr. Iversen, a 41-year old third-generation Fortuna resident, says collecting souvenir china has become his "pride, joy and passion." About half his collection is now attracting locals and tourists at a museum in Ferndale, Calif. People young and old love seeing souvenirs of long-gone sites, he observed, and it's a great way to learn history and geography. Aficionados add that souvenir china isn't an off-putting collectible: Everyone relates to buying vacation trinkets.
One of Mr. Iversen's most recent purchases was a $10 floral-decorated plate with a street scene depicting San Francisco's City Hall from before the 1906 earthquake. The 10-inch plate's pierced rim resembles Battenberg lace. Like much souvenir china, its back contains a virtual road map for collectors wanting to know its age and history. It's marked "Made in Germany" and "Dresden" (the town in which it was produced), bears the original retailer's name (the Emporium in San Francisco) and the mark of its importer (C.E. Wheelock & Co. of Peoria, Ill., the granddaddy of American souvenir china, in business from 1888 to 1971).
Mr. Iversen bought the plate sight-unseen by mail from a New Yorker who spotted a want ad he placed in Antique Souvenir Collector, an important quarterly newsletter for enthusiasts. (Annual subscriptions cost $12 from P.O. Box 562, Great Barrington, Mass. 01230-0562.) According to Gary Leveille, its editor, there are more than 300 subscribers nationwide. The San Francisco plate was a real bargain, Mr. Iversen said, because he bought it from a faraway source.
Inexpensive commemorative china has been a staple of many ceramic importers since the early 19th century. The roots are so-called "Historical Staffordshire," now-valuable pictorial blue and white ceramics with fruit and flower borders made for export in the Staffordshire potting region of England from the 1820s onward, and decorated with scenes of American communities and historical figures.
Souvenir china's heyday began in the 1880s. Railroads helped make leisure and business travel more accessible, giving rise to popular mountain resort communities, seashore attractions and historical sites, each sporting its own souvenirs.
Merchants in the late 19th and early 20th century looking to capitalize on the tourist trade could count on traveling salesmen from several china importers to provide them with custom-made pictorial ceramics. Shapes were standard, but any image or saying could be transfer-printed from a decal made from a copper or steel engraving. The views generally were taken from postcards, most likely those on hand when the salesman took an order. Common themes include main streets, churches, post offices, harbors, railroad depots, schools, courthouses, hotels, hospitals, stores, bridges, monuments and historic homes. Production usually took a year.
' Solis-Cohen Enterprises