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Collector's Souvenirs Recreate Historic Southern California

Dydia DeLyser

A souvenir is usually something someone brings back from somewhere they paid a visit. But what happens when the somewhere no longer exists? That's the question material culture contributor Gianofer Fields sought to answer in her latest "It's a Material World" segment.

Fields found one person who may know the answer: author and associate professor in the Department of Geography and Anthropology at Louisiana State University, Dydia DeLyser. DeLyser says it was a romance novel called Ramona that sparked her interest in collecting items, souvenirs from a place she only visited in a book.

Ramona was written in 1884 by American author Helen Hunt Jackson, and it was set in in Southern California after the Mexican-American War. When writing it, DeLyser says Jackson wanted to use the Ramona character, a Native American, to bring attention to the discrimination of Native Americans at the time.

But Jackson died before the book took off, and DeLyser says the enthralled public skipped over her intended political message for its romantic tale.

Moreover, in her book Ramona Memories: Tourism and the shaping of Southern California, DeLyser explains how readers were entranced by the descriptions of Southern California. It became the go-to book for those planning a visit to the area and it spawned innumerable souvenirs.

But of course, the Southern California of Ramona's time no longer exists, so DeLyser found herself trying to track down these items far from where they originated. She says her efforts got easier with the advent of eBay.

DeLyser is and she was recently at UW-Madison giving an lecture entitled "Collection Kitsch and the Intimate Geographies of Social Memory."

Contributor Gianofer Fields studies material culture at UW-Madison and is the curator of "It's a Material World" - that project is funded by the Chipstone Foundation, a decorative arts foundation whose mission is preserving and interpreting their collection, as well as stimulating research and education in the decorative arts.