2016-03-24 / Neighbors

Welcome to a tourist trap,19th century style

Library Links
By Leslie Rounds

Since we all live here, most of us year-round, I think it’s easy to lose track of the idea that southern Maine has charms that attract people from afar. I admit that in the summertime, when the traffic backs up at every possible point and it becomes ridiculously difficult to make a left turn, we are all very aware of tourists. Perhaps not quite so much so at this muddy time of year?

But did you ever stop to think about the beginnings of the tourist trade? Tourism in southern Maine is definitely not a 20th-century invention. As the Civil War drew to a close, families were reunited and America’s middle class was really coming into its own. The summer vacation became the thing to which a successful person should aspire. If you lived in increasingly urban Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut and New York, Maine began to look like an attractive vacation destination. You could jump on a train, or even a trolley, and bring the family up to spend a bracing week or two (or the whole summer) at the seaside. We have many postcards in our collection that depict the grand hotels of the southern Maine coast and the tourists “bathing” in our nearly frigid seas – which they may have barely felt as they were clad in many layers of wool like all properly dressed swimmers of yore.

If you were on vacation, you probably needed to drop in at all the local gift shops and purchase some knick-knacks (with which the Victorian era seemed to overflow) to bring home with you and presumably remind you of that wonderful time at the shore. Fortunately, you would be able to find just the thing here in Saco, or maybe at Old Orchard Beach. On exhibition now at the Saco Amtrak Station are a number of 19th-century souvenirs from the collection of the Saco Museum. You can find porcelain plates decorated with images of Thornton Academy, Biddeford High School, Dyer Library and other local landmarks. Surprisingly, these objects were mostly made in Europe and imported. It’s kind of amusing to think of some factory in Germany chock-a-block full of souvenir dishes and the need to get all of them sent to the right tourist destinations – without computers.

If you were strolling down Main Street in Saco, the shop of Phineas Kelley was the place to go for souvenirs. In 1884 he was located at 103 Main St., but the location of his shop shifted a few times over the years. In Biddeford, you would definitely want to drop by 78 Main St. to see Frank J. Smith who advertised that he had “The Largest Stock in York County.” Although by the 1890s many of the dishes were decorated with a process that used color decals that could be easily worn off with day-to-day use, many of these tourist objects still survive. They are a poignant reminder that although many things have changed since they were sold, maybe a lot has remained the same; we still buy knick-knacks from tourist traps while on vacation. Stop in the train station and take a look.

Leslie Rounds is executive director of Dyer Library/Saco Museum.

Return to top