Souvenirs of old Chicago unveiled at the Regenstein

At gift shops and events around the country, Americans are inundated with souvenirs. Postcards, playbills and ticket stubs are so ubiquitous that many toss them without a second glance.

What if we could learn from these small pieces of memorabilia? What if old-time souvenirs collected around a particular theme could give us a close-up glimpse into an historical time and place?

That’s just what the Special Collections Research Center’s newest exhibition, Souvenirs! Get Your Souvenirs! Chicago Mementos and Memorabilia, delivers. The collection is themed around the World’s Fairs of 1893 and 1933 and the contemporaneous University of Chicago, and it includes everything from souvenir pillows to a Columbian Exposition spittoon.

The inspiration for the exhibition came from a gift from Janel Mueller, Professor Emerita of English Language & Literature. But the person responsible for the impressively detailed collection of souvenirs is her late husband, Ian Mueller, who for decades taught in the department of philosophy. He had a passion for collecting ephemera related to the University and the World’s Fairs.

“It was a lot of fun when this collection came in,” said Eileen A. Ielmini, one of the exhibition’s curators. “Professor Mueller collected from the sheer joy of it.” The enjoyable pieces, she said, showed “an unexpected side” of Ian Mueller, who is better known for his academic research on Plato and Aristotle. In addition to the Mueller souvenirs, the archivists featured other Chicago memorabilia, including pieces from the Hyde Park Historical Society Collection.

The exhibition is part of a program called “Discovering Hidden Archives Treasures,” which features little-known gems from the Special Collections Research Center. Co-curator Kathleen Feeney said, “With this series, we hope to bring out items in the collections that visitors wouldn’t necessarily expect to find.” The exhibition is especially timely as 2013 is the 120th anniversary of the 1893 World’s Fair and the 80th anniversary of the 1933 fair. Feeney noted that this exhibition highlights the long and vibrant relationship between the University and the city.

The exhibition makes judicious use of modern technology to showcase its vintage treasures, including a slideshow projection of Mueller’s collection of various postcards. One especially interesting item is the famed woodcut artist Charles Turzak’s wordless book, Abraham Lincoln: A Biography in Woodcuts. Turzak created the book’s artwork in the midst of curious visitors to the 1933 fair. Though the exhibition has the original book on display behind glass, its illustrations are accessible for easy viewing on an iPad screen.

The University’s connection to the 1893 fair is highlighted in a designated display case as well as throughout the exhibition. One notable item in the case is a small notebook filled with former UChicago professor Frederick Starr’s handwritten field notes of his observations at the 1893 World’s Fair. Starr, one of the University’s first anthropologists and a preeminent scholar of his day, had traveled the world observing cultures in South America, Asia and Africa before turning his ethnographic attention to his own city for the largest gathering it had ever seen.

The educational focus of many souvenirs—pamphlets with names like “The Story of the Rolled Oat”—reveal the hopefulness and sense of progress embodied by the World’s Fairs, which celebrated advancements in technology, food production and medicine. The collection also shows visitors how little has changed since 1893 and 1933. “These souvenirs, bits of ephemera, are still being produced in very similar forms today,” Ielmini said.

The curators noted that the historical content and focus on the University’s relationship with the greater city of Chicago should appeal to a large audience of Chicagoans, including Hyde Park residents and campus visitors, as the next academic year gets under way. 

In addition to Ielmini and Feeney, other contributors are co-curators Ashley Locke, Laura Alagna, Brittan Nannenga, and Judith Dartt, and exhibition designer Joe Scott.