It’s amazing and wonderful to discover how many vintage souvenirs of Texas from back in the day are still lurking in attics, antique malls, junque shops, and ecommerce sites, waiting to delight new generations of collectors and armchair travelers alike.
When it comes to tourism, Texas was relatively late to the party. But that party was the biggest tourist attraction in the USA at the time: the 1936 Texas Centennial in Dallas, celebrating 100 years of Lone Star statehood. And what do tourists do when they visit a tourist attraction? Why, they bring home souvenirs!
Let’s take a look at what kinds of vintage Texana those early tourists found awaiting them, from classy to kitschy. Visitors’ destinations literally ran the gamut from A to Z: from the Alamo in San Antonio to The Zodiac Room at Neiman-Marcus in Dallas. A WorthPoint search for keywords “vintage alamo souvenir” (without quotation marks) brings back 1,193 results, while a search for “zodiac room neiman marcus” yields 15.
Although Texas did not formally throw its cowboy hat into the tourism ring until the eve of its Centennial, the tourist industry’s roots run deep in the Friendship State. Yankee transplant Mary Austin Holley published her Tourist Guide to Texas in 1835, before Texas was even a republic, calling it a land of “surpassing beauty . . . a splendid country.”
More guides were published during Texas’ decade as a republic and the early years of its statehood. According to the Texas State Historical Association’s Handbook of Texas, “In Melinda Rankin’s Texas in 1850, the author” — a Presbyterian missionary from New Hampshire — “wrote as shamelessly as any contemporary publicist that ‘A traveler, passing through Texas during the months of April and May, would not fail of pronouncing it to be the most charming spot on earth.’”
Before and after the Civil War, railroad development in the Lone Star State spurred travel for both pleasure and adventure. Stagecoach, steamship, and riverboat lines literally drove recreational traffic as well, posting special excursion rates and promoting the charms of Texas.
Following the turn of the 20th century, the increasing popularity of automobile travel made better roads a priority nationwide. By 1903, Texans were campaigning for some form of state oversight. But it wasn’t until the Federal Road Act of 1916 allowed for the establishment of state highway departments that this notion came to fruition.
By 1929, Texas had 18,728 miles of main highways, 9,271 miles of which were hard-paved. During the Depression years of the 1930s, road construction statewide provided employment for many. Planning emphasized four criteria: safety, convenience, comfort, and aesthetics.
With regard to the latter, in preparation for tourists flocking to the state for its Centennial celebration, the Texas State Highway Department instituted the Office of Landscape Architect in 1933. Three years later, at the request of the state legislature, the department opened information bureaus at Texas’ primary entrance points to counsel travelers heading to Dallas.
It also published the first annual Texas travel map for tourists. Lavishly illustrated with photographs depicting outstanding tourist destinations, more than a million copies were distributed in 1967 alone.
Ironically, up until 1958, publication of any literature designed primarily to attract visitors to Texas was proscribed by the “carpetbagger clause” in the state’s Constitution of 1876. This provision made unlawful any expenditure of state funds for the attraction of immigrants, which various courts interpreted to include tourists. It wasn’t until 1960, after a constitutional amendment, that the state’s highway department published the first official Texas tourist brochure.
Nonetheless, there are 233 WorthPoint search results for “vintage texas tourist map”, and not all of them are printed on paper. VINTAGE TEXAS MAP/STATE TABLECLOTH- 1940s sold on eBay for $22.52 on January 22, 2007, while VINTAGE 1950S SILK SCARF SOUVENIR OF TEXAS W COWBOY ON BRONCO, MAP, LANDMARKS sold on eBay for $12.50 on April 5, 2020.
Maps of Texas were also printed on porcelain and china souvenir plates. There are 325 WorthPoint search results for “vintage texas souvenir plate”. The most valuable of these, 1936 TEXAS CENTENNIAL: RARE SET OF TWELVE PLATES, sold for $5,250 at Heritage Auction Galleries on March 12, 2016. The scallop-edged blue and white Czechoslovakian porcelain plates depict historic Texas places, people, and scenes; they feature a Texas star and flag at the top, with a Western motif encircling the exterior.
Plates are not all that tourists found to purchase during their travels. Also popular from as far back as the 1800s (and still to this very day) were silverplated and sterling souvenir spoons. Keywords “vintage texas souvenir spoon” bring back 149 WorthPoint search results.
A vintage pin dish and sterling souvenir spoon sold together on eBay as OLD LA GRANGE TEXAS COURT HOUSE-HISTORIC OAK DISH+ STERLING SP SPECKELS HEINTZE for $59.98 on September 3, 2016.
Meanwhile, one can only imagine the backstory for VINTAGE 1936 TEXAS CENTENNIAL SOUVENIR SPOON – SILVER PLATE, which bears the word “Mother” hand engraved in its bowl. This sentimental memento sold on eBay for the paltry pandemic price of $5.75 on November 27, 2020.
A more venerable — and valuable — example is VINTAGE ALAMO STERLING SOUVENIR SPOON BULL TEXAS COWBOY CIRCA 1900 NO MONO P&B, a turn-of-the-20th-century souvenir of San Antonio’s San José Mission made by the leading manufacturer of souvenir spoons, Paye & Baker. The handle comprises a crisply detailed 3D cowboy and steer head topped by the iconic façade of the legendary Alamo. This truly sterling example of Alamobilia sold on eBay for $51 on November 17, 2020.
Speaking of Alamobilia, a keyword search of WorthPoint for “alamo souvenir” yields an impressive 1,172 results. The priciest of these, WONDERFUL SOUVENIR PHOTO ALBUM OF SOUTHWEST TOUR, documents what the description calls “an excursion trip to New Orleans, Texas, and Southern California taken by a large group of Easterners in 1887.”
It features 47 high-quality albumen photos of the Alamo and other scenic sights, complete with a photo of the photographer himself and a printed souvenir pamphlet listing the travelers’ names. This unique ephemera was sold for $2,987.50 by Heritage Auction Galleries on November 17, 2020 — the same date as the aforementioned Alamo spoon. Evidently, that was a good day to remember the Alamo!
For collectors with shallower pockets, not to worry; much vintage Alamobolia and many Texas souvenirs of various ilk can be had for less than $10. Look for everything from ashtrays to charms (especially on vintage Texas-themed charm bracelets), compacts, and cups to flattened pennies to pennants, pins, and postcards to salt and pepper shakers, thimbles, and even toy knives.
These types of travel mementos were available all across Texas, in big cities and small towns alike. Most also offered their own distinctive take on souvenirs. For example, only in San Antonio could you find memorabilia from the Island of Lepers. It’s quite rare, too: There are only eight WorthPoint search results for “island of lepers San Antonio”.
Also available from East Texas to El Paso, the Red River to the Rio Grande, were souvenirs celebrating the state of Texas itself. There are two more genres of particular note that are especially Texas-centric thanks to Texas’ unique heritage: first, items in the shape of Texas; second, miniature made-in-Texas pottery handpainted with scenes from Lone Star landscapes. Many frequently feature bluebonnets — not only the state flower but an annual obsession with Texans.
Both of these souvenir genres are worthy of their own write-ups, as are other categories of Texana. Because like everything else, the array of memorabilia available to tourists is bigger and better in Texas than anywhere else!
Betsie “eBetsy” Bolger is a freelance writer/editor, former eBay Education Specialist, and Top Rated Seller on eBay. She sells new, estate, vintage, and artisan jewelry for a client’s account as well as Converse sneakers, vintage jigsaw puzzles, limited-edition Teddy the Dog merchandise, and select consignment items in partnership with her husband. Betsie is also a longtime WorthPoint fan who previously wrote WorthPoint’s commercial spots for eBay Radio. Find her via ebetsy.com, acquisatory.com, and TexAnnasAllStore.com.
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