TAMPA — Back in 1891, Henry Plant's Tampa Bay Hotel was the hottest ticket in town. The Moorish-Spanish-style building begged for the full postcard treatment with graceful minarets that dominated the city skyline. Exotic gardens, a casino, a racetrack and common spaces brimming with world antiquities inspired tourists to write home about the hotel's beauty.
Visitors were also treated to an array of hotel souvenirs and mementos, from paper fans adorned with exotic scenes to silver spoons festooned with alligator heads.
An exhibit of those objects is on display through Dec. 27 at the Henry B. Plant Museum at the University of Tampa.
"Mementos From Under the Minarets" combines hundreds of trinkets, letters and postcards — some from famous hotel guests like Clara Barton and Frederick Remington — with such souvenirs as a large conch shell carved with the hotel's image. The show also features sheet music, cigar boxes, jewelry, postcards, playing cards, stereoscope slides and drinking glasses that visitors once lugged back North on the train.
At one time, such tourist treasures weren't hard to come by.
"There was a gift shop at the hotel, and scores of stores in downtown Tampa sold these items," said Sally Shifke, a museum spokeswoman, whose favorite trinket was a freebie, a women's fan given away by Henry Plant at the opening-night gala ball.
These days, collectors can find similar Florida gems at auctions, junk shops, antique stores and collector shows. The Plant exhibit is displayed artfully — with items like hats, postcards and flatware — mixed in eye-pleasing ways to inspire visitors to showcase similar collections in their own homes.
"If you're going to collect, you can get ideas on how to group things and pull it all together," Shifke says.
Many of the items on display were loaned or donated to the museum by 20 collectors. Others were pulled from the archives of the museum's permanent collection, where they're stored because of their fragility. A silk hand-painted banner presented to Mrs. Grover Cleveland (the president and his wife stayed at the hotel en route to a Caribbean steamship tour, where they were accompanied by Henry Plant himself) is so fragile that a professional museum conservator helped the staff display it.
Lights at the show are dimmed to protect the artifacts. "The papers stay in our archives in acid-free boxes," says Susan Carter, museum curator and registrar. "It's really been gratifying to be able to get these things out and see them."
One trinket is a hand-painted hotel cameo pin — called a cameona — made by Olive Commons, an early Florida jewelry artist who depicted the state's beauty on everything from pins and pendants to porcelain tableware.
Carter said that the staff relies on Tampa Bay Hotel buffs who keep an eye out for souvenirs depicting the buildings, grounds and other jewels from Plant's ships, railroads and hotels.
"Sometimes people tell us that they have old hotel postcards but don't think that we would be interested in them because we have so many," Carter explains. "But we're actually just as interested in what people have written on the back of those cards."
In fact, the hastily jotted musings inspired the staff to read aloud and record the messages, which visitors can hear. They can also look at reproduction stereoscope slides of the hotel through an antique viewer.
The exhibit dovetails with the museum's annual Victorian Christmas Stroll, which runs daily from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Dec. 1-23. The stroll — which includes carolers, spiced cider and cookies — highlights the museum's amazing Victorian era decorations, trees and lushly decorated rooms. This year's stroll highlights an antique toy collection loaned by a retired Hillsborough County teacher and a three-story Victorian-style dollhouse.
Elizabeth Bettendorf can be reached at email@example.com.