Florida's history, or at least a sizable chunk of it, is the history of its kitsch.
That's the underlying theme of "Souvenirs of Florida: The Tasteful and the Tacky," an exhibit of our state's tourist memorabilia at the South Florida Museum in Bradenton.
The exhibit, put together by guest curator Mary Anna Murphy from St. Petersburg, traces Florida souvenirs from the mid 19th century until the late 1960s.
The South Florida Museum devotes itself to examining Florida's cultural history, and most of its exhibits are much more staid than this one. Recent titles include "Opening the Door to the New World: Mark Catesby's Travels in La Florida, 1722-1726" and "Paul Rudolph: The Florida Houses."
The entertainment factor is a lot higher for the new exhibit, museum officials say. But the underlying purpose is to trace about a century of Florida's history through the memorabilia.
"This one's a lot of fun," said Suzanne White, the museum's curator of exhibits and collections. "It's very lighthearted, but at the same time it's very educational."
For most visitors, the big surprise is that Florida souvenirs were once very classy items, like the fine Limoges china that graced the tables of some of America's wealthiest homes.
From the late 1800s until around World War I, Florida attracted the well-heeled. Getting to it was difficult: Tourists came by steamship or on private railroad cars, and they stayed for weeks, not a weekend. The souvenirs were signs of status.
Later, automobile travel opened the state to more visitors. Souvenirs became less expensive but often were handcrafted from native materials. One of Murphy's favorite items in the exhibit, and a popular souvenir of the era, is an orangewood cane with an ornately carved alligator for the handle. On view as well, there's an alligator tooth meticulously carved into the shape of an alligator.
Many of the souvenirs from that era were specific to tiny family owned places along U.S. 301 or other north-south roads. Some of the businesses were tourist attractions, now defunct and forgotten, others were just places where drivers could take a bathroom break.
But the souvenirs were popular with visitors then, and they're popular with collectors now.
"There are all these primo collectors whose passion is Florida souvenirs," Murphy said.
Interstates, inexpensive plane fares and the advent of plastic brought an end to those roadside attractions and their high-quality souvenirs. In the late 1950s and into the 1960s souvenirs were often cheap plastic replicas of the previous decades' quality kitsch.
The exhibit's timeline, and the golden age of the Florida souvenir, ends with the opening of Disney World and other theme parks.
"You can still get souvenirs, but they're the same souvenirs that you can get in Iowa or any place else," Murphy said. "They're T-shirts and baseball caps, nothing that specifically says Florida."
A few years ago, Murphy put together a similar exhibit for the St. Petersburg Museum of History, but it concentrated more on St. Petersburg tourism. The current exhibit includes one of the Central Avenue green benches, and some items from the Tampa Bay Hotel, but its emphasis is on Bradenton and Sarasota.
"I did a lot of research this time on Bradenton," she said, "and while its tourism history isn't as colorful as St. Petersburg's, it is nonetheless very rich."