"The World's Champion Souvenir Collectors": American Tourists, Consumption, and Power during the Cold War

Sunday, January 6, 2019: 9:40 AM
Stevens C-5 (Hilton Chicago)
Sara Fieldston, Seton Hall University
“The tourist, swathed in suntan oil and a brief bathing suit and doing nothing more significant than lolling on a beach in the West Indies or Latin America, or at a sunny Sicilian winter resort, does not look much like an instrument of high United States foreign policy,” noted New York Times travel writer Paul J.C. Friedlander in an article titled “The Importance of Souvenirs” in 1955. “Yet he, or she, is an important . . . part of our international economics program.”

Friedlander was not alone in looking to American tourists—and, specifically, American pocketbooks—as agents of U.S. diplomacy. Indeed, during the fifteen years following World War II, tourism officials and travel writers described American tourists as fonts of foreign aid and goodwill ambassadors. Souvenir-hunters would rebuild war-devastated countries, spread American amity, and unite the “free world” though their purchases.

In the American popular imagination, moreover, souvenir-hunting helped shape understandings of the emergent bipolar world order. Robust consumer economies, travel writers and US leaders alike argued, signified the superiority of the capitalist system, while the meager offerings of communist markets represented the hardships of life behind the Iron Curtain. “There is really very little to buy in Soviet Russia for the visitor—or the Russians, for that matter,” wrote travel writer Judith Friedberg in 1960 in a typical assessment of the difficulties of embarking on a Soviet shopping spree.

While travel boosters worked to connect American consumerism, U.S. power, and the superiority of democratic capitalism, however, the experiences of ordinary tourists in shops and markets around the world often complicated this narrative. This paper explores the ways in which Americans experienced—and grappled with—US hegemony and Cold War politics through their roles as shoppers on the global stage.