I’ve long been aware that a potholder I use very frequently was provided, many years ago, free of charge, by a popular local politician, in connection with one of his campaigns for Congress. I couldn’t help being aware of this, since his name, with a brief political message, is emblazoned very prominently on it. He’s been out of the news so long, I didn’t even know if he was still alive, but I recently learned that he is, after a long and honorable career — so I thought it would be fun to write and tell him that I still have his potholder and am still using it. I thought that I must be the only person who could make that claim. He responded very quickly, but I was surprised when he told me that he keeps hearing the same sort of thing from other people.
This said a lot for the quality and durability of an object whose political value was supposedly quite ephemeral. But it made me start thinking about some of the other freely distributed objects I have retained, whose utility has outlasted their advertising value. One (of which fortunately I have several) is a plastic can lid, which is cleverly made, to fit cans of several different sizes, particularly, we must presume, cans of cat food, since the “advertiser” in this case, was an establishment of cat-doctors.
I know from experience how important just the sight of such a can, especially when it’s about to be opened, can be to any hungry domestic cat. In fact, once, when my wife was away on an extended trip, and had left me in charge of our own three cats, I was inspired to write special lyrics to Offenbach’s very appropriately named “Can-Can,” in celebration of this elaborate daily ritual. The central part says:
“Please open up the can-can,
We hope that’s your plan-plan
‘Cause we want our sweetee meatee eatee treatee! . . .
We will eat it soon, without a spoon.”
And I must tell you about one other extremely practical item in this same category. It’s an oval-shaped plastic coin-purse, which has, and needs, no fastener, but which you open simply by squeezing from the ends. The source of this very handy device, which fits neatly in my pocket, was a lawyer friend, whose services I have fortunately never needed, since he specializes in “representing people injured on and off the job” — a fact nicely proclaimed on both sides, with his name and other details.
These three examples, with which I happen to have a personal connection, are, I’m sure, only a token selection of what must be a vast array of promotional items. But they also represent the best of their kind, in terms of utility and durability. Mugs get broken, or you acquire so many of them that most of them are put away, and their message is forgotten. Pens are good only so long as they write, and then get thrown out. Calendars last only for a year. Anything else on paper is soon trashed. Despite its evil reputation for not being biodegradable, plastic is the promoter’s prayer.
But it is not only to be given away for commercial purposes that items which have meaning beyond themselves are widely available. There is also a huge market in souvenirs, which people buy, carry away, and cherish, supposedly as reminders of the places where such objects were purchased. No place of any touristic importance would be complete without its souvenir shops. It seems to hardly matter that today perhaps most of the items bought there, were not made in the locality, or even in the country, which they purport to be a souvenir of.
It seems somewhat absurd to buy an object calling itself, say, “Souvenir of Seattle” which is clearly marked on the back “Made in China.”
I once satirized this phenomenon by publishing a postcard whose entire message consisted of the words, “Souvenir of this place.”
“Souvenir” comes from the French word for memory, and many of us keep our own box of mementos, a practice which has been celebrated in nostalgic songs with lines like, “These foolish things remind me of you,” and sad ones sighing:
There’s nothing left for me
Of days that used to be –
They’re just a memory
Among my souvenirs.
Or, as I asked in an epigram, “How can so many things I’ve no more use for still have so much meaning for me?”