"Souvenir” is the French word for memory. In the Boston that local schlockmongers want us to remember, the city was lousy with pirates, ghosts, and ducklings; children ingested bullets and gunpowder; and first lady Abigail Adams wore plenty of eyeliner when she, anachronistically, played cards with entertainer Josephine Baker. Boston’s historic Freedom Trail gift shops are, clearly, the manifestation of our confusing, conflicted, amusing past.
The Freedom Trail stores are each run by different organizations, but they share the same bifurcated mission: to educate the public, and to rope in as much moolah as possible to keep their museums solvent. That is why you are condemned to spend precious minutes watching your tween niece mull over sets of fuchsia polka-dotted sneaker laces at the Old North Church when you could be snarfing cannoli at Modern Pastry. Here’s what you can expect when, as a loyal Bostonian, you carry out your duty to accompany easily impressed visitors to the Old South Meeting House Museum Shop, the Old State House Museum Shop, the National Park Service Bookstore, the Old North Church Gift Shop, or, across the river in Charlestown, the USS Constitution Museum Store.
Want to know inside tips from the souvenir world? Read Gift Shop magazine, which notes that “Every gift retailer knows — you have to stock plush.” Of course, since cows left the Boston Common, we haven’t had a heck of a lot of cute taxidermy subjects around town, so our local historic retailers have decided to make plush toys out of animals that have no natural fur! Ducklings are the chief beneficiary of this phylogenetic reimagining, thanks to Robert McCloskey’s 1941 picture book Make Way for Ducklings, an upbeat tale of how a cheerful, portly policeman saves a flock of helpless ducklings led across four lanes of traffic by a crazed, desperate mother in search of the father who abandoned the mallard family. In commemoration of the ducks’ fearless stupidity, the Old North Church gift shop has at least 36 cubic feet of store space devoted to fuzzy duckies, duckie shirts, duckies, duckie onesies, duckie books, and still more duckies.
Mammalized lobsters are also given pride of place at the Old North Church shop, furry and soft, though they still lack breasts and spinal columns. Patrons of the Constitution who wish to defend traditional hairy-animal values can purchase a bear named Scuttlebutt. He is dressed like a member of the crew, and his name is not funny.
A few humans have also been plushed, growing a thin, soft layer of fur from the palms of their hands, as well as from their necks. George and Martha Washington and John and Abigail Adams dolls populate the National Park Service store in Boston, along with a Paul Revere doll. Abigail and Martha seem to be wearing heavy eyeliner. So does Paul, though George and John are just wearing wigs. There is no Ringo doll.
Boston’s gift shops cater to a wide range of age, tastes, and discernment. If you’re not the sort of person who enjoys complicated ideas, you’ll be happy to know that several Freedom Trail shops seem to have ordered books from the same easy-reading catalogue, with non-challenging titles like Ghosts and The Boston Strangler splayed across their covers. If you forget to buy Witches at the Old South Meeting House, fear not! You’ll find it at the Old North Church. But pass up Stanley Crouch’s Reconsidering the Souls of Black Folk: Thoughts on the Groundbreaking Classic Work of W.E.B. Dubois at the Old South Meeting House and you’ll never find it again.
Mind you, the gift shops do include materials on both the “black folk” and the women who lived in Boston — two groups who don’t show up in all those pretty pictures of Minutemen slaughtering British troops. Their stories have been sorely neglected in the past, and these educational institutions are trying — albeit in a very safe, tokenizing way — to correct that situation. That’s why every shop stocks a biography of Phyllis Wheatley, poet and African-born slave, and the only woman of color living in Boston at the time of the Revolution. (Or so it seems, anyway.) Old South Meeting House has seven different titles about Wheatley — including her actual poems!
Patrons who can’t stand to read inspirational middle-school-level Wheatley stories can buy the “Notable Black Women in American History” deck of cards, prominently displayed at every single gift shop in Boston. You can find it by looking for the picture of Josephine Baker’s eyeliner on the front — her face will come into focus a few seconds afterward.
The National Park Service shop in Boston, by contrast, wants to make you feel bad about taking your children into the city. The accusatory Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder is prominently positioned at their shop, alongside The Dangerous Book for Boys, which presumably will teach your sons how to hurt themselves in the wilderness. The store also offers “Sierra Club Urban Wildlife Cards,” for when you’ve given up on wilderness altogether, and decide to just teach your children about squirrels and cockroaches.