Victorian Souvenirs from Ocean Grove, NJ + Harry Houdini

By Kim Brittingham

You come to the Jersey Shore on vacation and you buy a t-shirt to show where you’ve been. Or a hat. Or a refrigerator magnet. Or a Christmas tree ornament in the shape of a lifeguard stand on which is painted the words, “Ocean Grove”.

You can’t help yourself. And neither can millions of others. Seaside souvenir shops wouldn’t exist without willing customers, and believe it or not, they’ve existed for well over a century.

But where one might encounter somebody else’s souvenir at a garage sale or flea market and see “junk”, there still lingers some residue of love. Because when we buy a souvenir, something magical happens. We’re taking that particular brand of bliss that can only come from being on vacation and imprinting it onto that object. We’re endowing the object with fond memories, peak experiences, warm moments. It’s a funny little aspect of the human condition, isn’t it? With one quick transaction in a gift shop, we transform a low-value object into a treasure.

There, you too can view a collection of quaint memorabilia from Ocean Grove’s past, some dating as far back as 1890, although souvenirs were being sold in Ocean Grove by at least 1871 (more info below).

I feel that sense of nostalgia every time I peer into the showcase of antique souvenirs inside theMuseum of the Historical Society of Ocean Grove

When the original owners of these pieces held them in their hands, were they reminded of their carefree childhoods in short pants and sailor collars? Did an etched glass pitcher take them back to a boardwalk stroll with their first love? When they held this souvenir, could they almost smell the salty ocean air mixed with the lemon verbena cologne sprinkled on their handkerchief?

Collectors often gravitate toward antiques with a sense of romance, knowing these objects were used by people living in dramatically different times from our own. So, when you think about it, the meaning we assign to travel souvenirs makes them more romantic than a lot of other old things we might collect.

But just how “old” are we talking?

The idea of going to the shore and bringing home a memento most likely originated in England in the 1800s.

Strangely enough, although we’re about to talk about the 19th century, I’m reminded of a song by one of my favorite British bands from the 1980s, Squeeze. In “Pulling Mussels from a Shell,” vocalist Glenn Tilbrook sings about the holiday goings-on in a beach town, including this line: Two fat ladies window shop something for the mantelpiece.

It sounds like those two fat ladies were looking for a souvenir, much as their mothers and grandmothers probably did before them. And most likely, those early souvenirs were made of glazed porcelain.

In a 2014 article for the Chichester Observer, U.K. journalist Sylvia Endacott reported that souvenir china was first made in the 1880s by Adolphus Goss, a traveler for the English china manufacturer WH Goss. His father, William Henry, was already manufacturing dishes and figurines, and it occurred to Adolphus that by “branding” a piece of china with a particular town’s crest, it might appeal to travelers.

Endacott writes, “The idea of these small pieces of china soon increased so that various shapes were developed, e.g. eggcups, shoes, animals, etc. Originally towns would have a shape that was specific to them. For Bognor (a seaside resort town on the south coast of England) this was to be the lobster pot; however this ‘one town, one shape’ limited the number of sales. The traders began to request a variety of shapes, with their own crests.”

However, I also found mention of a circa 1825 platter of Lake George, New York (made in England) in this article by Paul Post of The Saratogan, suggesting that souvenir china was being sold in the United States some sixty years before WH Goss.

In 19th century Ocean Grove, New Jersey, vacationers could attach their memories to a variety of souvenirs, from porcelain pieces like the miniature pitcher shown here, to mementos made from seashells, like the change purse on a neck chain shown above.

In Victorian Ocean Grove, most visitors bought their souvenirs from concession stands on the north end of the boardwalk, in what was then Ross Pavilion. In 1871, Joseph Ross was granted the right to sell concessions (including souvenirs) from the Ocean Grove boardwalk.

One of my favorite types of early OG souvenir is the ruby flash glassware. What makes these pieces extra-special? Personalization. And in my opinion, having a name attached to a souvenir takes its nostalgic value to a whole new level. It gives us a starting place for imagining who owned it.

In their book Ocean Grove in Vintage Postcards, authors Wayne T. Bell and Christopher M. Flynn include a 19th century photo of Ross Pavilion, showing in the foreground one of the kiosks selling “Leather Novelties and Glassware” — and if you look closely, you’ll see that its sign advertises that engraving of the items was free. The authors say of the souvenir “flash glassware” that it was “usually a bright green or red color, was then engraved with the words ‘Ocean Grove’, the purchaser’s name, and the year it was engraved. Today, collectors pay extremely high prices for these cups, creamers, toothpick holders, pitchers and numerous other items marked ‘Ocean Grove’…”

Not that long ago, I spotted an auction on eBay for a ruby flash glass cup from Ocean Grove, etched with the name “Harry”. The seller claimed it had been made for Harry Houdini. Supposedly, Houdini’s mother bought it for him during a visit to Ocean Grove.

While I’ve been unable to track down any documentation proving that Houdini’s mother, Cecelia Weisz, ever vacationed in Ocean Grove, it’s not unlikely. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Ocean Grove was a popular destination for New Yorkers like Mrs. Weisz. In fact, for many years during the summer, one could find Ocean Grove mentioned in the New York Times almost daily.

Speaking of Harry Houdini, I initially thought perhaps his mother had learned of the delights of Ocean Grove through Harry’s former stage assistant, Dorothy Young. Young spent time in Ocean Grove during her childhood and returned in the 1990s, staying until her death in 2011 at the age of 103. However, Young served as Houdini’s assistant in the 1920s, and the “Harry” souvenir cup was etched in 1893. Houdini was born in 1874, so his visiting mother would have been buying the ruby glass cup for her adult son — which is not a far-fetched scenario, since it’s known that Mrs. Weisz doted on her daredevil son her entire life.

Not all antique souvenirs from Ocean Grove are locked up in the museum showcase at the Historical Society. They occasionally pop up at the Giant Spring and Giant Fall Flea Markets held annually on Ocean Pathway in Ocean Grove, and on eBay.

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