Skip to main content

Remembering the Alamo

April 2021
4min read

We marked the 150th anniversary of the Texas Revolution with two articles in our February issue. Since then we have learned that San Antonio’s Witte Museum plans to celebrate the occasion with an exhibit running through mid-August that includes a king’s ransom of kitsch generated by the Alamo. The agglomeration of silver spoons and chocolate bars, ashtrays and coonskin caps is colorful, sometimes bizarre—and surprisingly revealing about how Americans have regarded the preeminent Texas shrine. Here, the exhibition’s curator tells us about it.
     --The Editors

 

The Alamo fell in 1836, and until 1849 the ruins remained much as Santa Anna’s soldiers had left them. Then, after the Mexican War, the United States Army renovated parts of the mission—and in so doing gave its chapel the familiar arched facade, which few people realize was not there at the time of the battle. The army garrisoned the Alamo for the next quarter century, but the mission began to be remembered in earnest after the Civil War. Interest may have been rekindled by the defeat of the South: afterward many disillusioned Southerners and Texans sought solace in past glories.

But the Alamo also provided a neutral point around which both victorious Yankee and vanquished Southerner could rally. For example, a post-Civil War company of Texas militiamen formed in San Antonio in 1874 took the name Alamo Rifles and included—less than a decade after the Civil War ended—veterans of both sides of that conflict, as well as men who had not fousht at all.

The Texas Veterans Association, formed in mid-1873, lobbied for pensions and lands for its members and voiced an interest in preserving Texas history and relics of the revolution. When the celebration of the 1876 Centennial stirred patriotic fervor in the nation, it also inspired Texans to take a new interest in their state history. Then too, the first railroad arrived in 1877, encouraging a tourist economy.

When the U.S. Army decided to move to Fort Sam Houston in the mid-1870s, the San Antonio Daily Express suggested that the state of Texas purchase the Alamo. Several other newspapers in the state took up the idea, but at that time no precedent existed in the United States for public support of historic structures.

The project seemed doomed until 1877 when Honore Grenet, a French-born San Antonio merchant, purchased the long barracks and leased the chapel of the Alamo. After extensively renovating the barracks, Grenet opened his general store in 1879, running newspaper advertisements that urged locals to “Remember the Alamo—Shop at Grenet’s.”

This finally stirred the Texas legislature to action: when Honore Grenet died only two years later, his estate sold the business to the firm of Hugo & Schmeltzer, but not before the state rescued the Alamo’s chapel from its fate as a warehouse by purchasing it. The city of San Antonio halfheartedly operated it as a museum until 1905, when a legislative act provided funds to purchase the rest of the complex. The same act also placed the long barracks as well as the Alamo chapel in the “custody and care of the Daughters of the Republic of Texas, to be maintained by them in good order and repair, without charge to the State, as a sacred Memorial to the heroes who immolated themselves upon that hallowed ground.…”

For eighty years the Daughters have continued to operate the Alamo “without charge to the State” largely through the profits realized from the sales of souvenirs. The earliest mementos of the Alamo battle were actual relics of the fight. During the decade from 1836 until the U.S. Army moved in, visitors walked off with bits of stone, cannonballs, and pieces of broken weapons. In 1841, when the first historian of the Alamo, Reuben Marmaduke Potter, arrived in San Antonio, he found two men engaged in making pipes, vases, seals, and other small items from Alamo stone.

Fifty years later people were still chipping away at the Alamo, and the practice probably continues even today in a small way. Shortly after the turn of the century, however, the San Antonio Daily Express reported that the selling of cheap souvenirs at the Alamo had done much to alleviate vandalism.

German ceramic factories were probably the first to mass-produce Alamo mementos, beginning about 1890. By that time Germany’s well-established ceramics industry had supplied souvenirs for other historic sites, including the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition in 1876.

By the 1890s sterling silver spoons had become popular souvenirs all over the country: silver remained cheap; the spoons did not occupy much space in one’s luggage; and they weren’t breakable. Many surviving examples from the 189Os depict the facade of the Alamo in their bowls. Manufactured by several New England companies, most of these spoons have handles crowded with other Texas symbols, including cattle, cotton, bluebonnets, and the Texas Seal with the Lone Star. After about 1920 souvenir spoons greatly diminished in favor of other items.

Several souvenirs made of a soft, leadladen pewter dating from the turn of the century and early 1900s bear marks indicating Japanese manufacture—which is suggested by the Oriental motifs on many of them: a small pin tray, for instance, has a dragon curled around the image of the Alamo.

The extraordinary variety of souvenirs implies that, by the end of the nineteenth century, the Alamo had become a tourist spot as popular as Niagara Falls, Mount Vernon, or Independence Hall.

When the outbreak of World War I in Europe cut off the import of souvenir porcelain from Germany, domestically produced souvenirs came to dominate the market, among them items of nickelplated pot metal and chalkware.

During this period, too, the Alamo Iron Works in San Antonio began turning out cast brass and iron advertising pieces which usually bore the famous facade and the company’s name. In the late 1930s and 1940s these also were produced in aluminum.

The state’s Centennial in 1936 naturally encouraged a great spate of Alamo souvenirs: a century after the battle took place, the mission probably had become the most clearly recognizable symbol of Texas. By the 1950s the age of plastic had made itself manifest in Alamo memorabilia, including the hundreds of Davy Crockett items that followed the 1955 release of Walt Disney’s movie about the “king of the wild frontier.”

Sifting through the one hundred and fifty years of Alamo relics, one becomes aware that the Alamo’s identification as a “holy place” has greatly diminished during this century. In large part this cheapening of the image is due to the proliferation of tasteless souvenirs sold at the very portals of the Alamo for the worthy cause of keeping the site open to visitors.

With the 1986 Texas Sesquicentennial, the greatest of the state’s symbols will no doubt be recycled in new and curious ways. After the Alamo chocolate bar —which made an early appearance in San Antonio over a year ago—what next? —William E. Green

We hope you enjoyed this essay.

Please support this 70-year tradition of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it with a donation to American Heritage.

Donate