Duty Free

SCOTT CORBETT is on the staff of the Moses Brown School in Providence,Rhode Island, He is Ihe author of many books and articles.

Now that the old $500 allowance per person on purchases abroad has been suspended in favor of a Draconian $100, Americans planning trips might do worse than consult the U.S. Customs list of duty-free items. It is packed with unusual possibilities for tourist souvenirs.

Fertilizer, for example, comes in free. So do lobsters, although the thought of bringing these through customs on a hot day in late August, even with the help of duty-free ice, will probably deter all but the hardiest travelers. Hydrochloric or sulfuric acid would perhaps be a safer choice, or any of the following which are “natural and are in a crude state, not advanced in condition or value by chipping, crushing, grinding, [or] shredding”-aloes, asafetida, buchu leaves, licorice root, or manna.

Wild animals for breeding purposes. except for black, platinum, or silver foxes, and wild animals intended for exhibition in nonprofit zoos make, the list, along with albumen. archil, cochineal, cudbear, gambier, and litmus — always providing, of course, that such items as these, “and extracts thereof,” contain no alcohol. Almost the only duty-free item containing alcohol is wine lees, which might make an unusual tourist souvenir but might also prove trying for all concerned when opened for customs inspection. For that tiny percentage of tourists who may not know, cudbear is merely a rather sophisticated form of archil. It was named for Dr. Cuthbert Gordon, a Scot who first brought it into notice, who must have had an unbearably coy nickname.

Hypochondriac tourists will be happy to learn that they may bring home a collection of antitoxins, bacterins, scrums, vaccines, and viruses without paying a penny on them. Broken bells and bell metal, fit only to be remanufactured, are admitted, but not whole ones, a cruel disappointment for those thousands of tourists who will return from India and the mysterious East with their strings of elephant bells. These travelers may, however, console themselves by bringing in absolutely duty free as many Indian water buffalo hides as they wish. Ivory tusks in their natural state may also be tucked into odd corners of one’s luggage.

Bananas and plantains, bark from which quinine can be extracted, Bibles, binding twine, bread made of yeast, fish sounds, and certain kinds of dried blood are admissible. Engravings. etchings, lithographic prints, maps, music, and photographs printed over twenty years prior to entry are all right, and books, provided they have not been rebound in leather within that period. In that case, the bindings are dutiable.

Brass old and new, and bristles if crude, not bunched, prepared, or sorted, may be brought home to an honored place on the mantelpiece; so may cuttlefish bone, rough or uncut diamonds, gold or silver bullion. and goldbeaters’ molds and skins. Many a tourist will surely be tempted to bring back a goldbeater’s skin, if only to find out what one is. Dragon’s blood sounds like a surefire tourist souvenir and is grouped with China grass, jute, chicle, dammar, kadaya, candarac, tragacanth, and other natural gums and resins.

Since most tourists buy with an eye to Christmas giving, a few suggestions may be culled from the duty-free list. Plows, harrow, reapers, cotton gins, and typewriters may be brought home by those looking for suitable gifts for rural cousins (the typewriter would, of course, be for the rural cousin working on a novel of the soil). For the earnest young nephew who has become fascinated with marine life, there are leeches. Nets for use in otter trawl fishing are perhaps rather special, but there are muskets for Grandpa, and needles, vellum, belladonna, mother of pearl, crude marrow, and common palm-leaf fans “not decorated or ornamented in any manner, and plain" for Grandma. For that brother-in-law whose old jokes are so often in questionable taste, crude chestnuts might provide a timely hint. Fancy or racing pigeons are nice for the family pigeon-fancier, and for those seeking the less obvious there are radium, sheep-dip, joss sticks, and silk cocoons. Bladders, integuments, intestines, and other such materials suitable for casings might be just the things for that hard-to-buy-for great-aunt who still makes her own sausage.

Skeletons come in free, as do spices and spunk, which sounds like something any nation should be glad to let in free. Statuary for educational purposes, and regalia and gems to be presented without charge to any religious, philosophical, educational, scientific, or literary society may be lugged home and presented to the assembled body after the showing of colorslides of the trip.

Not all of the list will appeal to every tourist, of course. Some of it is downright unattractive. Despite the efforts of a determined minority of tapioca-haters to keep the stuff out of the country entirely, tapioca comes in free. So does cod-liver oil. And speaking of oils, it is obvious that the powerful ylang-ylang lobby has not been spending its time idly in our nation’s capital, because cananga or ylang-ylang oil is also admitted free. But even though the list’s appeal is variable, no one can say it lacks in variety. Tagua nuts, tamarinds, cassava, most tea plants, natural unmanufactured teeth, truffles and turtles, vegetable tallow and “wafers, not edible” (possibly a reference to certain Oriental delicacies), wax and whalebone are all included, as are “Gobelin and other handwoven tapestries fit only for use as wall hangings, and valued at not less than $20 per square foot.” Tourists doing Africa will be happy with “ethnological objects made in traditional aboriginal styles and made at least 50 years prior to their date of entry,” provided they can find any of those striking little Nigerian objects that were not made the previous week. Tourists heading for Scotland will rejoice in the news that curling stones come in free.

Wormgut and zaffer round off the list, zaffer being that same zaffer used in the manufacture of smalt. Afterthoughts on the part of the official list-maker include furfural, guar seed, and horsemeat.

It is plain, then, that the list offers plenty of opportunities to the tourist with a little flair and imagination. When one sees him coming home laden with his nonshredded buchu leaves and unbunched bristles, his nonalcoholic cudbear and broken bell metal, his dried blood and crude chestnuts and severely plain palm fans, his bottle of distilled ylangylang oil in its vellum wrapper, trimmed with uncut mother of pearl, with a fancy pigeon perched on his shoulder and an ethnographic object made in traditional aboriginal style under his arm, then one sees a man who can laugh at customs duties.