In the 19th century, the Hawai'i archipelago was its own kingdom. But after the "Merrie Monarch," King David Kalakaua, passed away, a group of Americans living in Hawai'i—missionaries, U.S. servicemen, sugar planters, and other entrepreneurs—conspired to overthrow his successor, Queen Lili'uokalani, in 1893. Five years later, Hawai'i was annexed as a colony of the United States.
Also in the 1890s, a group of authentic Hawaiian performers toured the United States vaudeville circuit, an act that was billed as the "naughty naughty hula dance." Up until that point, most Americans had been unaware of Hawaiian arts and culture. Afterward, so-called "hula girl" routines were incorporated into burlesque strip-tease shows, while the writers of racist "coon songs" came up with similarly offensive ragtime tunes about native Hawaiians and released them as sheet music.
After Hawai'i became annexed to the United States, American record companies wanted something more authentic to offer their audiences, so companies like Victor, American, Columbia, and Edison sent scouts to Honolulu to record local talent like Toots Paka, Irene West, Albert "Sonny" Cunha, and steel-guitar inventor Joseph Kekuku. They offered these Hawaiian musicians hapa-haole, or "half-white," meaning songs influenced by Western music, in sets of 78s, starting around 1899.
As steamship technology allowed tourists to safely sail the Pacific Ocean, Hawaii-based merchants and hotel and restaurant owners collaborated with the United States government to form the Hawai'i Promotion Committee in 1903, which put out promotional material including travel brochures and souvenir postcards.
The popularity of the Hawaiian-themed musical, "The Bird of Paradise," which was written by a white man and debuted in Los Angeles in 1911, shined a spotlight on the five Hawaiian musicians in the show—W.K. Kolomoku, B. Waiwaiole, S.M. Kaiawe, A. Kiwaia, and W.B. Aeko—who became known as the Hawaiian Quinette. Laurette Taylor, a white actor who played the Hawaiian love interest, helped define the American idea of the "hula girl" look with layers of beads, a grass skirt, and a flower in her hair. The musical toured North America through 1923 and played in Europe until 1926, making hapa-haole music even more popular with the mainland music-lovers who snapped up sheet music and records. By 1914, Sears, Roebuck & Co. included 'ukuleles, a string instrument that originated in Hawaii, in its mail-order catalog.
The Hawaiian territorial legislature voted to invest $100,000 to build the Hawaiian Pavilion at the 1915 San Francisco Pan-Pacific Exposition, where Jonah Kumalae, the biggest 'ukulele manufacturer in Honolulu, sold five styles of the then-exotic instrument. Written to promote Hawai'i tourism, a song called "On the Beach at Waikiki," with music by Hawaiian musician Henry Kailimai, lyrics by Dr. G.H. Stover, and arrangement by Sonny Cunha, emerged as a hit of the fair. Kailimai played the song while touring hula girls danced for the audiences passing through.
To renew interest in the world's fair around its midway point, the Hawaiian Pavilion threw a big party production called "Night in Hawaii" on June 11, 1915, a Hawaiian holiday ce...
The musical and the Hawaiian Pavilion showcase prompted a craze all things related to Hawaii, Polynesia, and the South Seas in the United States. Tropical themes infected burlesques, the theater, and the cinema for more than two decades. Songwriters in New York City's Tin Pan Alley sheet-music industry started putting out their own hapa-haole songs even though they knew nothing about Hawaiian music or the Hawaiian language.
Tin Pan Alley songs like 1916's "Yaaka Hula Hickey Dula" or 1916's "Oh, How She Could Yacki Hacki Wicki Wacki Woo (That's Love in Honolulu)" took the cadence and short syllables of the Hawaiian language and mashed them up into catchy gibberish. Other songs like "My Honolulu Bride," "I Lost My Heart in Honolulu," "Dreamy Hawaii," and "My Honolulu Lulu" focused on the white male fantasy of falling for an exotic, submissive, and sexually liberated Hawaiian native. These songs were popular at high school and college parties—so much so that boys and young men kept 'ukuleles in their cars, up through the 1930s.
The Royal Hawaiian Hotel, owned by Matson Navigation Company, opened in Waikiki Beach in the mid-1920s, as Matson began bringing more and more wealthy tourists from San Francisco and Los Angeles to Honolulu via luxurious passenger ships like its flagship SS Lurine. On Boat Day, when the ship landed at Waikiki, the locals would throw a big fanfare for the tourists, as female hula dancers greeted them by playing leis around their necks.
Today, vintage advertising and ephemera from the Matson Line—including ships like SS Matsonia, Monterey, Mariposa, Maui, Diamond Head, and Manlolo—are popular collectibles. The cheapest being magazine ads that anyone could save. Vintage brochures, timetables, and cardboard signs promised glamorous experiences but to acquire tickets, luggage labels, souvenir passenger lists, room and deck plans, menus, souvenir playing cards, matchbooks, or postcards, you had to have been on a ship. Some people even saved soaps and plastic swizzle sticks, while others are accumulating the flatware and serving silver once used on the ship, stamped with the Matson "M" surrounded by stars.
At the same time in the United States, stories about Hawaii were featured on the radio and at the cinema, including 1927's "Hula" starring Clara Bow, a 1932 adaptation of "Bird of Paradise" featuring Dolores Del Rio, 1934's "Down to Their Last Yacht," and 1937's "Waikiki Wedding," which made "Sweet Leilani" a hit song for Bing Crosby. The image of the fantasy woman known as "the hula girl" was starting to look whiter and whiter, particularly in pinup and calendar art by the likes of Gene Pressler. Hula girls also appeared on greeting cards, matchbook covers, and on neckties and souvenir aloha shirts. Hula dolls made of bisque or redware first appeared in the 1920s.
Back in Honolulu, hotels started hosting nighttime tourist feasts they called "luaus" with live music and hula dancing that had more in common with the Tin Pan Alley tunes and dances promoted by Hollywood than ancient Hawaiian music or ritual hula dancing. Native Hawaiian dancers often learn sacred hula dances at home in secret while they were paid to perform the Hollywood version of hula for white tourists. Female tourists would buy hula-girl costumes consisting of grass skirts and coconut bras—garments that were never native to Hawai'i. Male tourists, meanwhile, snapped up so-called aloha shirts in colorful floral or kitschy patterns that were too loud for typically modest Hawaiians.
The first air travel routes to Hawaii started in 1935, prompting the hospitality entrepreneurs on the islands to invest even more in advertisements, promotional brochures, and souvenir postcards. After the introduction of color film in the mid-'30s, Fritz Herman, who managed Kodak's Hawai'i branch, launched the Kodak Hula Show in Honolulu in 1937, so that tourists with cameras could snap vibrant photos of Hawaiian dancers in the daylight. That same decade, the first tiki bars, Don the Beachcomber in Los Angeles and Trader Vic's in the San Francisco Bay Area, opened and further developed the collective American fantasy of a bohemian Polynesian paradise.
On December 7, 1941, Japanese forces bombed the American military base in Pearl Harbor, Hawai'i, drawing the United States into World War II. For almost four years, newly drafted young servicemen streamed through the island of Oahu, eager to experience the mythical hula girl firsthand. Pinups, stationery, playing cards, and lighters featuring topless island girls were popular gifts for young sailors. Men on shore leave got Sailor Jerry hula-girl tattoos on Hotel Street or paid to pose with a "hula girl" in Honolulu arcade photo booths. Other servicemen brought home hula lamps, velvet paintings of topless Polynesian women, decorative pillow shams featuring hula girls, and fine hula dolls made by deLee Art Company in Los Angeles, by Hawaiian artist Julene Mechler, and in the Hakata-doll tradition in the Fukuoka Prefecture of Japan.
After the war ended, men serving in the Pacific Theater brought their fondness for Hawaiian kitsch culture home with them, and tiki bars and restaurants continued to thrive and proliferate across the United States. The "South Pacific" musical, based on James Michener's fictional retelling of his time serving in WWII, kept the public interested in hapa-haole music and Polynesian fantasies.
In the 1950s, more and more Americans began hosting backyard luaus and tiki parties. The women wore shell necklaces and short, loose-fitting Hawaiian dresses known as mu'umu'u in bright floral prints. Men wore aloha shirts in similar patterns. Cheap hula costumes were made of cellophane grass skirts and plastic leis. White tourists to Hawai'i snapped up plastic hula-girl nodders, or dashboard dolls, that were churned out by factories in Japan. At the end of the decade, Hawai'i became the 50th state in the Union, which fed the tiki-bar craze and helped spark '60s surfing culture, which produced sunny Beach Boys tunes and Hawaii-themed Elvis movies.
Amid the civil-rights movements of the '60s, Native Hawaiians set out to reclaim their culture, starting with the Merrie Monarch hula festival that launched in 1964. The new Hawaiian Renaissance gained steam in the '70s: Hula instructors began teaching students traditional and historic forms of the dance that entailed more authentic dress. Hawaiians embraced their native language and studied traditional navigational practices and the ancient martial art known as lua. Authentic Hawaiian crafts like featherwork were also revived at this time. For the last 50 years, the products of this renaissance have co-existed with kitschy souvenir ephemera like hula-girl bottle openers, racy hula-girl postcards, and aloha shirts.