In part six of our series on Harry’s favorite Hawaiian postcard collecting interests, we shall take a look at some real photo surfing-related postcards. We shall start with a cross-section of early surfing cards, illustrated by a mixture of classics and favorites – Harry’s, mine and consensus. Then we will focus on Harry’s three main surfing postcard interests – those featuring Duke Kahanamoku, those taken by R.J. Baker and those either featuring or taken by Tom Blake. This is the grand finale of the surfing section, so sit back and enjoy!
Classics & Favorites
The Hawaiian Historical Society has a large photograph of outrigger canoes and young surfers standing with their boards on Waikiki Beach, to the west side of ‘Apuakehau Stream. The photo is captioned “Surf Canoes and Surf Bathers at Waikiki Beach”. If you look closely, you can see this shot was taken in front of the Outrigger Canoe Club’s thatched-roof Dance Hall (rear left) and the Moana Hotel (rear center).
As the Outrigger Club building was completed in 1909, and judging from the style of the boards – it is likely this photo was taken around 1910-12 (see Figure 1). This is one of every collector’s favorite Hawaiian surfing-related images. We tend to have a thing about early images featuring surfers with their boards – and this image is quite extraordinary!
As luck would have it, someone at the time cropped the photograph and turned it into a classic surfing postcard (see Figure 2).
These next three cards are among my personal favorites, as they were likely one-offs by an amateur photographer and, as such, include an inherent charm (see Figures 3 and 4). I find the photograph shown on the postcard in Figure 4 to be the definition of “being in the right place at the right time”. The card is dated 1913 at the top and that was well before Tom Blake’s waterproof camera housing. Therefore, this shot must was likely taken from an outrigger canoe and the photographer happened to catch the smiling surfer perfectly! Harry loved this card.
It seems that none of us can resist an early photograph or postcard that features a pretty girl standing in front of a surfboard planted in the sand (surfer’s fetish?). This next postcard has an undivided back. However, the stamp stamp box is AZO with two triangles facing up and two down – indicating the card was produced between 1918 and 1930. She kind of looks like a 1920s flapper (see Figure 5).
This next card was produced by Andries Nielen of Cincinnati, Ohio. Nielen was a famous amateur photographer who, along with his wife, traveled the world during the 1920s taking photographs and turning them into postcards. He often typed some words of wisdom on the reverse. Nielen had a publishing company for many years in downtown Cincinnati at 221-223 W. 4th Street known as the A. Nielen Co. The front of his postcards usually included a two-part number; the first part was the negative number and the second part was the year the photograph was taken in.
Nielen postcards are widely collected today. He must have spent a fair amount of time in Hawaii because I have about 30 different Hawaiian images in my collection and my friend Dolores has twice as many. The postcard I have chosen to share today is a special one and it is highly sought after, “Marked for Life, Honolulu, T.H.” (see Figure 6).
On the back, Nielen has typed “Love is the magician, the enchanter, that changes worthless things to joy, and makes right royal kings and queens of common clay. (R.G. Ingersoll).”
All collectors of Hawaiian postcards dream of running across a special Duke card. I consider myself to be very fortunate, for I have been able to assemble more than my share – and now the time has come to share these with you. The first card shows a very young (and seemingly very confident) Duke posing on Waikiki Beach. This very special card was removed from Duke’s own scrapbook (see Figure 7).
Next we have the prototypical Duke real photo postcard. The larger horizontal photograph was likely taken by either R.J. Baker or a photographer working for the J.J. Williams Studio (see part four), then cropped to produce the card shown in Figure 8. It was taken on Waikiki Beach, to the east of ‘Apuakehau Stream.
There is some disagreement in the literature as to when this photograph was actually taken. In researching this blog I found several reliable sources that said it was in 1912 – while others said it was in 1915 or 1916. This Duke postcard must have sold very well as it was reprinted many times (later printings have a white border). Therefore, it is not very difficult for collectors to obtain today. This card was a favorite of Harry’s.
The following postcard is very rare. The only other example I am aware of is in the archives of the King Kamehameha Schools / Bishop Estate. I acquired this card from Dan DePalma Jr. and have always inferred from the caption, “King of the Carnival 1917” that Duke Kahanamoku was King of the Mid Pacific Carnival in 1917 (see Figure 9). It is probably my second favorite Duke postcard.
In 1995, Sara Kimberley and Greg Ambrose published a wonderful book titled Memories of Duke, The Legend Comes to Life. They picture the Kamehameha Schools / Bishop Estate example on page 124, along with adjoining text which reads “Duke dressed as an Ali’i for the 1917 Washington Day Festival. He rode a surfboard on a simulated wave on a float in the parade”.
I have at least two and possibly three nice Duke cards that all date from 1920. I purchased the first card many years ago from a knowledgable dealer who told me it showed a rare (for postcards) shot of Duke actually surfing. Although I paid dearly to acquire the card, I was never quite sure if it really was Duke. You know what they say about something that seems too good to be true…
It came in a large group of Hawaiian photographs, postcards and ephemera dating from 1920-21, which included two other verifiable photos of Duke. “Duke Kahanamoku, champion swimmer of the world. Native Hawaiian” was written on the reverse of this real photo postcard in fountain pen shortly after it was printed. The problem that I and others have with this otherwise spectacular image is that his face does not really look like Duke.
While doing research for this blog, I found the same photo attributed to Duke Kahanamoku surfing by six different sources, including Getty Images and the NY Daily News archive, so I included it here. I believe a German photographer may have taken the shot, which helps to explain why it has been difficult for me to find incontrovertible documentation in this country. If anyone has any factual evidence as to the identity of the surfer in this image, please contact me (see Figures 10 and 11).
The next card was easier for me to document. On page 33 of Hawaiian Yesterdays – Historical Photographs by Ray Jerome Baker, there is an image of Duke and another man on Waikiki Beach (see Figure 12). The caption reads “Norman Ross, former world’s long distance freestyle swimming champion, and Duke Kahanamoku, in front of the Hustace residence in Waikiki, 1920”.
I have several examples of a postcard (all slightly different, including one signed by Duke on the reverse), that feature a shot of Duke standing in the exact same spot – obviously from the same shoot (see Figure 13).
The next card is cool for many reasons. If you recall the video from part five, Duke won a gold medal in the 100 meter freestyle at the Antwerp Olympic Games in 1920. He set a new Olympic record to win that event on August 24th. Charlotte Boyle, another member of the U.S. Olympic team, took a photograph of Duke shortly after he set the record and had it developed into a postcard. Then, on August 28th, she had Duke sign it for her – on the same day he set another Olympic record as part of the men’s 800 freestyle team (see figure 14).
On the way home from Antwerp, his plane stopped over in Detroit. With his Hawaiian teammates, they visited a local theater that was showing a newsreel chronicling his Olympic triumphs. A young fan approached him in the lobby and introduced himself as Tom Blake – and the future of surfing was forever altered.
And now for a truly remarkable (and my personal favorite) Duke real photo postcard. In 1922, when Johnny Weissmuller was 17 years old, he visited Hawaii for the first time. On page 22, Memories of Duke includes a photo of Duke and Johnny standing at the pier (from the Hawaii State Archives).
The caption reads “Johnny Weissmuller and Duke at the pier on Weissmuller’s arrival in Honolulu in 1922. It is possibly the first meeting of the 17-year-old Weissmuller and the 31-year old Duke. They did not compete, since Duke went to Hollywood for movie auditions” (see Figure 15).
I have a card that shows a photograph taken just prior to the one shown in the book – when Johnny Weissmuller actually met Duke for the first time (it was May 17). Johnny had the photograph turned into a postcard, waited for a few days and then – on his 18th Birthday (June 2nd) – he mailed it to his younger brother, Peter, back home in Chicago (see Figures 16 and 17).
Johnny and Duke would meet two years later in a widely anticipated matchup at the Paris Olympic Games in 1924. It was in Paris that Weissmuller set a new Olympic record to barely edge Duke in the 100 meter freestyle – becoming the first man to beat Duke Kahanamoku in that Olympic event in 12 years and giving rise to Duke’s famous quote, “It took Tarzan to finally beat me.“
Interestingly, Johnny and his brother Peter would soon match another of Duke’s greatest feats. Johnny and Peter were training on Lake Michigan for an upcoming rowing race on July 28, 1927 when a double decker excursion boat got caught in a sudden storm.
Strong winds blew the passengers off the top deck and into the rough water; then the lower decks took on so much water the lower decks were submerged. Johnny and Peter rowed over to the boat and made repeated dives into the lake, attempting to rescue as many people as they could. The disaster claimed 27 lives that day – but Johnny and Peter managed to save 11 women and children.
R. J. Baker Surfing Postcards
For an introduction to the photographer Ray Jerome Baker (and to see some of his hula girl images) see part three. In addition to the Duke Kahanamoku postcards shown above, Baker was responsible for capturing many remarkable surfing images. In Surfing, Historic Images from the Bishop Museum Archives, DeSoto Brown shows one of Baker’s surfing postcards on page 39 and explains that the accompanying poem by Lord Byron was first used by A.R. Gurrey in Surf Riders of Hawaii, published around 1910.
I have in my collection a different Baker postcard where he used the same verse as the one shown in DeSoto Brown’s book. Baker titled this card “The Surfrider of Hawaii” (see Figure 18).
Perhaps the second most popular surfing postcard, following the Duke card shown in Figure 8, features George “Dad” Center (see Figure 19). Like the Duke card, this sold exceptionally well and was reprinted many times (later printings have a white border).
Center excelled at all water-related activities and is another Hawaiian surfing legend. He joined the Outrigger Canoe Club shortly after it was founded in June of 1908, and quickly became its captain. He coached swimming for the U.S. at two Olympics and is credited with originating beach volleyball in 1915. For an excellent article on the life of Dad Center, click here.
Baker produced a number of excellent surfing postcards and I have chosen to share some that are not so often seen. Baker’s close-up action shots are among those most highly prized by collectors. To really appreciate his work, keep in mind these were taken well before Tom Blake developed the water-proof camera housing and were likely taken from an outrigger canoe (see Figures 20 – 23).
The sales potential for postcards featuring pretty girls standing in front of surfboards was not lost on Ray Baker. One of his earliest efforts was done in his studio in 1914 and the girl was Maxie Mitchell. She was part of a touring vaudeville troupe performing in Honolulu (see Figure 24). As with the Duke and Dad Center images, this postcard sold very well and remains popular with collectors today.
The next card features Canadian beauty Rose Heather at Gray’s Beach (see Figure 25).
The last card features a Miss Train standing in front of the Outrigger Canoe Club (see Figure 25).
Tom Blake Surfing Postcards
Harry was a huge fan of Tom Blake and was very passionate about Blake’s postcards. I found his enthusiasm for Blake’s real photo postcards – featuring photographs taken in the water with an innovative waterproof camera housing – to be quite infectious and so I made a concerted effort to acquire as many different images as possible. Harry and I spent a great deal of time sharing and discussing these exciting cards and now I am going to do the same with you.
The first card I want to share was Harry’s favorite surfing postcard and one of his favorite cards in his entire collection – I am talking his eyes eyes lit up when holding the card in his hands. We had many opportunities to examine and discuss this image as Harry owned at least three different examples over the years and (as the caption was printed in a slightly different location on each card) I eventually acquired each of them.
I must confess that while Harry believed the young man on this card was Tom Blake (see figure 26), I have never been able to confirm this, myself. If anyone out there knows who the surfer actually is, please call or email me (my contact information is located at the upper right of the Home Page).
The male surfer in these next two cards definitely is Tom Blake, surfing tandem with Odetta Bray on Duke Kahanamoku’s board at Waikiki (see Figures 27 and 28). Bray was an actress, best known for her appearance in the 1942 film Lure of the Islands.
Before we get started looking at Tom Blake’s postcards, I want to say that, in almost all cases, Blake took these photographs in the early 1930s, then made them into postcards a few years later. To be more specific, many of the photos were taken in 1931 or 1932 – while the postcards were used from 1935 through 1941. In some cases, Blake published the photographic cards himself. In other cases, he sold the right to reproduce the image to other postcard publishers.
An example of the latter would be the card shown in Figure 3 of part five. The card shown in part five does not include the Kodak number (H-170) and distinctive logo. However, the version most familiar to collectors does.
The next card shows Sarge Kahanamoku (one of Duke’s younger brothers) surfing tandem at Waikiki in 1931 (see Figure 29).
The next card features a classic Hawaiian surfing image and the photograph was used to promote Hawaii to the mainland by the Hawaiian Tourist Board. The surfer’s name is Harry Fields and Tom Blake took this photograph in 1931 (see Figure 30). Note the card is not captioned nor is Blake identified as the photographer. However, the image is included in Tom Blake, The Uncommon Journey of a Pioneer Waterman (2001).
As we have just seen, Blake’s surfing postcards were often not identified as such on the card itself. In some cases it may take a little research to confirm that Blake was the actual photographer. Sometimes it is possible to find the same image on two different cards. While Blake may not be identified on one of the cards, he may be on the other (see Figures 31 and 32).
Another pair of matched images can be seen in Figures 33 and 34.
In addition, we occasionally find Tom Blake’s surfing postcards that have been beautifully hand colored (see Figures 35 and 36). I have been told that, in many cases, the person responsible for this was Floyd Fitzpatrick (see part one).
The next card features one of Tom Blake’s most famous images, titled “Various Stages of the Spring” (see Figure 36). The photograph appeared in the May, 1935 issue of National Geographic Magazine (page 598). Blake wrote the accompanying caption:
“HERE COMES A TOWERING SIX-FOOTER, AND FOUR OF THE BOYS HAVE CAUGHT IT. A moment of suspense, a whirl of the mounts, and they are off for a joyous ride. The surfmen rise to their feet the instant the boards have slid down the advancing slope, clear of the foaming break which is about to curl over them. A blunder now means a ducking in the blinding spray. Two paddlers in the left background are waiting for the next wave.”
Ray Jerome Baker and Tom Blake captured the essence of surfing Waikiki in the decades leading up to WWII. Some of history’s greatest surfers were present to demonstrate their supreme art – on a canvas largely free from the the crowding that would ensue following the war.
These images were subsequently turned into real photo postcards and they remain today, to be discovered and treasured by new generations of surfers, collectors and historians – vintage snapshots that take us back to Waikiki in a simpler time.
To know the postcards were actually there, sitting on the counter at the Moana or Royal Hawaiian Hotels – while Duke, Dad, Tom and the others surfed just a short distance away – allows for a powerful connection with the era as you hold them in your hands.
For those who seek it – even for those who are just occasionally open to it – this can be an extraordinary experience. If he was still here, my friend Harry could tell you all about it.
And Now, A Guilty Pleasure
The last Hawaiian real photo surfing postcard I wish to share with you today has nothing to do with legendary human surfers like Duke Kahanamoku or Tom Blake. It shows Rookne, the surfing dog (see Figure 37). Why, you ask?
In part because I want to provide a glimpse of the lighthearted and fun aspects of our hobby – but mainly because Harry liked surfing dogs and I do too. I obtained this card in a trade from my friend Dolores Rowe. Thank you Dolores, I still love it!
I hope you have enjoyed learning about Hawaiian surfing postcards – a collecting passion I shared with my good friend Harry Foglietta. To see a gallery with more surfing postcards, click here.