In part two of our series, we begin to explore some of Harry’s favorite topics within his vast collection of Hawaiiana. Today, we shall examine early printed postcards featuring images of hula dancers, commonly known as hula girls. Before proceeding, I have been advised to make you aware that this post includes many images of Polynesian women with one or both breasts partially or clearly visible.
This is simply an ethnographic reality when applied to Hawaiian hula dancers from the territorial era (1898 – 1959) from which these collectible postcards originate. Particularly the time period extending up to and including WWII.
It is important to understand that in traditional Polynesian society, partial or complete nudity had nothing to do with sexuality. This is the way the people lived for hundreds of years.
Having said that, there can be no denying that observing “scantily clad” hula dancers in action, in the minds of the Europeans who made first contact and, later, the U.S. mainland population when exposed via newsreels and pre-code Hollywood films, may have invoked a wide range of emotions. Let us be honest here, one segment of this range includes exoticism to fantasy.
Today, I would like to believe the still images captured on these vintage postcards elicit emotions that are, for the most part, related to wondering about and, perhaps, even longing for a romanticized, simpler time that is, admittedly, unusual in U.S. history. For most collectors, that is the point – and what makes this area so captivating.
The ancient hula is a Hawaiian dance form accompanied by an oli (chant) and music created using traditional instruments. At this point, we cannot be certain about where or why the hula originated – somewhere in the Hawaiian archipelago. There are many stories and myths which serve both to expand our knowledge – and to confuse us. However, one common thread is that the dance was gifted to the Polynesian people by their gods.
Dancers and chanters were carefully selected and trained to accurately reproduce and pass on knowledge related to their gods, origins of the universe and genealogies of gods and chiefs from generation to generation. Hula also provided entertainment for the chiefs and lower classes.
The first accounts pertaining to the hula were made by members of Captain James Cook’s crew in 1778. We know that the hula was performed by both female and male dancers, based on drawings made by the expedition artist, John Webber.
It is widely believed that, upon their arrival in 1820, the Protestant missionaries banned the hula. This is not exactly true. The missionaries possessed no actual law-enacting power. However, they did succeed in converting the queen regent, Ka’ahumanu, to Christianity and she, subsequently, banned public displays of the hula in an effort to appease the missionaries and conservative Hawaiians who then viewed the hula as licentious or immoral.
I have read numerous accounts that suggest there was, perhaps, yet another motive on the part of the missionaries for wanting see the hula abolished. Keep in mind, their ultimate goal was the conversion of Hawaiian natives to Christianity. It seems pretty clear that, in addition to objecting to the sensual nature of the dance, they also viewed the hula as idolatry and a form of worship. Therefore, if hula was allowed to continue, it threatened to slow down their rate of conversion.
In any event, the new law was largely ignored, especially after Ka’ahumanu died (1832). The hula continued to be widely performed, albeit in more of an “underground fashion”. Interestingly, in 1836, a French consul reported that while visiting Honolulu and attending a state function hosted by King Kamahameha III, there was a hula performance included in the festivities.
During the period between 1820 and 1880, Hawaiian hula dancers dressed in a conservative manner (see Figure 1).
King David Kalakaua, often referred to as the Merry Monarch, is given credit for reviving public displays of the hula when he ascended the throne in 1874. Kalakaua’s nickname is said to have been inspired primarily by his love of music, but also parties and fine food and drinks (see Figure 2).
Kalakaua was an enthusiastic supporter of the arts and advocated Hawaiian mythology which he felt was perpetuated by chant and hula. He famously exclaimed, “Hula is the language of the heart, therefore the heartbeat of the Hawaiian people.” His official coronation in 1883 included a program of extended hula performances that lasted all day and into the night.
Included were both ancient and modern interpretations of the hula and the public coronation served to erase some of the stigma that was lingering. Modern interpretations were usually accompanied by a mele (song) and contemporary (or western) musical instruments such as guitars and ukuleles. The ukulele originated in Hawaii during the 1880s and was based on the Portuguese machete, a stringed instrument which had recently been introduced by Portuguese immigrants.
It is important to understand that with the passage of time, the hula evolved to include many different forms. Some modern forms of hula were based less on religion and, in some contexts, choreographed more along the lines of entertainment. This became more so with the rise of tourism, the commodification of hula and – some would argue – the dancer’s bodies, themselves.
Predictably, this was a controversial decision on the part of the king; one that was criticized by many haole (white) and conservative native Hawaiians. However, the majority of native Hawaiians were overjoyed at the restoration of their ancient dances, chants and songs (see Figure 3).
Kalakaua reinforced his intent to restore the hula to mainstream Hawaiian society by including many more hula performances during his very public two-week Silver Jubilee in 1886. This was essentially an ostentatious (and very expensive) 50th birthday party – but he was, after all, the Merry Monarch!
Also in 1886, Kalakaua used the kingdom’s treasury to fund an elite group of court hula dancers called the Hui Lei Mamo. They did not perform at the King’s Jubilee. The group consisted of eight young women and they performed a mixture of ancient and modern dances at the King’s retreat on the Honolulu Harbor, known as Healani or, simply, the Boathouse. Here, away from public scrutiny, the dancers performed for Kalakaua’s friends and foreign visitors.
While the dancers who performed in public (the coronation and Jubilee) were attired conservatively, members of the court troupe frequently bared their breasts – or even more. Usually, the court dancers wore a grass skirt with flowers around the waist and a lei (garland of leaves and flowers) around their neck.
Although it would become emblematic of Hawaii during the 20th century, the grass skirt did not originate in Hawaii. It was “appropriated” from the Gilbert Islands during the reign of Kalakaua.
It is the court version of the Hawaiian hula girl which would frequently be exploited by local photographers over the next 50 years, often with the lei carefully positioned to allow one or both breasts to be visible. It is also the romanticized version that captured the attention of the mainland and helped to make the islands seem welcoming and desirable (see Figure 4).
Many scholars have argued this mainland perception aided the case soon to be made by the children of the missionaries and other (predominately) white businessmen who favored annexation. Clearly, obtaining Pearl Harbor – perhaps the most strategic port in the upper Pacific – was the biggest consideration.
The court hula dancers were selected by Kalakaua himself, and received very extensive training in all forms of hula. The king did not just support the troupe financially; he was actively involved – as a choreographer, composer and musician.
After Kalakaua’s death in 1891, members of the court hula troupe were recruited by a visiting haole tourist from San Fransisco, Harry W. Foster, to tour the mainland and later Europe. The troupe left the islands for San Fransisco in 1892 and arrived in Chicago to perform at the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893.
The troupe performed many times every day for six months, exposing hula (and hula girls) to the world on a grand scale; more than 27 million people attended the fair. The troupe wore a variety of attire over the six months. It should come as no surprise that when dressed in grass skirts and leis, they were most popular with fair attendees, photographers and reporters.
Kalakaua’s sister, Lili’uokalani, became the first queen of Hawaii, succeeding Kalakaua in 1891. Sadly, she would be the last monarch to rule Hawaii. Her government was overthrown by a group of American-backed businessmen, many of whom were in the sugar business, on January 17, 1893.
Hawaiian history between 1893 and 1898 is both convoluted and fascinating. Very briefly: A thirteen member Committee of Safety set up a Provisional Government in Hawaii in 1893, designating Sanford Dole as the president. The Republic of Hawaii was then established in 1894. In 1895, the Kingdom of Hawaii formally ceased to exist and in 1898 the islands were annexed to the U.S. Hawaii was administered as a territory from 1900 until 1959, when it became the 50th state.
The Early Post Card Era
The carte de visites (2.5 inches x 4 inches) were ubiquitous from the mid 1850s to the early 1870s, at which time they were usurped in popularity by the larger cabinet cards (4.5 inches x 6.5 inches).
Both types of cards were produced in large quantities around the world and people had great fun exchanging them with family and friends. It would have been difficult to have walked into a parlor during the Victorian era and not encountered many albums of these cards, ready to share.
In both cases, it was necessary to mail the cards in an outer envelope. This proved to be inconvenient and rather costly over time. A much better option was in its earliest stages of development during this same time – the picture postcard.
While a thorough discussion of this development is outside the scope of this blog, I have decided to include a brief chronology in this section for the benefit of our frame of reference. It should be noted that before the earliest postcards, various kinds of cards were occasionally sent through the mail with stamps directly affixed to pay the postage.
On February 27, 1861, Congress passed an act that allowed privately printed cards (under one ounce) to be sent in the mail. Subsequently, John P. Charlton (or Carlton) copyrighted the first privately-issued postal cards in the U.S. His copyright was transferred to Hymen L. Lipman and he began selling the cards under the name Lipman’s Postal Cards.
On June 8, 1872, Congress passed legislation that allowed for the U.S. government to produce postal cards. The cards went on sale on May 12, 1873. At this point, the law stated that the government cards were the only cards allowed to be imprinted “Postal Card”. It was specified that one side (at that time, referred to as the back) was for the sender’s message and the other side for the recipient’s address and printed “stamp”.
While the vast majority of these cards were sent with only a written message on the back, on occasion, an image can be found printed on the message side. These are seen as the earliest forerunners of today’s picture postcards and are known as “pioneers” (see Figures 5 and 6).
As stated in Abby Csaplar Santa Postcard Gallery, there was a great deal of interest on the part of private companies to print and sell postal cards. This was effectively limited by strict government regulations that allowed for government postals to be mailed at half the cost (one cent vs two).
Some of the earliest cards with images printed on them were produced in San Fransisco for sale by Hawaiian businesses. Each of these “sets” included images of hula dancers. The first set was sold, I believe, primarily between 1897 and 1901.
All of the cards have the picture side printed in green ink, including the message “Aloha Nui”, which translates into “Warm Greetings”.
Don Medcalf, of Hawaiian Islands Stamp & Coin, told me he believes these cards were sold by John Harris Soper, an interesting figure in Hawaiian history who was previously the Commander-in-Chief of military forces for the Provisional Government of Hawaii in 1893. According to Don, Soper operated a stationary store in Hawaii at the end of the 19th century and that is the origin of the cards shown in figures 7 and 8.
On May 19, 1898, Congress passed an act that allowed private companies to produce cards imprinted “Private Mailing Card, Authorized by Act of Congress of May 19, 1898” (many card producers rubber stamped this on cards that had already been printed). Now, private cards could be mailed for the same amount as government cards, one cent.
Messages were still not allowed on the address side of the card. If there was an image printed on the opposite side of the card (commonly referred to as the front), any message was required to be written in a space below or to the side of the image (see Figure 8).
Two more sets of cards were printed and sold soon after the one shown above (also by Soper?). Some of the cards have the images printed in green ink, some in black. In all cases, the caption for the image is printed in red ink. I have two examples of the card shown in Figure 9. The card shown has a back inscribed “POSTAL CARD” and the second card additionally bears the “PRIVATE MAILING CARD…” rubber stamp.
Another pioneer set by an unknown publisher was printed in at least four different colors; black, blue-green, pink and yellow. I have only seen hula girl images in black, However, they may have also been printed in the other three colors too (I have seen relatively few cards in the other colors).
The black cards have backs inscribed “Hawaiian Postal Card” (see Figures 10 and 11), while the other colors have backs inscribed “THE BOYS IN BLUE” Hawaiian / SOUVENIR CARD”. This suggests to me that cards other than black were printed during the Spanish-American War in 1898.
Another early set was printed in two colors, black and blue-green, suggesting it was produced for the same Hawaiian business that sold the cards shown in Figures 10 and 11. About half of the images have a tiny “Albertype Co., NY” inscription included near the outer edge. It is likey Albertype also printed the cards in this set that are lacking the inscription.
The Albertype Company started as a book printer in New York. By 1893, they had become a leading printer of pioneer postcards. They utilized a special collotype coating which, when applied to photographic glass plates, allowed for mass-producing early views of towns and cities across the United States.
All of the cards have “Greetings from Hawaii” printed on the image side and backs inscribed “Private Mailing Card”. For some images, in either color, I have an additional example with “POSTAL CARD–CARTE POSTALE printed above in dark black ink. These cards would have targeted the international market (see Figure 12).
In December of 1901, the U.S. Postmaster General issued Order Number 1447, which allowed private companies to print the words “Post Card” on the back instead of “Private Mailing Card”. Messages were still not allowed on the same side as the address (or back) of the card. This lasted until 1907 and is known as the “Undivided Back Period” (see Figure 13).
In 1907, Congress passed an act – in compliance with a Universal Post Union decree – that allowed privately produced post cards to have messages written on the left back side. To facilitate this change, more than 90 percent of all cards were printed with a line down the middle of the back side and this begins the “Divided Back Period”.
Technically, this period ended in 1915 when convention dictated a white border around the front of the card and a short imprint describing the image to be placed at the top left of the back (above the message space). However, for our purposes – after 1907, the Post Cards that were printed and issued in the U.S. were the same as the postcards we know today.
By this point in time, several additional businesses were having beautiful postcards printed for sale to the increasing number of military personnel stationed in the Hawaiian Islands and also for the burgeoning tourist trade – the success of both these “programs”, I might add – owed much to the growing popularity of the romanticized hula girl on the mainland.
Nearly a century before the internet, the Hawaiian hula girl was soon to go viral…
The Hawaii & South Seas Curio Company
The production and distribution of picture postcards exploded at the beginning of the 20th century. Exchanging and saving postcards in specially made albums became a world-wide craze that would eventually spawn a major new hobby – Deltiology.
From the standpoint of the businesses that sold these cards, their sales increased to the point where it allowed them to have cards printed by the finest lithographers in San Fransisco and Germany. Many of these cards were then carefully hand-colored. The resulting miniature works of art have been avidly collected ever since. Among the the most exquisite of these images, were those featuring America’s exotic new darling, and Harry’s favorite, the hula girl.
The Hawaii & South Seas Curio Company advertised itself as “The Largest Pacific-Souvenir Store in the World”. The company had offices located at 1033 Bishop Street, in downtown Honolulu, at 2385 Kalakaua Avenue in the heart of Waikiki, and at 821 Market Street in San Fransisco.
In addition, they had branch stores located at the Alexander Young Hotel in downtown Honolulu; at the Moana Hotel in Waikiki and also at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel in Waikiki (the latter affectionately known as “The Pink Palace”).
Among the items sold were: ukuleles, tapas (items made from a kind of barkcloth), Hawaiian handicraft, jewelry, leis, fans, hula costumes, Hawaiian postage stamps and, of course, postcards.
To my knowledge, all of the postcards sold by the Hawaii & South Seas Curio Company were produced in Germany and they took great pride in this fact (see Figures 14-16).
The following card was one of Harry’s favorites (and mine). It saw numerous printings with both undivided and divided backs. This particular version is difficult to find and features a larger image than those that have the “Aloha Nui” logo included.
The Hilo Drug Company
The Hilo Drug Company was located in downtown Hilo at the turn of the 20th Century. The cards sold in their store are some of the most highly sought in the entire postcard hobby. The reason for this is three-fold; first, they sent their cards to Japan to have them hand-colored and the results are often stunning. It has also resulted in extra demand from Japanese collectors.
Second, there were many distinct printings of each card with both undivided and divided backs – and collectors love varieties that make their pursuit more interesting.
The third reason is because they are all scarce to rare – some of them ridiculously so. It was not so easy to get to Hilo in those days; there were no airplanes – you had to make your way by steamship. This did not allow for a lot of traffic inside Hilo Drugstore.
With regard to the actual number of cards printed, I have heard various numbers tossed around over the 35 plus years I have been collecting. These range from a low of 150 to a high of 300 per image, per printing (see Figures 17-19).
The Island Curio Company
Much is known about the Island Curio Company, thanks to the book written by Keith Steiner, Hawaii’s Early Territorial Days / Viewed From Vintage Postcards by Island Curio. Keith tells us his grandfather, James Steiner, was born in Czechoslovakia in 1860. He immigrated to the U.S. in 1881 and came to Hawaii in 1882.
Steiner went to work for Hart & Co., a catering and restaurant business. Subsequently, he became a partner and then, in the 1890s, the sole owner. Steiner acquired property at 170 Hotel Street and oversaw construction of the Elite Building, which was soon to house the Island Curio Company, whose Hawaiian postcards are so pervasive in the hobby of Deltiology today (see Figure 20).
The business initially sold “poi pounders, models of Polynesian sailing canoes, calabashes and tapa cloth” to visiting tourists before adding Hawaiian stamps and postcards. In his book, Keith states, “postcards were added about 1903”. I actually have an Island Curio card mailed from Honolulu in November of 1902.
Keith says his grandfather was one of the first businessmen to actively promote the tourist trade. It seems the use of picture postcards was a big part of his plan. Over the years, I may have seen more postcards produced by the Island Curio Company than all other Hawaiian publishers combined.
There were numerous sets and series, first issued while James was owner (1902-1914) and then, later, after he sold the business to Fred H. McNamarra. Included were many wonderful hula girl images. I have chosen to show three cards – all of which were favorites of my friend, Harry Foglietta (see Figures 21-23).
The following is one of Harry’s all-time favorite Hawaiian postcards:
Karl Lewis, Yokohama
If the Hilo drug cards are scarce to rare, the postcards produced by Karl Lewis are truly exceptional. Lewis was born in Kentucky on September 10, 1865. He made his way to San Fransisco at age 13 and worked on the docks until beginning a career at sea that would span 23 years.
He lived in many countries, including Australia, England, France, Holland and Italy before finally settling down in Yokohama, Japan. On August 14, 1903, Lewis is said to have taken a common-law wife, a 17 year old Japanese girl named Sasako Sadako.
Lewis said they chose Yokohama because he was inspired by the views of Mount Fuji. By this point he had become an artist of note and an accomplished photographer. He famously advertised himself as “The only European photographer in Japan” and operated a photography studio in Yokohama.
Lewis ran a small, commercial printing business out of his studio (menus, brochures and postcards). He specialized in in producing printed postcards from photographs, most of which were beautifully hand-colored. In 1905, at age 40, Lewis published a catalog of picture postcards and offered to take any “photograph, sketch or drawing” and produce “100 elegantly colored postcards for $1.75”, including shipping.
This would prove to be a losing proposition and Lewis soon turned to illustrating philatelic covers and selling stamp supplies, an occupation he continued for at least 20 years.
Edition sizes of 100 explain why the Karl Lewis postcards are so seldom seen today. Fortunately, Lewis is known to have made two printings of some of the more popular images. These are easily differentiated by a red vs blackish-purple imprint at the bottom of the obverse.
As a highly skilled artist, photographer and printer, Karl Lewis was equipped with all of the skills required to produce captivating works of art. Indeed, Hawaiian cards that feature his hand-colored hula girl images possess a soft, dreamlike quality and represent a high point in collectible Hawaiiana (see Figures 24-25).
While the two cards shown above may possess a dreamlike quality – the following card undoubtedly represents a collector’s dream come true. Lewis combined 13 Hawaiian photographs, including four hula girl images into one fantasy postcard nicknamed “The Beast” by the son of its former owner, Dan DePalma. For printed Hawaiian postcards – this is as about as good as it gets (see Figure 26).