These days, when you think of “Vintage Hawaii,” many iconic images come to mind. Some of the most common include Hula Dancers, ukuleles, surfers wearing old fashioned bathing suits, and surf boards piled on cars. Linked back to the 30s-60s, these images are definitely nostalgic now, but let’s talk about what made the American public crazy about Hawaii in the first place.
The expanding popularity and accessibility of movies, and the subsequent stars and celebrities of the times, greatly influenced the public interest in Hawaii. For most, films showed people their first glimpse of the beauty and adventure Hawaii had to offer.
The first movies made in Hawaii were actually silent films made in 1913 by director John Griffith Wray: “Hawaii Love” and “The Shark God.” Only five films total were created in Hawaii from 1910-1920, but that isn’t surprising. First of all, the motion camera wasn’t invented until the 1880s, and secondly, a trip to the extremely remote set of Islands was expensive and time consuming. The 1920’s barely saw any change, with only eight films made. The 1930’s introduced Hawaii’s first partial and completely “Talkie” movies, or movies with sound, but still only produced thirteen films in total. However, by the 1950’s the number of movies filmed in Hawaii almost tripled. Big name stars of the day began appearing as well, including John Wayne, Humphrey Bogart, Frank Sinatra, Jane Russell, Henry Fonda, and Rock Hudson. While a similar number of movies in Hawaii were made in the 60s, the list of famous actresses and actors continued to grow. During this decade, stars such as Elvis Presley, Dick Van Dyke, Julie Andrews, Kirk Douglas, Charlton Heston, Anne Francis, Spencer Tracy, Jack Lemmon, and Clint Walker graced the screens. The more movies and television made their way onto screens, so did the idea of visiting Hawaii.
2.The Attack on Pearl Harbor
The events of Japan’s attack on the US Naval Base in 1941 is of course well known, but its effect on Hawaii spread beyond military implications. Up until the attack, US military leaders thought that Hawaii was practically untouchable, or at least very far down the list of primary targets. Again, Hawaii’s isolation from any mainland was a key factor. People, ships, and planes at Pearl Harbor were thought to be safe and out of sight, so when the Japanese bombed the harbor, damaging every ship and destroying 300 planes, it was a shock indeed. As news traveled to the US mainland, Hawaii (which wasn’t a state yet) suddenly found itself the center of an entire nation’s attention. President Roosevelt referred to the attack as, “a date which will live in infamy,” across every tv screen and radio in America. He went on to declare war on Japan, officially involving the US in World War II. If the people of America were not aware of Hawaii before, now they would never forget it. The attack on Hawaii brought the war close to home for Americans, who were ready to defend themselves and those they had lost in the suddenly not so distant Pacific.
In the early 1900s, even though the trade market thrived in Hawaii, the only type of ships that arrived were cargo vessels. There was plenty of room for pineapples, sugar, and coffee beans, but for the most part the only people who had access to Hawaii were the captains and crew members. One such man, Captain William Matson, saw both the beauty of the islands and the potential for the public to enjoy it. The first ship he customized to have accommodations for traveling passengers was called the Lurline, and launched in 1908. Still primarily a cargo vessel, the Lurline only had fifty-one rooms. Two years later he launched his first official cruise liner. The Wilhelmina was full of luxuries like large lounges, electricity, and baths/showers for passengers to enjoy. Matson’s company continued to grow their fleet and transport passengers in style across the Pacific Ocean into the early 60s. Despite being wildly popular, as well as voted the best cruise liners in the Pacific multiple times, most of the public still couldn’t afford a cruise to Hawaii. In 1927, Matson’s Cruise Liners advertised that tickets started at $270, which is equivalent to $3,864 today. Yeah, wow. On top of that, it still took four to five days minimum to reach Hawaii from San Francisco, which adds up to eight to ten days round trip. Once you add in actually spending time in Hawaii, travelers would often need to take over two weeks off of work. Unsurprisingly, more stars took advantage of the luxury ships than the general public. Elvis Presley, Shirley Temple, Amelia Earhart, and Walt Disney with his family were some of the many famous travelers to board Matson’s ships. That said, Matson’s cruise liners did provide more opportunity for Americans to experience the wonders of Hawaii.
(Learn more about Matson and the History of Hawaiian Cruises in another blog post, here)
4.Commercial Transpacific Flights
Perhaps one of the largest influencers of Hawaii’s popularity in the 60s was the introduction of commercial flights from Los Angeles to Hawaii. Passenger flights to Hawaii began in the 1930s, but cruise liners remained the preferred method of travel for the next several decades. However, by the 60s, major cruise liner companies, such as Matson’s, lost considerable numbers of passengers to flights. The cheaper flying became, so more cruise liner companies closed or returned to primarily transporting cargo. Don’t get me wrong- flying anywhere, let alone Hawaii, was extremely expensive then as compared to today. To give you some perspective, the first passenger to fly to Hawaii spent $3,000 in 1936 for his ticket, which equals $50,000 today! By the 1950s, prices had decreased significantly, but round trip tickets from San Francisco to Chicago in 1955 were still $152 ($1,394 today). However, even those kinds of prices were cheaper than taking a cruise, and passengers could reach their destinations in less than a day. Overall, having the option to fly made it easier for many people to make it to paradise.
A second reason that Hawaii’s popularity particularly grew in the 60s was Hawaii’s acceptance as the 50th state of the US in 1959. With this development, everything fell into place for Hawaii tourism. Commercial flights were available, people like Matson had built up numerous hotels and resorts in the decades before, Hollywood introduced the public to beautiful Hawaiian views, the attack on Pearl Harbor in WWII filled the US with a protective affection for Hawaii, and now Americans could travel thousands of miles to visit a tropical paradise without technically leaving the country. Honeymooners, families, friends, and movie stars alike all finally found Hawaii within reach.