What was it about the 1940s and 1950s that caused everyone to embrace the Tiki Culture? What is it about this kitchy Island lifestyle that everyone loves? Is it the Palm Fronds? Is it the colorful Aloha Shirts? Maybe it’s the food?
Most likely it’s the Rum Drinks…. combined with a sense of fun and adventure.
It all came together at a time when America was coming out of the Depression, and then was embroiled in World War 2 (and the Battles in the South Pacific). Island bars and restaurants were a great place to forget the cares of the day.
After the War, the love of all things Tiki exploded into the culture. Men were returning from the South Seas with stories of warm water, sandy beaches, and a carefree Island lifestyle. Hollywood took notice…
Stars headed to Tiki Rooms…. followed closely by photographers who documented their visits in Life Magazine. Tiki Bars like Don the Beachcomber, Trader Vic’s and the Tonga Room became “it” destinations. Music played and the Rum Drinks flowed. Movies were made full of women in Flowered Sarongs, and a singing Elvis…. suddenly, everyone was crazy for Tiki.
Pour yourself a Mai Tai… toss some Beach Music onto the old Hi Fi…. and learn more about where Tiki came from…. and what it all means.
A Tiki is a large Polynesian carving, out of Stone or Wood, of a human figure. Tiki is also the Maori word for the First Man.
But how did Tiki get adopted in the US?
Tiki statues were often used to mark sacred sites. They have a strongly native feel to them… human, but masked. ****
As men traveled the South Seas, they picked up souvenirs and brought them home. Among their souvenirs? Tiki Gods…. large and small.
Along with the Tiki figures, many decorations and symbols of South Seas culture were brought home….. tropical fabrics, Aloha Shirts, coconut carvings, nut/seed necklaces…. and a taste for Rum Drinks…
Tiki Bars across the US took the idea and ran with it… they filled their establishments with all the trappings of the South Seas -dried puffer fish, bamboo, palm fronds, pineapples, fish nets and Easter Island Statues (little ones). There was not rhyme or cultural reason. Anything that SEEMED Polynesian was fair game.
Thus, a new culture was created….
***(As an aside, Tiki was thought to be the penis of the god Thane, and Tiki is thought to be a great procreator. I imagine the thought of a humanoid penis god impregnating native girls was a huge draw).
It’s 1945, and the War is Over. American soldiers came home with stories of the beaches and tropical warmth of the South Seas. (It was best to tell stories about Island life and hospitality than share tales of horror from the battlefront). They brought photos and souvenirs, and a taste for exotic foods.
Soldiers and sailors came home with money and a sense of adventure… and a desire to travel. They wanted to go back to the beauty that they saw. Travel to Hawaii became easier, with flights on the Pan Am Clipper flying from San Francisco to the islands in a mere 16 hours. After years of depression and war, Americans were ready to have some fun.
In 1948, James Michener released his book, Tales of the South Pacific, about his adventures during the War… in 1949, Rogers and Hammerstein took the story and ran with it. They gave us South Pacific, and we all learned to “wash that man right out of our hair”.
Thor Heyerdahl and the Kon Tiki Expedition became the original Reality Show…. as he sailed to Polynesia on a Balsa Raft. People loved the adventure of it all!
In 1937, Victor Bergeron transformed Hinky Dinks, his beer bar on the corner of 65th and San Pablo in Oakland overnight… He called it Trader Vic’s, after himself and his wheeling dealing ways. Vic loved Rum Drinks… he and his wife had even traveled the Carribean on a shoe-string to learn to mix them. These Rum Drinks, along with the decorative items they brought home from their travels, became the center of Trader Vic’s Empire.Vic would put on a show every night… entertaining while mixing… making everyone feel at home. He was a true showman, and he used his personality to bring in crowds.
When the bar was still Hinky Dinks, Vic started serving “free lunch” at 5pm… usually Olives or another snack… to go along with the beer. The “free lunch” evolved to Happy Hour, and the food became a bit more elaborate. He looked to his favorite Cantonese food, served in nearby China Town. Ironically, the menu he served was made up primarily of foods that weren’t on the Ration list, so was able to keep serving his clients the flavorful crab rangoon, egg rolls, fried chicken livers that meshed so well with drinks like Tonga Punch and Hot Buttered Rum.
During World War 2, the proximity to the Alameda Naval Base helped his business thrive. Trader Vic’s became the unofficial Officers club across the estuary… and Vic took care of the servicemen. He made sure they ate steak in his place. But he wanted to do more. He began filling cardboard boxes with a few bottles of rum. Jeeps from the Naval Base made midnight runs to Trader Vic’s to collect the boxes…. which were then smuggled onto transport ships. Trader Vic’s Officer’s Clubs began to pop up all over the South Seas.
When the War ended… and the men came home… they remembered, and they came to drink at Vic’s. Herb Caen, the San Francisco columnist, spread the word… and suddenly, people were heading OUT of San Francisco for food and drink.
Over time, Trader Vic’s outgrew its Oakland location, and it moved to Emeryville… right on the water. Other Trader Vic’s restaurants were built all over the US (and one in London)… most are gone now, but the legend of Trader Vic and his drinks lives on.
The 1940s and 1950s was a busy time for Hollywood…. movies were being churned out weekly. Following the trend of the times, lots of these movies took place in the South Pacific. Musicals, War Movies, Horror Films and Comedies… all with some combination of Palm Trees, lush Islands, sandy Beaches, Hula Girls, Girls in Sarongs, Natives, and beautiful girls in bathing suits. (Seeing a trend?)
Here is a long-ish, and yet incomplete list of films made between 1940 and 1959… (I’ve included Elvis in Blue Hawaii, even though it was 1962… Elvis is the Exception to most rules). Next time you feel the need to have a Tiki Movie Marathon… make yourself a pitcher of Tonga Punch, grab some snacky things and watch a bunch of Tiki Films (for bonus points, set up a theater OUTSIDE).
The raft, named the Kon Tiki, was based on drawings and legends of Inca rafts. According to legend, the light skinned people around Lake Titicaca were ruled by a sun god named Con-Tiki. During a race war, many of these people were wiped out, but the survivors escaped to the coast built rafts and sailed to safety.) Heyerdahl proposed that the Polynesian Islands were populated from South America using large versions of such rafts. That is… the settlement of the Islands Groups of Samoa, Hawaii, Easter Island were setted west to east. Most anthropologists believed that that the Islands were settled East to West, starting from Asia.
(Take a moment here to imagine the conferences they must have had…. Anthropologists on opposite sides of the room taking sides… total breakdown of civility… people shouting “what about the sweet potato? It’s clearly from the Americas!” “what about the Austronesian language, it’s clearly from Taiwan!”)
Heyerdahl and his band of merry adventurers found the sailing fairly easy, thanks to the prevailing winds and currents. They had food, and enough water (fishies stayed close to the bottom of their raft, making it easier to catch them…
Because there was a Ham Radio on board the ship, Heyerdahl was able to send daily reports of sharks and water. Newspapers around the world published tales of the journey, and the post war public was wrapped up in the adventure of it all.
The book “The Kon-Tiki Expedition- By Raft Across the South Seas”, that Thor Heyerdahl wrote became a world-wide best seller… and the documentary film Kon Tiki made about the voyage won an Academy Award in 1951.
The Post War prosperity, combined with a sense of Adventure, new found leisure time, and a love for the South Seas combined to change the way we live. People no longer wanted to sit on front porches… they wanted to be out.
Houses with Patios and Lanais became the new building trend. Large windows brought the outside in. People built private swimming pools. They designed yards with tropical themes.
Entertaining took on a new look. People moved outside… they threw Luaus and Tiki Themed Parties. Some people built Tiki Bars in their yard, complete with Palm Fronds and Bamboo. It was fun, it was easy… it was a great way to throw a party.
Take a look at the design of the The Post War House (Home of Tomorrow)
- 4950 Wilshire Blvd, Los Angeles, CA – Built: 1946 (Popular Mechanics 07/1946 Page 102)
Developed by Fritz B. Burns Research Division for Housing
Architects: Walter Wurdeman and Welton Becket
Landscape Architects: Eckbo, Royston & Williams
Popular Mechanics – July 1946