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Honolulu in 1888: The City That Made the Magazine

King David Kalakaua founded this magazine under a royal charter as Paradise of the Pacific, publishing our first issue in January 1888. On these pages, we take you back in time to see what life in Honolulu was like then.


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King David Kalakaua and Queen Esther Kapiolani with their retainers, on the lawn of Iolani Palace.
photos: Hawaii State Archives and Bishop Museum

 

It’s another beautiful day in Honolulu. You peruse The Advertiser over your morning cup of coffee. On your way to work, you pass Iolani Palace and the imposing statue of Kamehameha I. Heading up to your office on Merchant and Bethel, you take the stairs. It’s not just the healthy thing to do; it’s the only thing to do.

 

There are no passenger elevators in Honolulu—which is fine, because there aren’t any buildings taller than three stories, either. The year is 1888. Your coffee isn’t from Starbucks, but from one of the “coffee saloons” that have recently sprung up around town. The Advertiser is The Pacific Commercial Advertiser, ancestor to today’s Honolulu Star-Advertiser. The Kamehameha statue has been standing for less than five years. Iolani Palace is occupied by a king, David Kalakaua, who sure knows how to host a ball, but has lately had some trouble with his advisers.

 

In Honolulu, the tall palms that line the streets tower over everything but the church spires. The city is cut through by streams that flood nearby buildings regularly in the winter and spread out in small, muddy deltas near the sea. Waikiki is a watery landscape of marsh, duck ponds and rice paddies, and Moiliili is still strewn with the “vast moana” (ocean) of volcanic pebbles for which the region is named. The flat, treeless region between downtown Honolulu and Kapunahou (home to Oahu College, later Punahou School), known as the Plain, has proven to be a bit of a dud, real-estate wise. Though lots have been for sale for decades, few residences and businesses have gone up. It might be because of the dust storms that rage frequently through the area.

 

Welcome to the capital of the Kingdom of Hawaii, in the year our magazine was born as Paradise of the Pacific. As we approach our 125th anniversary, we ask: What was life like for our first readers, writers and publishers? What was the Honolulu they knew?

 

The city of Honolulu as it appeared from the top of Punchbowl in 1883. Iolani Palace and Aliiolani Hale appear at top center.

Bonus Material

Photo Gallery

Check out these high resolution images, many of which are exclusive to our web site.
READ

A Trip to the Pali

Charles Stoddard’s account of his trip to the Pali, excerpted here, appeared in our August 1888 issue.
READ

Salaries and Wages—1888 Style

Salaries and wages from life in Hawaii in 1888, also modernized to 2012 values.
READ

What’s Hot and What’s Not in 1888 Honolulu

Find out the major trends, including the arrival of steam engines.
READ

 

Life in the Kingdom

Hawaii as the 50th state—a small part of a big country—would be a very different place than Hawaii as a kingdom: a tiny, imperiled new nation squeezed among great powers that are fond of empire-building. Hawaii under King Kalakaua tactfully celebrates the holidays of three nations: Hawaii, Great Britain and the United States.

 

The Kingdom of Hawaii has its own silver currency, with the king on the face of the dollar. The Legislature conducts its business in both Hawaiian and English. Church services are routinely conducted in multiple languages.

 

Ships are the sole source of transoceanic news and goods, and Honolulu Harbor is a true crossroads of the Pacific, handling nautical traffic to and from San Francisco, Lima, Panama, Kamchatka, Peking, Shanghai, Papua New Guinea, Fiji, Victoria and Portland. The warships of several nations patrolling their Pacific sphere of influence—among them Russia, the Netherlands, France, Great Britain and the United States—pass through the harbor on a regular basis.

 

As a result, Honolulu is one of the world’s most international ports. One journalist who paid a casual visit to the swinging Commercial Saloon in the early 1880s counted 15 different nationalities, including “Hawaiians, Chinese, South Sea Islanders, North American Indians, Southern Negroes, Lascars, Japanese, Americans, Spaniards and Swedes.”

 

Hawaii in 1888 fills foreign visitors (and all visitors are foreign) with pleasant surprise. They expect a “primitive” nation, but Honolulu has all the trappings of Western civilization: stone-built civic buildings united by a single Western architectural style; a three-branched system of government (executive, legislative, judiciary); a Department of Health; a Department of Public Works; an excellent postal service; a literacy rate that is the envy of most European nations; an active press; and a police force. Invitations to boating parties, dinners, balls, ice cream socials, picnics, luaus, musical evenings, garden parties and riding afternoons fly fast and furious—in fact, the city strikes many newcomers as one long, colorful party.

 

But Hawaii’s capital city is also filled with the tensions and paradoxes of a place that had seen cataclysmic changes and would see more before the century was out. A third of the city has burned just 18 months before, in the first (but not the last) great Chinatown fire. The Native Hawaiian population is declining, and no one can agree why; mass immigration from Japan is just beginning. The previous year, 1887, saw what is being described abroad as a “revolution”—the signing of the Bayonet Constitution that stripped Kalakaua of the rights of an absolute monarch. The small Hawaiian military is purely ceremonial, and everyone knows it. Business is quiet; new building is scarce. People are holding their breaths, waiting for what will happen next, and watching uneasily as the warships of other nations sail in and out of Honolulu Harbor. Kalakaua extends graciousness and hospitality to them all.

 

Within a decade, of course, it would all be gone: Kalakaua dead, his sister and successor overthrown, the nation a territory of the United States. But, for now, the electric lights are on at Iolani Palace, the king is at home, and the first issue of Paradise of the Pacific is hot off the press.

 

Honolulu: A Tour

Paradise of the Pacific was first published to give a “source of reliable information” about Hawaii to a new kind of reader: the visitor and potential foreign investor, to whom Honolulu is less a trouble-wracked capital than a bower of loveliness and staggering natural beauty, filled with dance and song. This, too, is real, and it’s the foundation of an industry that will eventually eclipse all others: tourism.

 

We've changed since then (for instance, the magazine’s first issue also stated that “politics and personalities” would be “carefully avoided”). Honolulu has changed, too. Here’s a tour of Honolulu and its environs, as it was experienced by our very first readers in 1888.

 

First things first: The entire city lies between Nuuanu Stream, Beretania Street, Punchbowl Street and the ocean. Waikiki, Manoa Valley and Pearl River Harbor, all popular day trips, are varying degrees of “far away,” determined less by actual distance than by road condition. Another thing: Honolulu lives and dies by its harbor.
 


J. J. Williams, first business manager of Paradise of the Pacific.

Sounds of Honolulu

Clip-clop

Horses and mules power all land transport in the kingdom, and there is a lot of it. One visitor calls Hawaii “this country where nobody walks.” Another says that “in no other part of the world is there so large a supply of carriages in relation to the size of the population.”
 

Boom

A cannon salute from Punchbowl or the Esplanade, audible for miles around, is the PA system of the city, marking major holidays, sounding the approach of the all-important mail boat and laying prominent figures to rest.
 

Strum

Kalakaua and other alii have fallen in love with the recently invented ukulele and its slightly larger cousin, the taro-patch fiddle. You can hear the lively strains everywhere from the lanai of Waikiki to Chinatown, where the city’s first three ukulele makers are doing a brisk trade on Nuuanu Avenue.
 

Ding-dong

Church bells are just about the only thing you can hear on Sunday, when the shops are shut and the center of town is deserted. The bell tower of the new Kaumakapili Church, boasts nine heavy bells—"5,161 pounds of bell music," reports the Bulletin.

 

 

In the 1880s, the Honolulu Harbor waterfront still featured cannons.

 

Honolulu Harbor

The arrival of a ship at Honolulu Harbor is news. As it approaches from the east, the lookout stationed at Telegraph Hill (otherwise known as Puu O Kaimuki), signals semaphore to another station in town: A ship is coming. If it carries hotly anticipated news or a special passenger, church and factory bells ring all over the city, and the cannon booms on the Esplanade. Even ordinary ship arrivals are a bit like Christmas morning. A cargo ship might contain the latest silk dresses from Paris, a fresh supply of violet toilet powder or barrels of lager from the Anheuser-Busch Brewing Association. The navy officers aboard a foreign man-o-war will bring news from all quarters and a whiff of excitement; there will be parties on deck, and reciprocal entertainments at the palace.

 

The harbor itself is a constant hive of activity of loading and unloading, buying and selling, greeting and farewell. The “wharf rats”— boys who haunt the Esplanade, a newly dredged, aspirationally named piece of land where Aloha Tower will one day stand—dive deep for the nickels that crews and passengers toss into the sea. Sellers of tropical fruit, colorful fish and coral (with specimens weighing up to 20 pounds) spread their wares for the new arrivals.

 

The water is just as busy as the land. In our October 1888 issue, Paradise of the Pacific describes a chaotic scene. Near the shore, two “large American war vessels” are moored next to a British corvette (a speedy military boat). Two “coasting schooners” leave the harbor as the interisland steamer arrives, its decks crowded, and “constantly passing and repassing” among them are “countless boats and canoes filled with natives.”

 

Much of the future location of Nimitz Highway is still a shallow reef. Close to the harbor—a must if you are relying on horsepower to move your cargo—are the warehouses and heavy industry: the planing mills, the ironworks, the building agents, the animal feed dealers and many of the green-grocers’ and meat markets.

 

In a time when boats are the sole source of transoceanic information and goods, and Honolulu’s residents know each ship by name, the arrival of the mail-delivery steamers Zealandia and Alameda are major events. Twice a month, when the cannon announces the mail ship’s approach, an eager crowd gathers at the post office on the corner of Merchant and Bethel streets, waiting for foreign newspapers and magazines—the only source of news from abroad—and word from distant loved ones and business partners. Mail day “marks an epoch in our lives,” wrote one newcomer; the city becomes “deserted, silent; letters and newspapers absorb the attention; for a few hours we live beyond the sea.”

 

Depending on how far it had to go, news could take weeks to arrive. In 1888, the hotly anticipated result of that year’s American presidential election, which took place on Nov. 6, didn’t reach Hawaii until Nov. 25.

 

A view of Merchant Street looking east. The Kamehameha V Post Office on the corner is today the Kumu Kahua Theatre.​

 

The City

Fort Street and Merchant Street are the retail and business axes of Honolulu. On Merchant, real estate agents, lawyers, plantation factors, bankers, insurance agents and the press all hang their shingles. On Fort Street, you’ll find milliners and jewelers, stationers and dressmakers, haberdashers, department stores, pharmacists and photographers, along with a bowling alley, a shooting gallery and an auction house. Hotel Street is still home to the gracious cottages and buildings of the first Royal Hawaiian Hotel, flanked by tourist-friendly ice cream parlors and carriage stands. It’s one of the only hotels on the island.

 

Church spires cluster on the mauka edge of town along Beretania Street and, to the east, Iolani Palace, Kawaiahao Church and The Queen’s Hospital all sit apart on their own shaded grounds, as does Aliiolani Hale, which houses the kingdom’s entire legislative and judicial branches. Beyond Honolulu lies the dusty Plain, across which a mule-drawn omnibus ferries students to distant Oahu College (which will soon become Punahou School) at 8 a.m., bringing them back at 2:30 in the afternoon.

 

At the Ewa edge of Honolulu lies Chinatown, with its densely packed stores, laundries, restaurants, ukulele-makers, apothecaries and fresco-painters. If you didn’t hail from the European subcontinent, it’s the place to be; Portuguese from the Azores and Madeira, Native Hawaiians and Chinese all work here. It’s hard to tell that the entire district burned to the ground just 18 months before; despite the new building codes that require brick or stone construction, Chinatown has once again been built largely with vulnerable wood.

 

Honolulu at a Glance 1887-1888

How big is it?

The City of Honolulu lies between Nuuanu Stream and Punchbowl Street to the west and east, and Beretania Street and the oceanfront to the north and south. Everything else—Palama, Kapunahou (the district that Punahou School would later inhabit), Waikiki—is considered outside the city.

 

How old is it?

Honolulu started out as the sleepy fishing village of Kou. In 1845, Kamehameha III moved his capital from Waikiki to Honolulu to be nearer the harbor, the only place on Oahu where Western ships could safely anchor.

 

How many people are there?

According to the 1884 census (the most recent one available), Honolulu has a population of 20,487.

 

Who’s in charge?

There’s no mayor yet. The governor of Oahu is directly responsible for Honolulu. That would be John Owen Dominis, husband of Princess Liliuokalani—at least until Aug. 23, 1887, when the gubernatorial posts of all Islands are abolished in an effort by Kalakaua’s Bayonet cabinet to centralize power in Honolulu.

 

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