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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With phonograph technology in its infancy, music was very much a live affair, whether it was the Royal Hawaiian Band, or families playing on their lanai.
What Do You Do for Fun in This Town?
Even in 1888, Honolulu is a party town. “I don't think any other town exists in which people are so voraciously hungry for pleasure,” wrote French diplomat M.G. Bosseront d’Anglade: “The season for entertainments and distractions lasts throughout the entire year: dinners, evening parties, concerts, balls, play performances, tableaux vivants, picnics, horseback rides, carriage excursions, boating parties both by day and by night.”
If tableaux vivants (think dress-up charades, without the movement) are not your thing, you can get yourself to the corner of Queen and Richards and partake in a pau-hana roller-skating race at the Yosemite Skating Rink, open every evening, with live waltzes and marches twice a week. Or stop in for ice cream, made with local bananas, mangoes, guavas and strawberries, at the Pioneer Steam Candy Factory and Ice Cream Parlor on Hotel Street.
There’s always the Opera House on King Street across from Iolani Palace, which seats 800 and does not limit itself to opera. In between productions staged with community talent, it hosts all manner of touring entertainers, including acrobats, minstrel troupes, magicians and athletic clubs. You might see “Professor Canaris, the Great Grecian Illusionist and Wizard of the North,” or Washington Irving Bishop, noted psychic and manifestor of spirits.
If you need a stiff drink after the manifestation, you have your choice of a dozen or more saloons, each with its own special features. At the Anchor Saloon, patrons belly up to a koa-wood bar, with fancy frescoes on the ceiling. The Commercial Saloon charges admission for boxing matches between sailors. The Criterion Saloon advertises itself as the “Headquarters for tourists, merchants, mechanics & sailors.” One catch: saloons close at 11 p.m. and, if you are a Native Hawaiian, your last drink arrives by law at 9:30. On the other hand, they open again at 3 a.m.
After 11 p.m., you can still head to Chinatown, current headquarters of the legal red-light district, or slip into an opium den for a spot of fan-tan gambling and a puff or two (though you might get some funny looks if your skin is white). Chinatown is not so much a den of vice as a place where it all hangs out. You can sing and play your ukulele as loud as you want, as late as you want, and no one, despite the city’s strict regulations on night noise, will tell you to stop.
On the corner of Nuuanu and Merchant stands the Royal Saloon, reputedly a favorite haunt of King Kalakaua. It will be rebuilt at the same site in 1890, eventually becoming Murphy’s Bar and Grill.
A group of young Honolulu debutantes at the Nuuanu home of John Strayer McGrew, many of them sporting modified bustles.
Blame It on the Moonlight
Honolulu’s social calendar after sundown waxes and wanes with the phase of the moon. Electric streetlights are switched on in April 1888, but they illuminate only the center of town; when there’s a new moon, pitch-black conditions and uneven roads mean it’s unsafe to go too far. By contrast, the calendar days surrounding the full moon are packed with all manner of moonlit activities: boating parties, “bathing” (beach swimming) parties, and horseback rides and drives.
The city’s most important full-moon events are the free concerts given by the Royal Hawaiian Band at Emma Square and Thomas Square. One enchanted spectator writes of wandering the many paths between the palms and tree ferns of Thomas Square, watching other listeners “reclining on the grass, or sitting on benches which line the walks … breaking into hand-clapping when some favorite air is rendered.”
“In the nights of full moon,” wrote a newcomer, “one does not sleep in the Islands.”
Socialites took their invitation cards seriously.
An Invitation to the Ball
American visitors are particularly taken with the frequent balls hosted by the king, often given on just a few days’ notice to welcome foreign diplomats or ships’ crews. One guest, Helen Mather, describes her 9 p.m. arrival to a ball held in honor of the arrival of the Charleston:
“Throngs of carriages were wending their way through the palace grounds, and after some minutes’ delay we ascended the broad steps leading to the front entrance. We were shown by native servants, in the king’s livery, to our dressing-rooms; and then all assembled in the grand rotunda to await the opening of the throne room. About 800 guests had arrived, when the doors were thrown open, and all marched two by two into a large apartment, hung with crimson and gold. The floor was polished and the hall brilliantly lit with electricity.”
Inside the throne room are their majesties King Kalakaua and Queen Kapiolani, who greet each guest in the receiving line. Mather continues: “It was a rare sight, and as we filed past, and made our best dancing school bows before their majesties, we felt that we had not altogether lived in vain.” Then the Royal Hawaiian Band strikes up a waltz and, soon, the room is “a kaleidoscope of whirling forms.”
At a typical Iolani Palace ball, after a candlelit dinner and wine, guests are free to promenade on the palace’s grounds, lit by torches and lanterns, or explore the living quarters (Kalakaua and Kapiolani actually sleep in a separate building, “the Bungalow”).
Things break up around 2 a.m., when the carriage calls again to take you home.
Author’s Note: Lavonne Leong, an award-winning writer and editor, lives with her husband and daughters in Manoa Valley, on the site of an old taro loi. Thanks to Ross Stephenson (Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources); Zita Cup Choy and Heather Diamond (Iolani Palace); John Rosa, Laura Ruby and Craig Howes (University of Hawaii).