Honolulu in 1888: The City That Made the Magazine


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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.


King David Kalakaua and Queen Esther Kapiolani with their retainers, on the lawn of Iolani Palace.

All 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.
 

 

Nuuanu Stream in its original, natural state. Unfortunately, the stream was the city's toilet; outhouses lined its banks.

Nuuanu Valley

The Directory of Honolulu for 1888 calls Nuuanu Avenue the “aristocratic portion of Honolulu,” home to Wilders, Patys, Judds, Damons and Brewers. With the Royal Mausoleum and Queen Emma’s summer palace in its upper reaches, Honolulu’s only suburb has royal associations, and its cool temperatures and stunning views are within commuting distance of the city if you can afford to keep a horse or two. A few Chinese who have established businesses have moved into Nuuanu; the wealthy businessman Ah Fong’s garden is known to be one of the most beautiful on the avenue.

But Nuuanu Avenue is not entirely quiet. The road terminates at the Pali Lookout, the most famous tourist destination on the island (beyond that, there’s a steep, uneven stone path that can be navigated by horse or on foot, leading to the farms and plantations of the Windward Side). The Pantheon Livery Stables promises ship passengers, who often only have a six-hour layover, a trip to the Pali and back in under three hours, “if necessary.”

A reservoir in Nuuanu already exists, piping water to businesses and residences throughout Honolulu, though water quality is becoming an issue. The water-wheel for the electricity plant, which provides street lighting to the city’s major intersections, runs night and day.
 

Manoa Valley

In 1888, Manoa Valley is a landscape of streams and springs, field and pasture, and very few people. Its fertile bottomlands, intensively cultivated in pre-contact days, are still a checkerboard landscape of taro and rice fields tended by Hawaiians and Chinese. Its gentle outer slopes are rich pasturelands for the Woodlawn and Kaaipu dairies, whose cream and butter are sought after in the city. Thickets of lantana grow wild on either side of the valley’s narrow cart tracks. Deep into the valley, on the slopes of a hill called Akaka Peak, the Chinese cemetery is already more than 50 years old.

But although small clusters of Native Hawaiian houses can still be found, Manoa has been transformed by the same demographic changes that are sweeping Hawaii as a nation. In the first half of the century, Manoa was populous enough for four missionaries to establish a Protestant chapel in the valley (it will one day become the site of Manoa Valley Theatre). A public school followed nearby, and at least one missionary family had a summer cottage there as well. But, by 1886, attendance at the school was a third of what it had been decades before, at its peak. In 1892, Thrum’s Annual explained the chapel’s “sparse” attendance: “The former residents of the valley have passed away.”
 


Waikiki in the 1880s was a marshy place. Here, a lagoon sits in the area that would become the Royal Hawaiian Hotel.

Waikiki

Water and land mingle freely at Waikiki, with its fish ponds, marsh and rice fields, punctated every so often by a farmer’s tin-roofed shack. Tourists go to see the 10,000 trees of the Helumoa coconut grove, a Kamehameha preserve that dates back to the 16th century, and magnificent Waikiki beach, known for its soft sand and gentle waves.

There has always been a village here, but wealthy residents, including King Kalakaua and Princess Liliuokalani, have also built summer cottages along the shore, with large, open verandas that come alive with music and laughter on moonlit summer evenings.

Tourists without a letter of introduction can always call in at the Long Branch Bath House, where they’ll get a dressing room, a towel and a stretch of beach to enjoy, or at the Park Beach Hotel, Waikiki’s first overnight tourist establishment, where the Elk’s Club will one day stand. But hurry—the Park Beach Hotel will close next year because business is too slow.

At the far end of Waikiki are the elegant circular drives and horse-racing course of Kapiolani Park, in 1888 a privately held enterprise that opens to the public once a year on June 11, Kamehameha Day. It’s also a favorite turning-around point for a horseback or carriage ride out of Honolulu.
 


Oahu Prison inmates took their lunch out in the courtyard, sharing from communal poi buckets.

Kapalama/Iwilei

Until a year or two ago, Kapalama’s claims to fame were its scandal-ridden insane asylum in the mountains, and Oahu Prison in Iwilei, a marshy no-man’s land almost completely cut off from the main island by two immense fishponds. Recently, however, the wealthy estate of Bernice Pauahi Bishop has been moving things in a respectable direction. The Kamehameha School for Boys, offering instruction in tailoring, wood-turning and blacksmithing along with academic subjects, has just opened on Kapalama’s lower slopes, where stone for the building of Bishop Museum is also being quarried.

If someone says you should be sent to the reef, it’s not a vacation, it’s a threat. “The Reef” is the nickname for Oahu Prison; constructed of white coral and standing by itself on watery Iwilei peninsula, it looks from the city’s vantage point as though it’s part of the outer reef. The prison’s high walls afford a stunning ocean view, and it is not an uncommon spot to take visitors during the day while prisoners are out working.
 

 

In the 1880s, upper Kapalama seemed quite a distance from the city of Honolulu, making it suitable for tucking away the insane asylum.

Quarantine Island

In 1888, Honolulu is what biographer Craig Howes calls a “staging zone” for the shiploads of immigrants who arrive in Honolulu and fan out to plantations across the Islands. Quarantine Island (which will be swallowed up when Sand Island is dredged in the 1940s) is their first stop. This low, sedgy tidal island in Honolulu Harbor is Hawaii’s Ellis Island, a defense against the communicable diseases—cholera, typhoid, smallpox, bubonic plague and leprosy among them—that have been spreading around the world since the advent of long-distance trade.

Visitor Mabel Deering described the wooden bridge, “six feet wide, perhaps, and half a mile long,” that joined the deepwater harbor to Quarantine Island’s landing, and the quarantine equipment that awaited arrivals once they had walked the bridge: “ovens, where fifty pounds of sulphur are burned at once,” along with “vats for fumigating clothing and tanks for purifying bodies.”

At low tide, wrote Deering, Quarantine Island is surrounded by sandy flats, but, at high tide, which nearly swamps the island, the complex looks positively picturesque: “like a rose-pink fishing village floating on a looking-glass sea.”
 


Honolulu Harbor in 1888 was still a forest of masts, but steam power would soon replace the age of sailing vessels.

Pearl Harbor and the Original Second City

Visitors who have already beheld the Nuuanu Pali and done Waikiki can take a pleasant drive past poi factories and agricultural fields to Pearl River Harbor, an “enchanting” region of brackish waterways, freshwater springs, quiet beaches, coconut groves, and plantations of banana and sugar. The most prominent buildings in the region are the Puuloa salt works, with its distinctive windmill, and the fishery shacks on the sandbar that lies across the mouth of the bay.

That is all about to change. In 1887, Hawaii renegotiated the much-discussed Reciprocal Treaty with the United States, granting the Americans exclusive access to the Pearl River Harbor (later, the “river” will drop out of the name) for use as a naval supply station. Entrepreneur Benjamin Franklin Dillingham has also leased large tracts of land nearby and secured an exclusive railroad franchise from Kalakaua. Within two years, Dillingham will complete the Oahu Railway & Land Co. (OR&L) track from Iwilei to Pearl River Harbor—reducing travel times from several hours to 30 minutes—and lots for the still-imaginary “Pearl City” will go on sale.
 


Kalakaua stands on the steps of Iolani Palace with the members of his royal staff.

Our Founder, the King: David Kalakaua

They call him the Merrie Monarch for his free-spending ways and his fondness for dance, gambling, music and the bottle. While costly Iolani Palace was being built, in the sixth year of his reign, he toured the world for nine months, drawing criticism from the international press. Many (including the future Queen Liliuokalanai) took a dim view of his activities as king.

But Kalakaua faced a monumental task. His people were disappearing, his power had just been abruptly curtailed and Hawaiian lands were increasingly owned and controlled by foreign interests. In the absence of military strength, Hawaii was going to survive, if it survived at all, on diplomacy—and diplomacy depends on symbolism.

Under his leadership, hula, which a previous generation had routinely condemned as sinful, appeared regularly at his court. Kalakaua’s much-loved Royal Hawaiian Band interspersed waltzes with Hawaiian mele. While building up the appearance of a Western-style government and infrastructure, Kalakaua championed the preservation and evolution of Hawaiian language, myth, arts and culture—not only for national pride, but for a distinct national identity. Hawaii’s last king worked tirelessly (if expensively) to make Hawaii into a kingdom that had a chance of surviving in the modern world with its soul intact.

On the inside, the Merrie Monarch was anything but. When one French visitor asked him what he'd thought of a recent visit to the United States, he replied, “It’s a country that requires seven days to cross in an express train … It’s a nation that commands infinite wealth; it’s a giant whom great states as well as small must take into account.”

“You and I belong to the past,” he told the Frenchman, “the future belongs to the giant.”

His last words? “Tell my people I tried.”
 

 

Hale pili were still in active use, but were steadily being replaced by more Western structures.

The People: a Hawaii without Hawaiians?

Every road out of Honolulu passes the ruins of ancient terraces and townships, the dwelling places of the people who filled every arable valley before Western contact. In 1778, Captain Cook’s lieutenant, James King, had estimated 400,000 Native Hawaiians in the islands (present-day scholars often accept David Stannard’s estimate of 800,000 to 1,000,000). By 1888, there are about 40,000.

The vanishing Hawaiian race is one of the most talked-about issues of the time. In an 1888 lecture titled, “Why Are the Hawaiians Dying Out?” Sereno Edwards Bishop notes that “every large and populous town in the Islands has dwindled to a hamlet since my boyhood.”

One of them is Ewa, which Paradise of the Pacific describes as “in old missionary times a thriving native village with a large church.”  Now, it continues, Ewa is “almost deserted.”

To blame: successive waves of infectious disease that have left mass graves in Kakaako; an extremely low birth rate coupled with high infant mortality; a high rate of interracial marriage; and an exodus of Native Hawaiian men, who join ships’ crews as highly valued sailors, never to return to the Islands.

Alii are not spared. In less than a century, Hawaii has seen seven monarchs. The Royal School, reserved for the children of chiefs, closed in 1850, partly for lack of new pupils.

This—a kingdom in which at least nine-tenths of the original populace is gone—is the Hawaii of Kalakaua’s day. In 1888, the king publishes a book for a foreign readership, called Legends and Myths of Hawaii: The Fables and Folk-Lore of a Strange People. The foreword, not authored by Kalakaua but surely authorized by him, is an elegy for the Hawaiian people:

“Within a century they have dwindled from four hundred thousand happy and healthy children of nature, without care and without want, to a little more than a tenth of that number …They are slowly sinking under the restraints and burdens of their surroundings, and will in time succumb to social and political conditions foreign to their natures and poisonous to their blood. Year by year their footprints will grow more dim along the sands of their reef-sheltered shores, and fainter and fainter will come their simple songs from the shadows of the palms, until finally their voices will be heard no more for ever.”

But, although their numbers are perilously diminished in 1888, Native Hawaiians are by no means history. There may be only 40,000 of them left, but they still outnumber all foreign residents combined. The census of 1884 counts 17,937 Chinese; 9,377 Portuguese; 2,066 Americans and 1,282 Brits. Not only do Native Hawaiians still rule the nation in 1888, people with Native Hawaiian koko (blood) also make up a hefty percentage of Honolulu’s lawyers, preachers and community leaders.
 


Horses were the main form of transport on land.

The New Honoluluans

In 1888, the other big demographic story is immigration. The early waves of immigrant labor from Portugal, China and Japan are the direct result, not only of the plantations’ desire for laborers, but of the need for subjects of the Kingdom of Hawaii. Kalakaua had taken his 1881 world tour with the stated purpose of finding immigrants from a “cognate race” who would help replenish Hawaii’s depleted population.

Four years later, with diplomatic ties to Japan strengthened, the first large wave of Japanese immigration occurs. When their binding three-year contracts expire in 1888, many leave the plantations for the city. Within four decades, people of Japanese ethnicity make up 40 percent of Hawaii’s population.

Immigrants arrive by ship, which is still an uncertain undertaking at best. The 379 Portuguese immigrants (and 22 stowaways) who sailed from Madeira on the Thomas Bell took more than five months to make the journey around Cape Horn, arriving on April 14, 1888. During that journey, there were 14 births and 14 deaths.
 


An 1890s family relaxes in the front yard. 

The Creation of Bishop Estate

Bernice Pauahi Bishop was the last graduating pupil of the Royal School. Many deaths among the alii and few surviving children had concentrated land into fewer and fewer hands until Bishop inherited nearly all the vast acreage of the Kamehameha chiefs. She, too, was childless and, upon her death in 1884, she left the bulk of her 369,000-acre estate to a charitable trust. Bishop Estate was born. The land’s total estimated value at the time of its creation in 1884: $470,000 (more than $11 million in today’s dollars). One day it will be wealthier than Harvard and Yale combined.
 

 

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).


(Edited 11/26/2012)

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