A Brief History of Tiki

Vintage Postcard of Don the Beachcomber's

Summer is in full swing around here (you’re ignoring those “back to school” commercials right? Good). The tropical climate always makes me think of the bamboo bars and Polynesian themed decor of Tiki. Tiki today is sometimes confused with inflatable palm trees and plastic coconuts, but this is not real Tiki. Real Tiki isn’t plastic, and real Tiki is vintage. Technically a sub-set of the Modernest movement (lasting from the 1930s to the 1970s), Tiki was more than a style – it was a uniquely American pop culture form. It can be found in food, clothing, music and architecture of the mid 20th century. Tiki has a history, and it can be serious stuff for the vintage collector.

Tiki culture as we know it began in 1934 with the opening of Don the Beachcomber, a Polynesian-themed bar and restaurant in Hollywood (that’s a postcard image of the dining room above). A world traveller, Don took elements of real South Pacific locations – Tiki statues, lush tropical vegetation, bamboo furniture – and created a fantasy of simplified tropical splendour. It was not authentic of any one place or society, so it became known as “Tiki”. Three years later, Victor Bergeron, better known as Trader Vic, adopted a similar Tiki theme for his restaurant in Oakland California. Born of the restaurant industry, Tiki was originally symbolized by dark wood toned decor, Asian (usually Cantonese) inspired food and an escalating competition for extravagant rum based drinks.

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Tiki culture spread inland from California and was fuelled by an interest in travel. When soldiers returned home from WW II, they brought stories and souvenirs from the South Pacific. In the 1940s and 1950s, the expanding middle class could afford trips to far away destinations. For the first time, suburbanites were looking at places like Tahiti and planning their next vacation under the sun. Popular books and movies of the time featured exotic beaches and locations. Even the possibility of Hawaiian statehood drove interest in the tropical lifestyle, and Americans fell in love with their romanticized version of a “Tiki” culture.

Thus Tiki was more than masks and rattan furniture; it was a byproduct of American wealth and growth in the mid twentieth century. At its height of popularity, Tiki architectural form (A line roofs, wood panelling, interior gardens) cropped up on all types of buildings – churches, shops, hotels, even tract row housing. Is it any wonder that once Hawaii did finally become a state in 1959 Tiki had begun to wear out its welcome? As is always the case, kids didn’t appreciate the same “square” things their parents enjoyed. Tiki began to be seen as a symbol of decadence and cultural ignorance. As the 1960s progressed the younger generation rejected Tiki and by the 1980s almost all the biggest and best examples of Tiki style had been replaced.

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We are currently experiencing a resurgence of Tiki culture, thanks in part to our interest (finally!) in fancy cocktails, but it begs the question: What does Tiki mean now? Tiki was always a form of cultural appropriation. A real “tiki” for instance, is a type of wooden carving representing the first man. The Maori used tiki statues to mark sacred land. Tiki culture used those same forms to hold fruity drinks. Tiki was an invention to bring in business, without deep understanding of the societies it represented. On the other hand, Tiki was also always a fantasy. It was a hodge-podge of influences, put together to resemble a tropical dream. I’m not an expert (I wasn’t even born until after Tiki stopped being cool) but it’s easy to believe that in the confines of 1950s America people wanted an escape. Not everyone could afford to travel, but most could afford a Singapore Sling in a bamboo covered bar. It was a version of paradise everyone could reach, and it still is today. It’s up to you, but I prefer to remember and enjoy Tiki in this context.

I’m new to collecting, but here are some of the pieces in my vintage Tiki barware:

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If you want to put a little Tiki into your home, you can easily start small. Vintage tiki barware, artwork and postcards can be found online and in shops. Tiki mugs (ceramic and sometimes branded like mine from the “Hawaiin Inn”) were often sold as souvenirs and are probably the most popular type of Tiki collectible. If you want to enjoy the full Tiki experience, Tiki bars are popping up once again in urban centres, including here in Toronto. While some complain that the modern revival of Tiki isn’t “primitive” enough, I personally don’t mind a little glamour with my Mai Tais. For me, Tiki is about being in a fantasy tropical paradise, even if it’s the middle of winter and there’s no beach in sight. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to play some Yma Sumac, mix up something with rum, and pretend my backyard is a white sand beach.

As an amateur fan of Tiki, I found the following sites really helpful:

Tiki Central – Forums with everything Tiki. These people know A LOT about tiki culture.
Modernist Architecture: Tiki Modern
– Amazing photographs of Tiki architecture.
Tiki Culture – Well written dissection of Tiki culture in the past and today. Also has a handy “this is NOT Tiki” list.
Behind the Scenes at the Enchanted Tiki Room (youtube video) – A short behind the scenes look at the room of computers needed to make those audio-animatronic birds sing, shot when the attraction first opened. One guy in the comments section calls the Tiki Room an “insidious early 60s nightmare”, so there’s also that.

3 responses

  1. Pingback: Three Rules for Collecting | The New Collector

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