In the late 1920s, most travelers staying in Waikiki at the beachfront Moana Surfrider and Royal Hawaiian hotels weren't interested in guestrooms looking out over the Pacific.
"In those days, Waikiki was actually a tropical garden," explained Jeff Hull, director of public relations for Matson, the navigation company that dominated early passenger ship business to the Islands.
"The gardenview rooms were preferable to the oceanview," Hull continued. "Most of the passengers had already spent five days at sea, so when they finally arrived in Waikiki, they were far more interested in the tropical gardens than looking out at the ocean."
Beginning July 3, the Honolulu Museum of Art will showcase a wide range of Hawaii tourism advertising from the 1920s, '30s and '40s in its Art Deco Hawaii exhibition, including commercial illustrations commissioned by Matson along with marketing produced for the Hawaii Tourism Bureau of the time and iconic Hawaii companies like Dole Pineapple.
According to Hull, Matson can trace its business in the Hawaiian Islands back to 1882, long before Waikiki grew into the bustling, world-famous visitor destination that attracts millions of travelers today. Back then, freight was Matson's primary focus, but passengers eventually began traveling between the mainland U.S. and Hawaii on the company's vessels in the late 1800s, with capacity growing steadily after the turn of the century.
It wasn't until the late 1920s, however, that Matson really began pursuing the passenger business, purchasing the existing Moana Surfrider hotel, which first opened in 1901; launching the S.S. Malolo, the company's first luxury vessel, with enough room for 650 passengers; and then building the Royal Hawaiian Hotel in 1927.
"Matson wanted to make Hawaii a destination that would attract tourists from all over the world," Hull said, noting that the company dramatically increased its advertising in the late '20s hoping to attract more affluent travelers. It drew further attention by transporting Hollywood stars like Bette Davis, Jimmy Durante and Shirley Temple to the Islands.
"Hawaii was one of the most beautiful places on Earth," he added. "And [Matson] wanted to share that experience with people."
Theresa Papanikolas, curator of the museum's show, said the ads were "really trying to take Hawaii's culture and traditions and history but reinvent them and repurpose them for a modern tourist audience."
"So that's why you get all of these happy Hawaiians fishing and dancing hula, but it's all very much filtered through this modern lens."
The exhibition will also feature fine art such as sculpture and painting, all showcasing Hawaii themes, along with the wide assortment of illustrated and photographic advertisements, offering visitors a chance to look at work created in the Islands between the two world wars. The show's major highlights include two separate mural series, one commissioned by Matson in the 1930s and the other painted by renowned Hawaii artist Arman Manookian in the late 1920s, which hung in the Hotel Hana on Maui until its sale in 2010.
A range of themes still present in today's Hawaii tourism advertising can be seen throughout the show, like surfers, hula dancers and molten lava from volcanoes on the Big Island of Hawaii, illustrating how so many of the images travelers still associate with Hawaii today have been used to market the Islands for more than 100 years.
Some of the artists on display were well-known, said DeSoto Brown, collections manager at Oahu's Bishop Museum, who contributed a number of pieces from his personal Hawaii tourism advertising collection to the show.
Georgia O'Keeffe, who came to Hawaii in 1939 to do illustrations for Dole, is among them.
"So some of these names … may have an oil painting on the wall, but they often did illustrations that were in advertisements, as well," Brown said.