Tiki Culture: Popular in America in the 50s and 60s and inspired by Maori and Polynesian cultures

Katerina Bulovska
Bali Ha'i Restaurant, New Orleans, 1950s

Tiki Culture is was an aesthetic movement in the United States inspired by the Maori and Polynesian cultures. Fascination with Pacific culture began in the late 18th century when navigators discovered exotic tropical islands and encountered the Polynesian and Maori inhabitants. One of these Europeans was English explorer Captain James Cook, whose stories of exotic locales and societies enhanced the philosophical notion popular at that time that humanity’s perfect state was to live in balance with nature.

Hollywood was also fascinated by the books and paintings the navigators left behind, and by the 1920s Polynesian melodies were among the most popular. In World War II, many American soldiers were exposed to Asian cultures and some of them transcribed their traditional stories, such as James A. Michener and his Tales of the South Pacific, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1945 and was adapted into the musical South Pacific in 1949. Authors also wrote adventure and romantic stories set in the South Sea islands and soon after, the native lifestyle was idealized and romanticized by many westerners.

[the_ad id=”5″]

The word “Tiki” is mostly associated with carved wooden statues expressing joy, sadness, anger, or spiritual balance. However, they are not just figures, but an integral part of South Pacific mythology, said to represent certain Polynesian gods, while Maori mythology refers to Tiki as the first man, like the Biblical Adam. At some point, all carved religious figures came to be known as “tikis.” The most famous Tiki statues in the world reside on Easter Island in the Pacific Ocean. Many legends surround the Tiki statues.

Tiki Statues. Author: ben britten. CC BY 2.0

Islanders at the time believed if the god represented in the carving was pleased with the likeness, he would occupy the statue. In 1894, one such Maori sculpture was displayed at the California International Midwinter Exposition in San Francisco, and later on, all statues of the Maori collection were put on permanent display by de Young Museum of San Francisco. After four years, the Hawaiian Islands became a U.S. territory and Waikiki Beach became a favorite tourist destination for Americans.

Tiki-style products for sale. Author: Sam Howzit. CC BY 2.0

An idealized version of Polynesian culture began to influence American lifestyles, home decor, music, clothing, and architecture. People were obsessed with the idea of living on a beach and relaxing on a sunny day with a cocktail in their hand. The idea of life without responsibility and a pinch of hedonism was an attractive concept to people constrained by certain rules in their everyday life. The mass popularity of Tiki Culture began in the 1930s, but it reached its peak during the 1950s and early 1960s.

[the_ad id=”6″]

“The Bali Ha’i”, a tiki themed restaurant in New Orleans, 1950s A-Frame style

The first Polynesian themed bar and restaurant, Donn’s Beachcomber Café, now a Tiki bar legend, was opened in 1934 in Los Angeles by the world traveler Ernest Raymond Beaumont-Gantt, also known as Don Beach. He had recently returned from the South Pacific impressed by everything tropical and decorated his bar with carved tikis, brightly colored fabrics, masks, flaming torches, rattan furniture, and flower leis.

Tiki bar decoration. Private tiki bar in Windsor, Sonoma County, California. Author: Frank Schulenburg. CC0

The bar served tropical rum punches created by Beach himself, such as the famous Zombie, which is made from five different rums. Beach is considered to have invented the first Mai Tai and was credited with creating many other tropical-style drinks as well.

The establishment was a huge success, and Hollywood elites, including Joan Crawford, Marlene Dietrich, and David Niven were among the most frequent customers, attracting reporters from LIFE Magazine and further popularizing the Tiki aesthetic.

[the_ad id=”7″]

Tiki statues as door handles at Jardin Tiki, a landmark restaurant in Montreal. Photo taken 13 March 2015. Author: Mohammed Jaffar. CC BY-SA 2.0

Soon after, traditional Polynesian design and carvings became the theme of many stylish and trendy tropical restaurants and bars in the United States and around the world. However, by the time of the Vietnam War, the younger generation found Tiki culture tacky, cliché, and outdated. As disco became the predominant night club scene, the popularity of Tiki culture dwindled and many bars closed.

The dining room tiki at the Kon Tiki in Tucson, Arizona. Author: Sam Howzit. CC BY 2.0

But not all Tiki bars disappeared. Some of them have remained open, like the Bali Hai in San Diego, California that opened in 1955, the Mai-Kai Restaurant in Fort Lauderdale, Florida that opened in 1956 and Kowloon in Saugus, Massachusetts that opened in 1950. The oldest surviving Tiki bar in America is the Tonga Room, which opened in 1945 at the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco.

Fountain in the Hidden Village at Don the Beachcomber Restaurant and Dagger Bar Tiki Lounge in Huntington Beach, California. Author: Sam Howzit. CC BY 2.0

In the late 1980s, Tiki culture experienced a revival. Teenagers and young people at the time became interested in Tiki Gods, and before long, tropical drinks and Hawaiian music were popular again all over America.  Although they are not a faithful rendering of the cultures they represent, but rather take a loose aesthetic inspiration from Pacific cultures, Tiki bars continue to attract guests interested in experiencing their famous exotic cocktails and distinctive style.