Neopagan Jewelry of 1951 and the Origins of the Tiki Bar

From the Evening Star (Washington, DC)  newspaper, 1 April 191. It was published 1852–1981.

Back in 1951, when Wicca was first being introduced to the world, largely via Gerald Gardner and Cecil Williamson’s seasonal museum on the Isle of Man, a store in Arlington, Virgina advertised that “the neo-pagan influence on fashion is one of the style news notes of the Spring season.”

Say what? Tim/Otter/Oberon Zell, who pushed “Neo-Pagan” as a religious designator in the pages of Green Egg, was still a little boy then, and that influential Pagan zine was almost two decades in the future.

So herein lies a tale and also a connection to the “tiki bar” craze, which has now become retro-cool.

For this research I thank Scott Simpson, co-editor of Equinox Publishing’s books series on “Contemporary and Historical Paganism,” who made some connections after prowling through Library of Congress databases.

He noted the line about “Bird of Paradise” fashions (the necklace would cost about $20 in today’s money) and linked it to a movie that premiered that year, Bird of Paradise, starring Debra Paget as “Kalua,” an “island princess.”[1]Note that her name is only an “h” away from the name of the popular Mexican coffee liqueur, introduced in 1936. Perhaps it was the writer’s drink of choice.

So this is one of those “Will the princess be thrown in the volcano to appease the angry gods?” movies that used to be popular. Cultural anthropologists are welcome to cringe now. You can watch it on YouTube.

But it was not the first. The Bird of Paradise began as a 1912 stage play, set in Hawaii, credited with creating an image of Hawaii as a land where native girls “dance the hula, play ukuleles, live in grass huts, and worship volcano gods.”

Dolores del Rio as “Luana” in the 1932 version of Bird of Paradise in s tender moment with Joel McCrae, plsying “Johnny Baker,” a visiting yachtsman.

Then there was the 1932 film version with Dolores del Rio as “Luana” and the same “appease the angry gods” motif. You can watch it on YouTube.

Even bigger was the huge success of the musical South Pacific (1949) and subsequent movie (1958), both based on one story in James Mitchener’s short-story collection Tales of the South Pacific.

The  “tiki bar” craze began in the 1930s and survived World War Two’s Pacific Theater. The Trader Vic’s chain, the only one that I was familiar with, started as a tropical-themed restaurant in Oakland, California, in 1934 — just two years after the first Bird of Paradise film.

Original menu cover from the first Trader Vic’s in Oakland (Wikipedia).

Some people had good wartime memories involving fruity drinks with umbrellas in them and tropical sunsets.

My stepmother lost her first husband, a young Navy ensign, when a German submarine sank his ship in 1942. But two years later she was in Honolulu, working as some general’s secretary, and filling a photo album of pictures of friends sitting around tables full of drinks with umbrellas in them, not to mention a lot of shots on the theme of “Me and Colonel So-and-So at the beach.”

She was not adverse to visiting Trader Vic’s either in later years.

Here is Wikipedia on the origins of the term “tiki.”

What interests me now though is that “neopagan” was enough in the American vocabulary that it could be used in advertising copywriting! [2]I think of advertising language because I spent a year in my early twenties as a copywriter in an ad agency. It was the English major’s equivalent of being drafted. And did it envoke angry volcano gods, semi-nude Polynesian girls, and rum drinks?

Scott Simpson found some other earlier uses of it (besides the G. K. Chesteron one that I already knew about). For instance, a group of young “creatives” at Cambridge University was using it c. 1908, including the artist Gwen Ravarat and the poet Rupert Brooke.

“But the New-Pagans seem to have had no real spiritual direction. The members went on long coutry walks and slept under canvas, but they made no serious attempt to restore the Pagan religions.”[3]Prudence Jones and Nigel Pennick,  A History of Pagan Europe (London: Routledge, 1995), 216.

For example, In Italy, a poet named Giosuè Carducci (1835–1907), winner of the Nobel Prize in literature, wrote a poem titled “Hymn to Satan,” by which he meant, in a sort of Romantic sense, Lucifer as symbolic of the of rebellious and indepedent spirit. He also wrote poems dedicated to some of the old Roman gods. Based on that, he was sometimes referred to as a “neopagan” in his time.

And that is just one example. So it was not a common term, but it was out there. Especially when you wanted to honor the volcano gods.

Notes

1 Note that her name is only an “h” away from the name of the popular Mexican coffee liqueur, introduced in 1936. Perhaps it was the writer’s drink of choice.
2 I think of advertising language because I spent a year in my early twenties as a copywriter in an ad agency. It was the English major’s equivalent of being drafted.
3 Prudence Jones and Nigel Pennick,  A History of Pagan Europe (London: Routledge, 1995), 216.

7 thoughts on “Neopagan Jewelry of 1951 and the Origins of the Tiki Bar

  1. Having grown up in the post-WWII San Francisco Bay Area, I was familiar with Trader Vic’s and the tiki element of pop culture. Herb Caen, chronicler of Bay Area gossip and goings on, regularly commented on this or that or so and so and Trader Vic’s. In those days, Caen was a key resource in and about regional pop culture and folks up to probably no good.

    For me, then, Trader Vic’s–no matter how pop culturely tiki–numbered in the greater Bay Area bar scene. And maybe in the greater Bay Area political, financial, romantic, or low to high cultural enterprise. (Caen’s column was where I first learned about, for instance, Anton LaVey and The Church of Satan.)

    I was even more familiar with WWII in the Pacific and plenty of those who remembered and/or were scarred or otherwise marked by it. My hometown hosted a Naval Shipyard. Lots of famous warships were mothballed in the Mare Island Channel. And lots of parents or siblings or cousins of my schoolmates had been there in this, that, or a bunch of well-known battles.

    Mostly, they did not talk about it. But when they did, it never seemed to me like war movies. Honestly, recollecting some of their battle stories still, decades later, still gives me nightmares.

    For me, in those days, the aftermath of WW II that I saw and knew around me–including plenty of my schoolmates of what we call today hapa familys–contributed more to my emerging paganism and Craft-mindedness than Trader Vic’s and Polynesiana. Bars and the bar scene did not lead me in any pagan direction. Commitment to Nature and to more tellingly Bohemian aspects of regional pop culture was my guide. Including, maybe, an inkling of human commonalities across many differences.

  2. All that talk about “volcano gods” makes me want to rewatch the 10th Doctor episode The Fires of Pompeii.”

  3. Makes me think of Kahunaville in Wilmington, DE. It was actually a Tiki night club/arcade that opened in the 1990s and closed in 2006. Delaware is usually kind of behind the times.

  4. Being an Italian I really appreciate the reference to Giosuè Carducci – who, by the way, was one of my favourite poets in my teenage and later – and your exact and careful explanation of the meaning of Satan in Carducci’s poem.
    The webpage in the website ‘Church of Satan’ is instead almos rubbish, beginning with the wrong place of birth of Carducci (there is no place Verana in Tuscany where he was born; if Verona is meant, it is a few hundred miles away and in that time in a different state). Also the description of Italian politics is wrong, for instance the pope was mainly supported by France and not by Austria. I could go on forever listing errors.
    Basically the author is totally wrong in depicting Cedrucci as a kind of satanist. He was just a fierce anticlericalist and specifially an anti-Catholic, just what we in Italian call a priest-eater, and a lover of Roman and Greek poetry and mythology, and he would have laughed to no end had he known that someone would have thought him a Satan adorer.

      • As I said I’m Italian, furthermore I live in Italy. So of course I read the Italian original

        • Ah! Thanks. Sometimes when people say “I’m Italian” they mean their ancestry is Italian. Is there a translation of the poems in English?

Comments are closed.