Cover Story continued

An uncrowded past beckons

I love these old images,” says Kauai surfer Timothy Tovar DeLaVega, author of Surfing in Hawaii 1778–1930, a 128-page softback collection of etchings and photographs of the sport’s earlier days.

“I’ve been a surfer my whole life, and I’ve been a photographer and collector just as long,” DeLaVega explains in a phone interview. “There’s something about these images, they’re just wonderful! Finding them, digging ‘em out of boxes and pulling them off eBay, is totally fun. It’s a weird extension of the sport, I guess.” He remembers buying an original photo of Duke Kahanamoku at the 1912 Olympics for ten bucks a dozen years ago, and he marvels at early surf photographers’ cumbersome equipment: “You gotta give them a lot of credit,” he says.

In a caption in his book, DeLaVega claims to be publishing, for the first time, two of the earliest known photographs of surfing, taken by a traveling doctor named Henry C. Bolton, featuring four malo-clad surfers: Kaika, Kawika, Keahi, and “unnamed,” all of them residents of Niihau. The stunning images, taken on the Island, were last seen at the annual meeting of the American Folk-Lore Society in New York in 1890.

DeLaVega also claims that the book pushes back the timeline for Waikiki’s commercial beachboy culture a good 20 years, from around 1917 to 1897, when the Dallas Morning News, he discovered, had reported watermen offering canoe rides for $1 an hour.

The project took six months, he says, and involved the same network of friends, collectors, archivists and other “fanatics” he had built up around his previous surf-history project, a bibliography of 200 years of surfing literature published by the Surfing Heritage Foundation in 2004.

Surfing in Hawaii 1778-1930 was published in 2011 by South Carolina-based Arcadia Publishing, the phenomenally successful packager and distributor of localized, historical picture books. The authors are paid nothing up front and must do all the picture research and permissions, including all costs, themselves, but they get eight percent of the sales. Print runs average about 1,500 copies. DeLaVega says that, thus far, he’s about broken even on the deal “and the checks keep coming.”

To date, Arcadia has in its catalogue an astounding 5,965 identically formatted separate titles, all branded as Images of America, with sepia-toned cover photographs. Images of America: Honolulu Town is among the latest. In all those titles, the history gets very sliced and diced: There’s 20th-Century Retailing in Downtown Detroit and A History of Alcatraz Island 1853–2008. To give an idea of the micro-focus of Arcadia’s enterprise, DeLaVega tells me incredulously that an Arcadia editor had asked if he’d be interested in producing separate titles covering the history of surfing on each of the major Hawaiian islands.

He begged off. “No way there’s enough material!” he says.

In 2012, Arcadia adds a tenth title to to its nine-volume Hawaii series with the release of Honolulu Town, authored by Laura Ruby and Ross Stephenson. The book dredges up over 200 mostly photographic images (there are two drawings and eight maps) of the “higgledy-piggledy” port town of Honolulu, before everything went to hell with the advent of jet travel in 1959.

Honolulu Town delivers just what it promises, a chance to gaze at the town’s past–its monochromatic and faded places and faces — as, lying raffishly, lazily, and fortunately between the harbor and Punchbowl, it evolved from fishing village to Crossroads of the Pacific. Not exactly chronological, the old pictures are arranged into chapters: “The Edgy Waterfront,” “Unnatural Disasters,” etc.

I flip through, seeing all the overhanging balconies on the rickety wooden storefronts, all the picket fences, all the men and women in blousy white muslin, the churches and temples, the streetcar tracks on Beretania.

The low-slung and ranch-like Iolani School campus in Nuuanu, vacated in 1953, has kinship with Honolulu architect Vladimir Ossipoff’s later modernist residences. The Otani family opened their new fish market by Aala Park on December 7, 1941; the senior Otani was promptly interned and his son took care of business. The open-sided Fort Armstrong movie theater, circa the 1930s, looks flat-out fabulous.

Trying to picture what Honolulu–or anyplace–was really like 50 or 100 years ago is headache-inducing, but I suspect it’s a common habit, a curse of the sentimental mind. Victorian tourists to Rome regularly fainted trying to imagine the Palatine Hill covered in shiny palaces, or the actual volume of Saturn’s toppled temple behind a weedy, freestanding colonnade…

Still, it’s fun. And whatever learning can be got from the past, the richer the present.

A few critics have expressed inconsequent alarm about the nostalgia-fix of these now-ubiquitous “Then and Now” books and their lack of heft. But for these two Hawaii titles, at least, look at the list of scholars, experts, archivists, and “fanatics” listed in the acknowledgements. It’s a labor of love all around.

Surfing in Hawaii 1778–1930

Timothy Tovar DeLaVega

Arcadia Publishing, 2011

128 pages,paperback, $21.99

Images of America: Honolulu Town

Laura Ruby and Ross W. Stephenson

Arcadia Publishing, 2012

128 pages,paperback, $21.99