Picturing the Past

A growing collection of vintage postcards and travel ephemera offers a peek at Hawai‘i’s golden era of tourism.

Lindsey Kesel
Josiah Patterson

Hunting down postcards and other printed memorabilia with detective-like doggedness, Spencer Tolley is fascinated by the iconic Waikīkī of old. A corporate travel agent with a background in historic preservation, Tolley began searching for tokens of Hawai‘i tourism after he moved from Miami to Honolulu in 2012. Diving into local ephemera fed his lifelong passion for collecting and let him explore the rich history and architecture of his new home. “Postcards were ideal for showing the evolution of Waikīkī through the decades and the genesis of how it was marketed to tourists,” he says. “You could have people dining, sitting on the beach, or being entertained by singers and hula dancers, and other activities that promoted the area’s best attributes.”

Tolley is a deltiologist—a collector of postcards—but he’ll take just about anything that sparks nostalgia and reflects Hawai‘i’s image as an exotic travel destination before the 1980s.

Known for his Instagram handle @fotoaloha, where he curates and catalogs his findings, Tolley scours eBay and collectible shows to acquire share-worthy relics. He has upwards of 3,000 items, most of which are postcards but which also include brochures of bygone resorts, maps, magazines, Kodachrome slides, matchbooks, menus, and luggage tags. Tolley’s two oldest postcards, from 1900 and 1901, feature Art Nouveau vignettes of the Hawaiian Hotel (which stood where the Hawai‘i State Art Museum is now) and various Waikīkī landmarks. Among his most unusual acquisitions is a bar of hand soap from the Waikikian Hotel, the last of the tiki-style hotels of the 1950s, which met its demise in 1996 to make way for a high-rise condominium.

Tolley is especially interested in postcards and original photographs of four hotels that were trendsetters during Waikīkī’s rise: Halekulani Hotel, Coconut Grove Hotel (where the Imperial Hawaii Resort sits today), Seaside Hotel (replaced by the Royal Hawaiian hotel), and ‘Āinahau Court (now the site of Sheraton Princess Kaiulani hotel). The design vernacular of these bungalow-type properties influenced the entire Waīkikī streetscape from the 1910s to the late 1930s, including simple, craftsman-style architecture, outdoor pavilions, and wood pergolas. The mass influx of tourists following World War II and an evolution in modern architecture trends eventually made this era of cottage-style accommodations “a thing of the past,” Tolley says.

One of the collector’s most cherished items is a Halekulani Hotel brochure that recalls the charm and elegance of Waikīkī hospitality in the late ’40s and early ’50s. Its cover photo shows smiling couples enjoying sunset social hour, highballs in hand, accompanied by text that reads: “With historic Diamond Head as a stately backdrop, guests enjoy traditional Halekulani service on the cool waters-edge lawn at cocktail time.” Opened in 1917 at the intersection of Kalia Road and Lewers Street, Halekulani was among the first guest houses owned and operated by a sole proprietor, and the only one still operational today.

For his thrice-weekly Instagram posts, Tolley delights in sharing multiple finds united by a curious thread. In one post, he presents two 1950s postcards with nearly identical images of the coffee shop lānai at Halekulani Hotel. The photos were shot on the same day by Irving Rosen but deployed by different postcard makers. In another series of posts, he shares three items featuring the same photo of the Moana Surfrider hotel taken in 1952: a Pan American Airways postcard, a Bell System print ad, and a jigsaw puzzle.

A Coconut Grove brochure in Tolley’s collection reflects the dramatic shift in how Hawai‘i was presented to vacationers as the tourism industry ramped up. The mid-50s brochure features a bikini-clad woman with lei draped over her forearm greeting visitors on the cover, and brightly illustrated beach scenes. While earlier marketing took a more subdued approach, the brochure embodies the “new” Waīkikī aimed at attracting a younger, middle-class market. Readers are promised “complete relaxation and freedom from cares” and “cleanliness, courtesy, convenience and comfort … unexcelled anywhere in Hawai‘i.”

Tolley’s rare postcards are instant portals to a time when Hawai‘i seduced adventure-seekers from around the globe with an air of enchantment. In an Instagram post is one such postcard from 1964 featuring a honeymooning couple relaxing in Halekulani Hotel’s tropical garden, their hands caressing a single red lei. Signed “Mary Belle and Norbert,” the inscription reads, “This is a fabulous place. The jet ride was grand. I can hardly believe this is real.” Careful to include both the front and back of the postcards and foregoing hashtags and narration, Tolley says, “I want the viewer to experience it the way the recipient did, and let the details tell the story.”


A collector’s rare postcards are portals back in time to Hawai‘i’s early days as a tourist destination.

One of the collector’s most cherished items is a Halekulani Hotel brochure that recalls the charm and elegance of Waikīkī hospitality in the late ’40s and early ’50s.

Out of the four hotels that Tolley considers trendsetters during Waikīkī’s rise, Halekulani is the only one still operational today.

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