Hawaii Comes to the Capitol

Aloha! Speakers of the House Nicholas Longworth and William Bankhead agreed with the Los Angeles Times: “We don’t need an excuse to enjoy the relaxed, romantic pleasure of a Hawaiian party.” In the 1920s and 1930s, Hawaiian-style parties flourished across the states, and even made it to the Capitol.

With a strategic location in the Pacific, tropical weather, and an abundance of colorful vegetation, the island territory captured the imagination of the mainland. Continental Americans found the bright flowers, cuisine, and decorations of Hawaii both exotic and irresistible, romanticizing the territory of Hawaii as a tropical paradise.

Victor S. Kaleoaloha Houston and his wife Pinao Brickwood Houston celebrated Lei Day with Speaker Nicholas Longworth/tiles/non-collection/5/5-4-photo_Lei_Day_Longworth_PA2014_09_0079.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
About this object
Delegate Victor S. Kaleoaloha Houston and his wife Pinao Brickwood Houston celebrated Lei Day with Speaker Nicholas Longworth in 1929.
Victor S. Kaleoaloha Houston, the Hawaiian Delegate from 1927 to 1933, and his wife, Pinao Brickwood Houston, brought the spirit of the Hawaiian holiday Lei Day to Washington, D.C. They presented leis (handmade by Mrs. Houston) to Speaker Longworth, as well as the President, First Lady, Vice President, and Secretary of the Interior. This photo captured the moment after the lei was placed around Longworth’s neck. While Longworth appeared formal and unamused under his perfumed necklace, Mrs. Houston delicately adjusted her handiwork with a small smile.

Perhaps Mrs. Houston was thinking of the symbolism and generosity of her gift to the Speaker. A traditional, handmade lei, like the one the Houstons presented to Longworth, was unique, requiring hours of meticulous work. Leis are thick strands of flowers carefully sewn together and worn as necklaces or draped around a hat. The craft of lei-making stretched back through the history of the Hawaii. Leis were made from colorful, fragrant native flowers, including red lehua, white ginger, and yellow ilima. They sometimes were also made with shells, feathers, paper, seeds, and hair. Making a single lei required about seventy flowers. A lei maker stripped the calyx, or base, off a blossom, pierced it with a needle, and then individually added it to the strand. The flowers and arrangement were chosen to fit the recipient.

Lei Day, “a bubbly, happy, spontaneous expression of the joy of living in Hawaii” was proposed in 1928 by Oklahoma-born poet Don Blanding. Celebrated on May 1, Lei Day featured a Lei Queen and her flower-decked court, Hawaiian music, and a lei pole. The holiday first took place in Honolulu, but by the second Lei Day, the floral festivities extended to Washington, D.C., and the Speaker of the House.

Speaker William Bankhead and Delegate Samuel King at a Hawaiian hoolaulea in the Capitol/tiles/non-collection/5/5-4-photo_Lei_Day_Bankhead_PA2014_11_0021.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
About this object
Speaker William Bankhead, left, posed with a pineapple at a Hawaiian hoolaulea in the Capitol, hosted by Delegate Samuel King.
The popularity of Hawaiian-style parties continued to grow. In 1939, Delegate Samuel King of Hawaii brought a hoolaulea, or small luau, to the Capitol. King hosted the luncheon in the Speaker’s Dining Room, and Speaker Bankhead was the guest of honor. Every guest wore a lei, which had become the symbol of Hawaiian lifestyle. They also enjoyed typical hoolaulea food, including sweet potatoes and large pineapples, one of which weighed 10 pounds. As Speaker Bankhead examined his hefty pineapple, in a moment captured by this photo, he looked amused and curious. By the time Hawaii achieved statehood in 1959, it had already found a place in the country’s imagination and in the Capitol.

Sources: Steven J. Freisen, “The Hawaiian Lei on a Voyage through Modernities: A Study in Post-Contact Religion,” Beyond Primitivism: Indigenous Religious Traditions and Modernity (Routledge, 2004); Washington Post, May 1, 1929; Los Angeles Times, February 25, 1939.

This is part of a monthly series of blog posts exploring the art and history of photographs from the House Collection.