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1930s: Prelude

1.  Prelude to the ‘30s

The human act of riding ocean waves on floatation devices has been going on for thousands of years.  We, in fact, do not know how many thousands of years.  It has been reasonably estimated that the act involving wooden boards could date as far back as 2000 B.C. (4000 B.P.), before the beginning of the Polynesian migration across the Pacific Ocean.[1]  If we count canoe surfing, the act must be far older than that and if we include bodysurfing, then we must consider the span of time in terms of tens of thousands of years.

Surfing on boardshe‘e nalu – rose to a high level of development in the Hawaiian Islands sometime after Polynesians first settled the Hawaiian chain beginning around 300 A.D. (2300 B.P.).  “Wave sliding” using boards – along with canoe and body surfing – not only became important parts of the lifestyle of all Hawaiians prior to European contact in the later 1700s, but was also integrally connected with Hawaiian culture.[2]  In stark contrast to this “golden age,” surfing fell to an almost ignominious near-death during the 1800s – mostly due to European and American cultural, political and religious influences.[3]

During “The Revival” period of surfing at the very beginning of the Twentieth Century, surfing’s decline was arrested and set back on a course of natural evolution.  Since that time, surfing has grown vastly in popularity and now is practiced in most every corner of the world.  Key figures in this resurgent interest in surfing include: George Freeth, Alexander Hume Ford, Jack London, Duke Paoa Kahanamoku, Dad Center, Dudie Miller, “John D” Kaupiko and numerous beach boys and surfing wahines at Waikiki, on O‘ahu, in the first two decades of the 1900s.[4]

A little surprisingly to those of us looking back at it now, surfing’s growth was not explosive following its resurgence, but rather a slow and gradual progression.  For this reason, the surfing years between 1912 and 1928 are not well known and, predictably not well documented.[5]

We, of course, know the historical context.  The 1910s were dominated by events that would lead to the First World War.  The war, itself, was vastly different than any other war that had preceded it.  “The total number of casualties, including killed, wounded, and missing, is figured at 37.5 million… An outbreak of influenza in the autumn of 1918 compounded the death toll as it swept through populations already weakened by the nutritional privations of total war.”[6]

In Europe and other nations that had been caught up in the global struggle, “Wartime disruption helped cause a sharp recession in 1920-21… For most nations, prosperity returned only in the mid-1920s.” [7]

“The catastrophic toll of the war also resulted in a new, looser code of morality, especially in a growing urban environment.  A new generation, decimated by war, felt betrayed by their elders and rejected the more austere standards of conduct they had been taught as children.” [8]

To truly appreciate the great surfing decade that the 1930s was, it is important to understand this time leading into it, in the three Earth zones where surfers were riding waves in the Hawaiian style: Australia, Southern California, and – of course – Waikiki.[9]

[1] Gault-Williams, Malcolm.  LEGENDARY SURFERS Volume 1: 2500 B.C. to 1910 A.D. ©2005, pp. 17 and 39-41.  See also Finney, Ben and Houston, James D.  Surfing: A History of the Ancient Hawaiian Sport, ©1996, p. 21.
[2] Gault-Williams, 2005, pp. 52-54.
[3] Gault-Williams, 2005, pp. 174-177.
[4] Gault-Williams, 2005, pp. 226-241.
[5] Gault-Williams, Malcolm.  LEGENDARY SURFERS Volume 2: Early 20th Century Surfing and Tom Blake, ©2007.  First two chapters.
[6] The Encyclopedia of World History, Sixth Edition, ©2001, p. 672.
[7] The Encyclopedia of World History, 2001, p. 672.
[8] The Encyclopedia of World History, 2001, p. 672.
[9] Some duplication of material in this chapter with Gault-Williams, LEGENDARY SURFERS Volume 2: Early 20th Century Surfing and Tom Blake, ©2007.  The greatest detail exists in Volume 2, but some new insights have been gained since its printing and are included here both for perspective into the 1930s and additional documentation of the first two decades of the 1900s.



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