Steel Trappings

The Pan-Pacific Exposition's Influence on the Steel Guitar

The Pan-Pacific Exposition's Influence on the Steel Guitar

May 17, 2020 • Nate GooreSteel Guitar History

Ed. Note: This month Steel Trappings launches a new category–Steel Guitar History. Articles in this category will include historical perspectives and development of the Hawaiian steel guitar. HIMELE director Nate Goore has developed an interest in and researched how Hawaiian music and steel guitar propogated outside of Hawai‘i and developed an international following. His article inaugurates this new category.

The sound of the steel guitar, and it's prominent place in Hawaiian music, are well recognized around the world. How did interest in the steel guitar spread from its origins on windward O‘ahu worldwide?

One of the pivotal events in steel guitar history was the 1915 Panama Pacific International Exposition. For nine months in 1915, San Francisco's northern bayfront was "the site of a grand celebration of human spirit and ingenuity".1 The event marked the completion of the Panama Canal and showed the world a renewed city of San Francisco only nine years after the devastating earthquake and fires of 1906.

"The vast fair, which covered over 600 acres and stretched along two and a half miles of water front property, highlighted San Francisco's grandeur and celebrated a great American achievement: the successful completion of the Panama Canal. Nine years earlier, San Francisco experienced a terrible earthquake, declared one of America's worst national disasters. The city overcame great challenges to rebuild and by the time the Exposition opened in 1915, the city was ready to welcome the world.

"Between February and December 1915, over 18 million people visited the fair; strolling down wide boulevards, attending scientific and educational presentations, 'travelling' to international pavilions and enjoying thrilling displays of sports, racing, music and art. The fair promoted technological and motor advancements: the Panama-Pacific International Exposition was the first world's fair to demonstrate a transcontinental telephone call, to promote wireless telegraphy and to endorse the use of the automobile. Each day, the fair highlighted special events and exhibits, each with their own popular souvenirs. The fair was so large and spread out over such a length of land that it was virtually impossible for any visitors to successfully see it all, even over the course of several visits."2

Pan-Pacific Exposition
A view down the Avenue of Palms at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, 1915.
Photo: GGNRA Park Archives

Among the many exhibits and pavilions at the exhibition were those that featured individual states and territories of the US. In July of 1914 a site was selected for the Hawai‘i building, and on March 1, 1915, the building was officially dedicated:

"They were clear skies overhead as 35 singers bedecked with leis lead the precession from Scott Street to the Hawaiian Territory Building for its dedication. Their songs '…in Mark Twain's immortal prose, brought back to many a hustled mainland dweller "the breath of flowers that perished twenty years ago." ' The building bore the names of the six islands. Hawaiian Princess Kalanianiole was present, as well as Mrs. Victor S. Houston, a member of one of Hawai‘i's oldest families, whom acted as hostess. Within the building were many agricultural displays and botanical features. The most popular feature by far was the aquarium. Upwards of 20,000 people attended in a single day and lines had to be managed."3

Pan-Pacific Exposition
Dedication of the site for the Hawai'i Building, July 7, 1914.
Photo: San Francisco Public Library archive

Pan-Pacific Exposition
Hawaii Building, Panama Pacific International Exhibition
Photo: San Francisco Public Library archive

A popular feature at the Hawaiian Building were the performances held several times per day. The shows' house band was led by steel guitarist George E. K. Awa‘i. Additionally, the band featured other soon-to-be well known steel guitarists including Joseph Kekuku, Frank Ferera, Pale K. Lua and David Ka‘ili as guest performers. These shows, and the large international audiences who enjoyed them, created an instant spike in interest in steel guitar and Hawaiian music. Following the exhibition there was a proliferation of Hawaiian music recordings, Hawaiian themed movies, and students eager to learn the steel guitar.4

Today, HIMELE's kuleana is to continue exposing local and international audiences to Hawaiian music and the steel guitar through its Steel Guitar Festivals held throughout the year on all four major islands. We look forward to seeing you at an event soon!


1National Park Service
4Lorene Ruymar; "The Hawaiian Steel Guitar and its Great Hawaiian Musicians". 1996



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HIMELE is a Hawai‘i non-profit corporation that supports music enrichment and education for people of all ages. Our purpose is to educate, promote, and perpetuate Hawaiian music, Hawaiian culture and Hawaiian musical instruments.