“Just take your time—wave comes. Let the other guys go, catch another one.”
Now that summer has arrived in the US, people are heading to the beach to take advantage of the warm temperatures and the cool water. Some folks might even catch a wave or two. It’s also a fab time for growing that surf memorabilia collection.
While people may be most familiar with surfing thanks to the campy Beach Party movies, or from songs by the Beach Boys of California, the history of surfing goes back centuries. “The original surfers,” explains Brian Chidester, author of Pop Surf Culture: Music, Design, Film, and Fashion from the Bohemian Surf Boom (2008), “were Polynesian, particularly Hawaiian, and considered it both a pastime and a ritual, with social and spiritual aspects attached to it.” Early on, Chidester continues, surfers made chants and masks that helped them get in touch with the spiritual mysteries of the ocean. “Surfing meant getting close to nature and by extension the gods.”
As missionaries and settlers colonized Hawaii, however, surfing declined in popularity, mainly owing to Victorian social mores and Western religious attitudes. The sport became an underground activity in the late 19th century, and was reserved for native Hawaiians primarily, who formed secret surfing clubs around the Honolulu outpost village known as Waikiki. Among these illicit surfers was one “Steamboat” Bill Mokuahi, an elderly gentleman who, by the early 20th century, became mentor to many of the modern pioneers of the lifestyle. These include Duke Kahanamoku, who prior to a brilliant career as a medal-winning Olympic athlete and Hollywood stunt-man, shared his knowledge of the ocean and love for surfing to anyone who would listen. Kahanamoku typified the “beachboy” aesthetic; he was young, Hawaiian, affable, able in both water-sports and singing Hawaiian tunes, and was willing to escort tourists on myriad local adventures.
Thanks in large part to Kahanamoku’s radical moves in the ocean, surfing went mainstream in the years just before World War I, with print photographers and filmmakers from Hollywood documenting these tanned and toned men ripping and gripping massive green swells. (Kahanamoku himself wrote a number of articles about the surfing lifestyle in publications such as Mid-Pacific and Youth's Companion pre-1930.)
Even though surfers and beachboys had featured in film reels for decades prior to full-length movies about the sport, particularly documentaries by California auteurs such as Bud Browne, John Severson, Greg Noll, and Bruce Brown, it took the Hollywood movie machine to push things into the mainstream. The first blockbuster surf film was Gidget (1959), based on the 1957 book of the same name by Frederick Kohner, whose daughter Kathy was a teenage surf-rat in the beatnik scene of Malibu during the fabled 1950s (and who gave her father her journal from which to cull anecdotes).
Gidget set the template for what became American International Pictures' Beach Party film genre of the early-to-mid-1960s (which itself saw myriad knock-offs from indie production studios). These were populated by the cream of the crop of new rock 'n' roll and R&B acts (e.g. Leslie Gore, the Beach Boys, Stevie Wonder, James Brown). Elvis Presley's own Blue Hawaii (1961) featured him playing a surf instructor and adventure guide in the mode of Duke Kahanamoku and the old-time beachboys of Waikiki. These films and documentaries present great opportunities for newbie surf collectors to get a foot in the door. Chidester points out that seasoned collectors are particularly keen on discovering film reels and “short films and full-length documentaries [that were] never released on DVD or even VHS.” (Amongst the most sought-after is the seemingly-lost 1966 film Dr. Strangesurf as directed by indie documentarian Walt Phillips.)
Surf imagery proliferated in advertising and magazines as well during the sixties; surfers showed up on album covers, consumer goods, and billboard ads. Magazines dedicated exclusively surfing quickly emerged—e.g. Surfer Magazine (which launched officially in 1960). Chidester explains that pre-1960 underground surf zines in good condition can go for thousands of dollars per issue.
Original surfing film posters are also highly prized by collectors. Many famous illustrators and graphic designers cut their teeth glamorizing surf culture in fact. Rick Griffin got his start designing title cards and posters for Greg Noll's surf movies and drawing comic strips for Surfer. He would later earn accolades for his famous Grateful Dead posters and contributions to Zap Comix in the hippie era. John Van Hamersveld, known for his iconic Endless Summer poster of 1965, began as a graphic designer at Surfer as well, then went on to create album covers for the Beatles and the Rolling Stones (among others).
Surf music also has a long and stored history, beginning with ancestral Hawaiian songs and chants dating back many centuries, yet today's listeners are more likely to recognize “surf music” from 1960s instrumental bands like the Surfaris, the Chantays, and Dick Dale's Del-Tones. The Beach Boys, Jan & Dean, and the Hondells would garner popularity singing intricate pop tunes about the lifestyle in the sixties and seventies. Some surf culture collectors enjoy focusing on vinyl records, album art, and advertisements for records—the more independent and rare, the generally more coveted and valuable.
Elisa Shoenberger is a researcher and writer. She has published articles and essays at the Boston Globe, the Rumpus, Deadspin, Syfy, and other outlets. She is a regular contributor to Book Riot and is the co-editor and co-founder of The Antelope: A Journal of Oral History and Mayhem.