Collecting Tiki Mugs: From Trader Vic’s to Tiki Farm
Tiki mugs have been around nearly as long as the first generation of Polynesian-style restaurants. The first of these, Don’s Beachcomber Cafe – later named Don the Beachcomber – opened in Los Angeles, California in 1934. A second, Trader Vic’s of Oakland, California, quickly followed suit. Both establishments served up exotic homemade cocktails, filled with rum, fruit and lots of imagination. These tropical libations were served in decorative ceramic mugs with designs loosely based on Hawaiian or Polynesian themes. And the best part – customers could take the glazed mugs home with them as a souvenir! Seeing Don and Vic’s success, imitators of these first Polynesiana restaurants began to spread out of California.
After World War II, servicemen and women returned to the U.S. from the Pacific Theater and fueled a tiki culture explosion that lasted into the 1960s. Tiki bars and restaurants popped up all over the country. Importers, art studios and ceramics manufacturers cranked out all kinds tiki mugs, defining an Americanized Polynesian pop style. Popular designs included Hawaiian tiki gods and goddesses, moai statues, monkeys, hula girls, coconuts, volcanoes, bamboo sticks, skulls, and even East Asian designs like the Buddha and geisha girls. Some became famous and have been copied extensively ever since. Fu Manchu, Tiki Bob, Surfer Girl, and Trader Vic’s Suffering Bastard are a few examples.
Read more about Tiki Culture History and Today’s Trend
Where to Start?
Before leaping into the tiki mug scene, it’s a good idea to do some research. After all, we’re talking 70-plus years of tiki mug history here! Collectors Weekly has a great article on tiki culture and vintage tiki mugs. You’ll definitely want to spend time on Tiki Central, a discussion group site devoted to all things tiki, including mugs. You’ll learn a lot by reading posts from experienced collectors from all over the world. You can learn about tiki mugs and store information about your own collection at Ooga-Mooga. Here, collectors can upload images, track data and buy and trade mugs with others. If you’re more of a book person, Jay Strongman’s Tiki Mugs: Cult Artifacts of Polynesian Pop will cost you, but it’s the bible for tiki mug lovers. General books on tiki culture include Sven Kirsten’s Tiki Pop and The Book of Tiki.
Vintage Tiki Mugs
Because many vintage mugs were made for restaurants, the establishment name is one piece of information tiki mug collectors look for. Famous tiki lounges of yesterday include Don the Beachcomber, Trader Vic’s, The Islander (Stockton, CA), Shanghai Lil’s (Chicago), Mai Kai (Ft. Lauderdale), The Luau (Beverly Hills) and the Tonga Room (San Francisco). The manufacturing company also adds depth to a vintage mug’s pedigree. Otagiri, Orchids of Hawaii, Desert Ceramics, Paul Marshall Products (PMP), Frankoma, and HF Pottery are among early manufacturers. Model numbers, the artist’s name and limited edition runs, if known, are also important in identifying early tiki cups.
Go ahead, you’re dying to ask: What was the first tiki mug? The answer is, no one knows! Collectors speculate, but the Holy Grail of tiki mugs is likely lost to history. But the good news is, it’s probably filled with mai tai!
Modern Tiki Mugs
Tiki mugs are as popular as ever today thanks to a tiki revival that began in the 1990s. Several companies make mugs for use in restaurants, but you can typically buy these at retail stores as well. You can find nearly any design in any theme to suit your fancy, including reproductions of vintage mugs. Today, a new generation of talented artists is putting its own cutting-edge stamp on tiki culture. Their creative designs pay homage to tradition while adding artistic vision that’s just out of this world. Designers with cool names like Bosko, Shag, Gecko, Thor and Tom “Big Toe” Laura have made tiki cool again.
Many of these artist mugs are limited editions and thus highly collectible. Sticking with the traditions of yesterday, many are commissioned by specific restaurants and bars. So just like in the 1950s, you can make a vacation pilgrimage to a famous tiki bar and go home with a souvenir mug. Or you can jump on Ebay and see how much a mug from Frankie’s Tiki Room, Bali Hai, or Trader Sam’s Enchanted Tiki Bar at Disneyland is going for!
Today, the biggest name in tiki themed drinkware is Tiki Farm, founded in 2000 by “the hardest working man in tiki,” Holden Westland. His San Clemente, California based company has energized a tiki tidal wave with its high-quality yet affordable collectible mugs. Designs run from whimsical and funky to strikingly majestic, and are created by some of the most talented and popular artists on the contemporary tiki scene. Limited edition mugs have short runs and are extremely popular with collectors. One example is the Endless Summer Tiki Mug, made to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the surfer movie and limited to 500 pieces. Technically, even Tiki Farm’s open edition mugs are limited, as they’re produced for a short time. This high turnover guarantees a stream of fresh designs, and makes Tiki Farm mugs highly prized by tiki enthusiasts. In addition to mugs sold directly to customers, Tiki Farm has produced custom mugs for an impressive list of clients, including Disneyland, Mattel, Hard Rock Cafe, Anheuser-Busch, Fender Instruments, Emeril Lagassi, Trader Vic’s, the House of Blues and many more.
Whether you stick with current tiki mugs or want to take a stab at collecting vintage vessels, just remember that tiki mugs are all about fun. Rare or common, the best tiki mugs are the ones that make you say “Wow!” You can start by checking out our own tiki mug page to get some ideas and go from there. We also recommend Frankie’s Tiki Room for unique but affordable collectible mugs designed by top tiki artists. Frankie’s is a Las Vegas tiki lounge that sells their cool mugs onsite and online (but of course, it’s always more fun to go there!).
Good luck, and have fun!
Retro Planet Tiki Mugs: http://www.retroplanet.com/CTGY/Tiki-Mugs
Collectors Weekly: http://www.collectorsweekly.com/kitchen/tiki-mugs
Tiki Central: http://www.tikiroom.com/tikicentral/bb/
Frankie’s Tiki Room: http://www.frankiestikiroom.com