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Itching to see the jumping flea: The great 1915 ukulele craze

In recent years, the ukulele, or jumping (lele) flea (‘uku) in Hawaiian, has received a renewed appeal. I've heard the instrument make appearances in contemporary songs by bands such as Beirut and The Magnetic Fields, but its history in the U.S. goes way back.

But when did a fondness for the ukulele begin in the United States?

A woman in classical dress with long, dark hair plays a large harp atop orange blooming flowers. Text says "1915 San Francisco" in upper lefthand corner and "March Song" in the right. A tower is in the background with a glowing ball giving off light.

Americans' first experience with the ukulele was during the 1893 Columbian Exposition, held in Chicago. However, the Hawaiian group that performed at this exposition played not in the main exhibition area with other foreign nations or American states, but in the midway area among Indigenous South Pacific islanders, tropical plants, and thatched roof huts. This separate location reinforced their presence as "primitive" peoples who were racially distinct from the so-called "civilized American race" found in the central exposition.

It was not until the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco that Hawai’i had its own building, integrated among the other nations and states' building on the main strip. The Hawaiian Building included an aquarium, gardens, a small bandstand, and free pineapple samples. It is estimated that as many as 34,000 people would visit this small exhibit in one day.

A grainy black and white photograph showing a white, one story building with arches on a street full of people

In a period before common household radios, visitors flocked to hear what was considered to be exotic. The instrument offered a type of escapist music, perhaps welcome in 1915 as concerns regarding World War I rose.

As the demands for ukuleles grew all across the United States, businesses saw opportunity. Mainland companies started selling imitation ukuleles, even passing some off as Hawaiian-made. This resulted in a trademark made by the Honolulu Advertising Club of "Made in Hawai’i." To not infringe on Hawaiian companies, while also fulfilling the need for a louder ukulele, the banjo ukulele was created in early 1916. Advertisements announced that the banjo ukulele has all the "jazz and pep of a banjo, while it has the appealing sweetness of the ukulele."

A ukulele. It is dark in color and only the empty frame is pictured.

There were so many ukuleles and banjo ukuleles that the Young Men Christian Association (YMCA) organized a call for "everybody to take down 'that old ukulele' from the top shelf and send it to the boys 'over there.'" Army regulations forbade soldiers from bringing instruments with them during World War I. In total, the YMCA shipped more than 18,000 musical instruments and 450,000 pieces of sheet music throughout the war. Even the sheet music was most likely ukulele or Hawaiian-themed, as songs like "Oh How She Could Play A Ukulele" and "Yaaka Hula Hickey Dula (Hawaiian Love Song)" were hits of the late 1910s.

Illustration for sheet music that says "Fair Hawaii" at the top in yellow text atop green palm trees. A woman in a lei and grass skirt sits in the center looking at a red, setting sun

But not everyone enjoyed the ukulele's popularity at the time. When the instrument became very popular in the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, a Hawaiian village also sprang up in the midway, featuring a hula dance with male ukulele players. Some people found the dance immoral. Even A. P. Taylor, director of the Hawaiian Building, complained that the midway's act was "vulgar" and "rotten."

The cover to sheet music entitled "Everybody Hula / Hawaiian Hula Song." In three rows, ten women mimic the swaying hula dance wearing grass skirts and baggy tops, most wearing a hairband in their hair. The stand on wood planks with palm fronds in the frame.

Just like its name suggests, this instrument's popularity has sometimes jumped up and down. Today, the ukulele is beloved by many due to the instrument's relative easiness to play, portability, and its lighthearted sound.

Regan Shrumm completed an intern in the Division of Culture and the Arts. She recently finished her master's degree in Art History and Visual Studies at the University of Victoria.