Friday, February 21, 2014

Answer: How much did it cost to travel to Hawai'i in 1908?

The questions were straightforward.  

1.  How much would it cost to travel from San Francisco to Hawai'i?   
2.  About how long would it take to get from San Francisco to Honolulu?   
3.  (Extra credit) If you were an average guy living in San Francisco at the time, was this just ridiculously expensive, or could just about anyone afford the fare?  (Another way to think about this--what fraction of an average annual salary would the round-trip fare be?  If it's more than 10% of an annual paycheck, that's too much.)  

As most everyone figured out, the simplest way to find out the cost was to look in newspapers of the time for San Francisco.  Unfortunately, the Google News Archive doesn't HAVE any newspapers from San Francisco, so you have to look around for that first.  

     [ news archive San Francisco ] 

quickly leads us to the California Digital Newspaper Collection.  (The first result is for the Library of Congress collection, but they'll just point you to the CDNC.)  

At the CDNC site, you can search for: 

     [ 1908 Honolulu ] 

     [ 1908 Steamship Hawaii ] 

or something similar, and you'll find multiple hits (often in the advertisements section).  Here's one:  

Advertisement in the San Francisco Call, 16 June 1908.  From: CDNC.  

That pretty clearly answers it.  It might have been a reduced rate, but it was $110.  (And, interestingly, only $125 for a round-trip to Tahiti, which was the "normal" rate to Hawaii.)  

If you look around for a bit, you'll find there were multiple steamships travelling from San Francisco to Honolulu.  This is an ad for the S.S. Mariposa.  The S.S. Alameda also went to Hawaii.  Here's a photo that Jon (the Unknown) found with a couple contemporary ships and images of the docks. 

From Wikimedia commons archives. 
If you're interested, here's a manifest of the S.S. Alameda's passengers traveling to San Francisco from Hawaii in April 1908.  It's mostly immigrants of Spanish and Portuguese descent, looking to get away from Hawai'i.  (And one Miss Carrie Gilbert, a person of "Anglo Saxon" origin.)  

Average salary:  Figuring out the true average salary would be a great research task in-and-of itself.  But if we do a quick ballpark figure by searching for: 

     [ "average salary" 1908 San Francisco ] 

you'll get a bunch of off-topic hits.  But since this is a historical topic, I switched immediately to Books and did my search there where I found the United States Department of Education Bulletin, Issues 41-55 (covering the years 1903 - 1915).  I chose this because it would give me average salary for a school-teacher in San Francisco during those years.  

If you look at the salary table on page 74, you'll see that the average salary was around $1,000. 

But in reading around through this text, I learned that the word "wages" was often used to describe income.  I changed my query to be: 

     [ wages San Francisco 1908 ] 

which led me to a wealth of books resources.  (I found more tables of wages for different kinds of workers in 1908 than I could believe.)  Although there was a fair amount of wage disparity, the average worker seemed to make between $400 - $600 / year.  Schoolteachers seemed to be at the upper end of the income bracket.  

In any case, for most people, $110 or $125 is a big chunk of their annual income.  This certainly was above the discretionary income for most people at the time.  It was definitely something you'd save for over a number of years.  

Crossing time:  Now that we know how to find the advertisements, it's not hard to work out that the advertised crossing time was about 6 days.  (Although the actual time spent onboard might have varied up to 10 days, depending on weather, currents, etc.)   I really liked Rosemary's find of the Hittell's Hand-book of Pacific Coast Travel.  Wherein we find
"The trip from San Francisco to Honolulu is made 6 days by the steamers Mariposa and Alameda each of leaving San Francisco on the 1st and 15th of every month cabin passage $75 round trip $125 steerage $25 By sailing vessel the time may be 18 days and first cabin passage $40"  

This book was published a few years before 1908, so the prices probably had risen by 1908 to the amounts quoted above.  

It's worth noting that the price of a room in the Hawaiian Hotel in Honolulu (on Wakiki) was $3/day.  Just to calibrate the cost of travel... 

1908 was quite a year.  While looking for the answers, I also discovered that in 1908, "... Hawaiian Pineapple Growers' Association organized "to secure greater economy and improvement in the methods of cultivating, packing, transportation and marketing of pineapples and the products thereof." The Association begins a campaign to popularize use of the fruit." 

And so it began.  With the Great White Fleet providing an impressive backdrop, the Hawaiian pineapple production starts to grow.  But that's a story for another SearchResearch Challenge.  

Search lessons:  As we've seen before, you sometimes have to be aware of the language that's being used (such as not "salary" but "wage").  This is especially true for changes in language over time.  Once you find that first high-quality hit, pay attention the words and terms that are used.  They will often be valuable in the next set of searches.  

And, when searching for historical context, don't forget to search in Books and newspaper archives.  Even though Google News didn't have any SF papers, they're widely available.  Don't get bogged down just because one resource doesn't have what you want.  You can always search it out! 

Thanks for all of the comments, SearchResearchers.  You do a spectacular job on these challenges.  Keep it up! 


  1. Hello Dr. Russell and everyone!

    This SearchResearch Challenge was very fun and interesting. The posts were very useful and I learned as usual a lot. Thanks!

    Reading your answer; I learned a different path to find it. I never thought doing the search starting with your way. The key words are also a great advice. I was looking for them. Now I know "crossing time" (I searched with other words like: travel duration, time and others like that". Also, searching, found another key word that I am trying: "facts and figures."

    I love, just as you do Dr. Russell, finding new connectors that appears with each of your challenges.

    Talking about Pineapples: "The Lost Gardens of Heligan employs Victorian techniques that involve growing the pineapples" The World's Most Expensive Pineapple Will Make You Second Guess Your Fruit Salad

    17 Mind-Boggling Facts About Pineapplest This post was shared on this week by Guy Kawasaki on Google Plus.

    Finally, a question for you, Dr. Russell and others that have been in Hawaii. Pineapple is really better there than the same fruit in other parts of the world?

    Have a fantastic weekend.

    1. Ramón - you may already be familiar with this - it's an aggregator put together by Guy Kawasaki - you may enjoy giving it a look…
      about - Nononina & Guy Kawasaki

      The origins of pineapples are in Andes in South America.
      9th largest producer
      olé piña
      wiki pineapple