Unraveling Lei

A history of Hawai‘i’s prosperous lei trade and its native vendors.

Text By
Kylie Yamauchi

By 1931, the lei business had grown steadily, with about 200 lei sellers across the islands.

The lei is a familiar symbol of aloha. Fragrant flower garlands are bestowed on arriving travelers as a warm welcome. Honorees peek out from head-high stacks of lei from friends and family at graduation. Grandparents teach their grandchildren how to delicately string plumeria flowers picked from their yards. Lei are believed to have existed since the arrival of the first Polynesian settlers in Hawai‘i. However, lei-making didn’t evolve into a trade until the late 19th century. When it did, these garlands fueled an economy for Native Hawaiians and immigrants.

The origin of lei traces back to when ali‘i (chiefs) wore lei hulu manu (feather lei) as a symbol of royal status. Preserved lei have shown that lei hulu manu were also gifted to visiting ship captains, perhaps starting the tradition of giving lei as a greeting. Hula dancers wove long strands of maile, an endemic leafy plant, into sinewy lei they wore for their practice. When making lei to adorn themselves, gift to their gods, or present to peers, Hawaiians used shells, kukui nuts, and foliage such as ti leaf.

Lei-making transformed into a profitable trade during the late 1800s, when laborers from China, Japan, and the Philippines were immigrating to Hawai‘i to work on the plantations and Honolulu was transforming into a modern city, attracting foreign visitors and dignitaries. This influx to the islands possibly accounted for the demand for lei. By the turn of the century, lei had become a staple in Hawai‘i’s local culture.

The pioneers of the lei trade were predominantly Native Hawaiian women; many could provide for their families with a one-woman venture. Lei sellers purchased large amounts of flowers to make into lei from local gardeners mostly working out of their backyards. Bessie Watson from Hawai‘i Island sold vanda orchids to lei sellers before becoming one herself during the Korean War, which she shared in an oral history recorded in 1986 by University of Hawai‘i’s Center for Oral History. “Before, in Hilo, everybody’s yard had vanda orchids,” she said. “When you flew over Hilo, all what you see was purple patches.” Other popular flowers during the 1900s were carnations, snowball hydrangea, plumeria, and pua kenikeni.

With string, sewing needles, and long hours, fresh lei were ready to sell the next day. The first lei sellers frequented Honolulu’s Hotel Street with just a mat and their wares, drawing local customers from the industrious working area. Back then, lei sold for around 50 cents based on the type of flower; the pleasant pīkake made for a pricier lei. Other lei sellers set up shop by the piers where liner ships ferried masses of visitors. While lei is meant to greet or honor, it can also be used as a goodbye. In the 1920s, it became a tradition for departing visitors to throw lei into the ocean when the liner passed Diamond Head, a symbolic gesture of future returns to Hawai‘i.

By 1931, the lei business had grown steadily, with about 200 lei sellers across the islands. But as World War II reached the territory, many of the sellers had to give up the trade or adapt to survive in a military zone. With a decrease in tourism, some sellers shifted focus to a new customer base—the military. In Ka Po‘e Kau Lei, UH’s oral history project, lei seller Sophie Ventura recalled being invited to Maluhia Recreation Center, a facility for armed forces personnel. There, she set up a stand that was frequented by military personnel buying lei for their lovers or visiting family. During this time, she grew her own flowers or gathered them from public areas.

In 1945, as World War II came to an end, a handful of lei sellers set up shop at Lagoon Drive bordering Honolulu’s airport. Creating makeshift stands with their cars, lei sellers caught the eyes of newly arriving and departing visitors. Tours bulk-ordered lei for upcoming guests from their chosen vendors. Business proved so lucrative that by 1952, the lei sellers of Lagoon Drive moved into government-funded grass shacks at the airport. Wooden signs displayed the names of each lei seller—“Dorothy’s,” “Sophia’s”—paying homage to the patrons behind each humble business. Each grass shack held curtains of lei and had a small space for the seller to string more as the day went by. This lei market also became popular among locals. Many students headed to prom or graduation parties purchased lei there, since it was much cheaper than buying from florists.

Over the years, lei sellers have expanded their offerings, adding lei po‘o (head lei), roses, and stalks of ginger to their wares. Some lei sellers stayed at the airport, while others opened stores in Chinatown and other neighborhoods. Lei are even shipped to the U.S. continent, despite the short lifespans of the flowers, for college graduations or other special occasions. Most importantly, flowers are still picked or purchased, stringing and weaving is still done by hand, and customers still come by the many. Hawai‘i will always need lei, just as we will always need aloha.


By 1931, the lei business had grown steadily, with about 200 lei sellers across the islands.

Lei-making evolved into a trade in the late 19th century.

The pioneers of the lei trade were predominantly Native Hawaiian women.

The lei is a familiar symbol of aloha.

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