Old newspaper clippings show that the same conversations that were happening in the 1860s and 1960s about the struggle to make ends meet are still relevant today.

The cost of living in Hawaii is unsustainable. Food prices are soaring. Housing is gobbling up people’s budgets. Something has to be done to help people make ends meet. 

It’s an argument heard frequently in 2023, but also one made by people living in the islands in 1968. And 1913. And 1862. 

If the cost of living in Honolulu doesn’t drop, “many of our people must leave,” a group of anonymous housewives wrote in 1862 in a letter to The Pacific Commercial Advertiser lamenting the high cost of milk.

“The price of everything we need has gone skyrocketing. When it comes to the question of food it is awful,” John Wilson, the mayor of Honolulu, said in a 1920 speech covered by the Honolulu Star-Bulletin. “But what are we to do about it?” 

A campaign ad from a real estate developer running for the Honolulu City Council in 1968. (Screenshot/Newspapers.com)

A dive into an online archive of Hawaii newspapers shows the extent to which the high cost of living has dominated conversations here for generations.

Some of the stories sound eerily familiar.

People were ordering food from the mainland to avoid the markup at local island grocery stores more than a 100 years before the advent of Amazon Prime. Complaints about teacher pay in 1961 and reporting on worker shortages in 1991 seem like they could be pulled from a story today.

With two children and another on the way, “we find it an absolute impossibility to exist, and I mean exist at the barest of levels, on the present teacher’ salary,” a teacher’s wife wrote The Honolulu Advertiser in 1961. “Many teachers find they must leave the educational field because they just cannot meet the rising costs of living in Hawaii.” 

Some of the solutions proposed in the past, on the other hand, would raise a few eyebrows today.

A 1920 Associated Press story published in the Hilo Herald Tribune was essentially an advertisement for an alternative meat. (Screenshot/newspapers.com)

“Authorities agree that good beer is a FOOD and it would seem that the solution to the high cost of living problem could be found in the greater consumption of beer,” proclaimed a Primo beer advertisement from 1910 trying to capitalize on the rising cost of meat.

How Bad Is It, Really?

The Pacific Commercial Advertiser regularly received letters in the mid-1800s from people in the United States interested in immigrating to the Hawaiian Kingdom.

“Is the cost of living great?” people wanted to know.

In 1865, the answer by the newspaper was that the cost of living was no greater than cities in California. But within a few decades — after the treaty of reciprocity with the United States and the vast expansion of sugar plantations — articles about the cost of living usually agreed that it was far more difficult to make ends meet in Hawaii than cities on the other side of the Pacific.

“Such necessities to the poor man as house rent, beef, mutton, pork, fish, milk and firewood, cost nearly twice as much now as they did four or five years ago,” The Pacific Commercial Advertiser wrote in 1881.

An 1897 newspaper ad in The Hawaiian Gazette tries to convince consumers to buy local. (Screenshot/newspapers.com(

The outsized cost of living in Hawaii was not exactly something that business leaders wanted to publicize though.

In 1929 when a group of physicians in Honolulu argued that insurance companies needed to provide higher fees for industrial accident cases because the cost of living for physicians was 25% to 33.5% higher that it was on the mainland, the insurance company publicly called on the Hawaii Tourist Bureau to intervene.

“I want to take exception to the statement by the medicos,” the insurance officer told the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, referring to the cost of living estimates. “That is a strong statement contrary to what we advertise about Hawaii, and it should be retracted before it is given further publicity, unless it can be proved.”

A more common complaint about the cost of living in Hawaii was that it wasn’t advertised enough. Laborers being recruited to work at sugar plantations often weren’t prepared for how much of their paltry pay would be lost buying basic necessities at plantation-run stores.

“The Spanish and Portuguese aliens seem to be as poorly advised about the probable cost of living in the islands as were the Russian importations by the territorial board,” the commissioner general of immigration wrote in a report in 1913 covered by multiple papers.

Knowing about the problem ahead of time didn’t always ease the sticker shock.

“I knew it was going to be more expensive here, but I just didn’t realize it was going to be that much more expensive,” Ronald C. Johnson, an associate professor at the University of Hawaii told The Honolulu Advertiser in a 1968 article about UH professors leaving for the mainland because of the cost of living.

By 1974, politicians were starting to talk about needing to do something to address the out-migration of residents to the mainland — an issue that hasn’t been resolved to this day.

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What seems to be happening is that low-income, blue-collar and middle-income folks are leaving Hawaii for the West Coast, gubernatorial candidate and former Lt. Gov. Thomas Gill said in a campaign event in 1974 covered by the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, arguing that more needed to be done to create adequate jobs and entice people in Hawaii to stay home.

“We should not create a rich retired community,” he warned.

Who’s To Blame?

For as long as people have been lamenting the high cost of living, they’ve also been arguing over what is the root cause of the “paradise tax” and how to fix it.

“Holy Smoke!” Sen. Eugene S. Capella of the Territorial Senate wrote in a 1947 letter to the editor lamenting the ever-increasing cost of food and goods. “When will the consumer be recognized and when will the dealers appease their greedy appetites for gain?” 

Capella complained that there was little the Territorial Senate could do about prices without action from Congress first, and suggested that perhaps businesses were marking up prices unfairly and hiding the profits to escape taxation.

Some of the same ideas have been tossed about decade after decade without a solution: Unfair taxation rates. A shipping monopoly. Buyers from elsewhere driving up housing prices.

A letter to the Honolulu Advertiser in 1947 blames the high cost of dairy on the consumer choices. (Screenshot/newspapers.com)

Other views have been pushed with a decidedly sinister motive. While rejecting a plea from Japanese workers for an increase in wages, The Hawaii Sugar Planters Association offered this racist chastisement in 1920: Filipino workers are able to save money. If they can, Japanese workers should be able to do the same with the wages they have.

Blaming the consumer for the cost of goods has long been a recurrent issue. Decades before the struggle of millennials to afford homes was blamed on their consumption of avocado toast, there was this 1947 suggestion from the president of Western Dairy Products: If consumers were willing to consumer cheaper fats, perhaps the cost of butter wouldn’t be so high.

“If a housekeeper, instead of standing in front of a telephone to order the family supplies, would go to the market and learn what foods are the cheapest and what are dear, there would be less of this kind of talk,” a railroad builder said in a 1910 issue of The Honolulu Times, “The high cost of living is the cost of living high.”

And of course, there are the companies that have tried to capitalize on the high costs of other products. Like that Primo ad from 1910, which referenced a rise in the cost of meat across the United States and a popular movement to “abstain from a meat diet as protest against its high cost.”

Part of a 1910 advertisement for Primo beer that seeks to capitalize on a movement in the United States to abstain from meat in protest of rising costs. (Screenshot/newspapers.com)

And then there’s this sentiment, which appears again and again: Whatever the increased costs, what is the value of living in a place like Hawaii?

“And finally, to those who complain about the high living costs in Hawaii, this question might be put: Would you exchange your residence in Hawaii, immediately, for residence on the mainland?” asked the unnamed author of a 1938 column in the Honolulu Star-Bulletin. “All things considered, would you rather live there than here?”

Struggling To Get By” is part of our series on “Hawaii’s Changing Economy” which is supported by a grant from the Hawaii Community Foundation as part of its CHANGE Framework project.

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