By now you’ve probably seen this image, which was created by Funny or Die:
While there’s nothing funny about what happened at Charlottesville, more than a few pointed out the levity within the act of white supremacists presumably purchasing their torches at a Party City retail outpost.
Tiki Brand, the manufacturer of the torches, swiftly issued a statement distancing themselves from the Neo-Nazis wielding their products.
When some cried cultural appropriation, this got me thinking: Just where are Tiki torches from? So I did a little research.
First off, there is no Tiki people. Tiki is the name of the first human male in the Maori culture’s creation myth; his counterpart in Christianity is Adam. Over time “tiki” was used to refer to stone or wood carvings, presumably of Tiki himself.
It was an American who introduced the notion of “tiki culture” to the ‘States in the 1930s. Ernest Raymond Beaumont-Gantt, an adventurer who had spent years sailing around the Caribbean and the South Pacific, moved to Los Angeles in 1932. He started up a bar called “Don the Beachcomber,” decorating it with Polynesian artifacts he’d collected on his journeys, and concocting a series of rum-based cocktails.
Beaumont-Gantt also served “exotic” Polynesian food, which was, hilariously, actually a series of Cantonese dishes. Considered exotic, Don the Beachcomber became a Hollywood hotspot, and what would later be called “tiki culture”—a marketing term if ever there was one—was born.
In the 1940s, following World War II, tiki-themed restaurants enjoyed a surge in popularity that persisted throughout the ’50s and ’60s. The iconic “tiki torch” was a mainstay of these “tiki bars” and “tiki restaurants,” though there’s no evidence nor record of who the original inventor might have been. Tiki Brand’s website has only a vague mention of their origin:
In the 1950s, tiki culture was in full swing. Pacific Island-themed restaurants, bars and even living rooms were all the rage. At the height of tiki popularity, the first original TIKI® torch was produced, igniting a backyard tradition that still burns brightly over 60 years later.
That seems to indicate that that company’s version of the torch was created in the ’50s.
It’s likely we’ll never know what individual or tribe actually invented the tiki torch, or what its original name was. Meanwhile, internet sleuths are busy determining the identities of tiki-wielders that marched at Charlottesville with lightning-like speed.
What a time that we live in.