A Nineteenth-Century Honolulu Gossip Rag

The book arrived in Honolulu by ship from San Francisco on New Year’s Day, 1863, and soon caused a stir throughout the city. It begins by revealing the author’s intent to allow his colleagues “to see themselves as others see them” so that “in all their underhanded dealing, they may hesitate.” The slim volume offers bracingly frank descriptions of 31 leading Honolulu merchants, in terms that border on slanderous. Issued anonymously and distributed to its subjects in the dead of night, The Honolulu Merchant’s Looking-Glass remains one of the great curiosities–and rarities–of Hawaiian literature. One of only two known first editions is among the more scandalous highlights in our September 28 auction of Printed & Manuscript Americana.


Lot 126: The Honolulu Merchants’ Looking Glass, first edition, San Francisco, 1862. Estimate $6,000 to $9,000.


Let’s meet some of the victims:

John Hackfeld “has saved quite a small fortune through being mean and parsimonious.”

John T. Waterhouse is “eccentric, and full of tricks.”

William Stott “is notorious for his great size, weighing some 300 pounds” and “has a weakness for attending native feasts, and admiring native dancing girls.”

Thomas Spencer “has a most notorious reputation for women of a tender age.”

Perhaps the harshest words are reserved for Alexander Cartwright, often regarded as the inventor of baseball from his days back in New York: “Has probably a better capacity for pulling wool over shipmasters’ eyes than any other man in the community. . . . Is very vindictive, and does not scruple at anything where there is money to be made. Is generally disliked, and by many considered a dangerous man to confide in.”



The provenance of this copy is significant. It was originally owned by Honolulu merchant Charles Lewis Richards,  a partner in the mercantile firm of Wilcox & Richards. According to a 1913 note attached to the only other known surviving first edition, “this booklet was published by P.S. Wilcox of Wilcox & Richards. . . . At the suggestion of Wilcox it was written out by Widderfield, printed for Wilcox in S.F., sent down on the Comet and Wilcox delivered it in person at night by placing a copy at each doorway in town.” This, then, would be the copy belonging to the instigator’s business partner.

If the attribution is correct, we should not be surprised that the pamphlet has nothing too damning to say of the firm of Wilcox & Richards: “P.S. Wilcox apparently delights in opposition, and is a man who would do a great deal to carry his own point. . . . Has no particularly visible weakness. C.L. Richards, the junior partner . . . is a good buyer, a smart salesman, and shrewd in a trade . . . and, as currently reported, has a weakness for women.”


Edward Bailey & Samuel P. Kalama, Honolulu as seen from the foot of Puawaina, Punch-bowl hill, engraving with contemporary manuscript notes, 1837. Sold May 19, 2015 for $70,000.


The idyllic city was in uproar. On January 8, 1863, the editor of the Pacific Commercial Advertiser wrote, “Most contemptible. Honolulu is periodically disturbed with some new scandal, that serves as gossip for our community … The last apple of discord comes in the form of a pamphlet of some twenty pages, entitled The Honolulu Merchants’ Looking Glass …. It made its appearance the day after the arrival of the Comet, and during the night following, a number of copies were distributed among town, some thrown into the premises of foreign residents, or left at the doors of stores … It was evidently … printed… at some newspaper office at the coast. The author, in his preface, admits that his object is to injure others, but hopes that the wounds inflicted may heal soon, and that the parties will learn to mind their own business, and not meddle with that of others. Short biographical sketches are written for the most part good-naturedly, with the prominent traits of each one, and his supposed money value, being stated, with disparaging or eulogistic comments, as the authors fancy dictated … Those who have been specially singled out as the objects of attack will probably take steps to ferret out the author, and we trust they may be successful.”

The only other surviving copy of the first edition is currently in the collection of the Hawaiian Mission Children’s Society Library.

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