This Car Accessory Started as a Wartime Souvenir

Are you looking to customize your car to make it feel uniquely yours? Many people add practical accessories like steering wheel covers or air fresheners that also add a touch of personality. If you want something more whimsical, consider a hula doll. This vintage dashboard accessory will certainly grab attention.  

Imagine driving down the road with a retro-style hula doll swaying to the movement of your car. It’s one of the most iconic dashboard ornaments you could choose to personalize your ride. And like fuzzy dice, these tiny dancers have an interesting war story behind them.

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A 1957 Chevy with a dashboard hula girl | Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post via Getty Images

According to Planet Retro, Hawaii was a popular tourist destination in the early 20th century, and hula dolls were an equally popular souvenir. They were small, easy to pack, and highly evocative of the exotic — and still somewhat mysterious — islands from which they came. Most of these tiny dolls were made of unglazed bisque porcelain and were carefully hand-painted before donning grass skirts and fabric leis. 

After Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and the U.S. entered World War II, many American servicepeople spent time on the Hawaiian islands. And like the tourists before them, quite a few military members chose hula dolls as wartime souvenirs of the islands. They were also popular gifts for family and friends back home.

In fact, these tropical figurines became one of the most popular souvenirs ever during and after the war. Many Americans had at least one of these dolls decorating their car dashboard or a shelf in their home.

Creating the dashboard hula doll

By the 1950s, the popular Hawaiian dolls had received a dashboard-friendly makeover. Instead of using breakable bisque porcelain, manufacturers switched to plastic and added spring-loaded legs that let the hula dolls wiggle their hips as they traveled down the road. A strong magnet inserted in the base allowed car owners to attach the figurines to the metal dashboards of the era.

The hula nodders were especially popular with surfers and the California beach crowd, but the craze soon spread across the nation. Erie Insurance reports these tiny dancing dolls became iconic car accessories, and everyone wanted one decorating their dash. In an ironic twist, factories in war-torn Japan began producing the popular Hawaiian dolls to meet the increased demand.

You can still see them on dashboards

A smile-inducing part of American pop culture, these classic car accessories are still wiggling on dashboards. But now, they’re attached with double-sided tape instead of magnets. Some are even solar-powered to keep them dancing even when the car stops. Sometimes they even inspire a whole tropical makeover to a vehicle.

In a world of practical car accessories and high-tech gadgets, it feels comforting to embrace a little nostalgia and retro style. Unusual accessories, like a dancing hula doll, give a car personality and help it stand out from the crowd. They’re also a great conversation starter at the local auto shop or burger joint.

For those plucky enough to add one to their car, these Hawaiian-inspired figurines still dance down the road while patting their hair or playing the ukulele, delighting with their vintage charm.  

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