Elephants in the (Reading) Room

Written by Joseph Ditta, Reference Librarian.

Apropos of nothing, here are two elephant “firsts” from the library collections.

The Elephant (Newburyport, Mass.: William Barrett, 1797) Broadside SY1797 no. 26.

Although most accounts refer to it in the masculine, the first elephant brought to the United States (through New York, of course!), was actually female. Some sources call her “Old Bet,” and she arrived on 13 April 1796 aboard the ship America, commanded by Jacob Crowninshield of Salem, Massachusetts. Crowninshield bought the elephant in Bengal then promptly sold her to showmen who exhibited her along the eastern seaboard (she was later owned by Hachaliah Bailey of Ringling Bros., Barnum & Bailey Circus fame). Advertisements like this 1797 broadside from Newburyport, Massachusetts, appeared wherever Old Bet did, describing her skill at uncorking bottles of “spirituous liquors” with her trunk. The circumstances of her demise are vague: she died sometime between 1816 and 1827 in either Maine, North Carolina, or Rhode Island, most likely from unnatural causes. A monument to Old Bet stands outside the Elephant Hotel in Somers, New York.

Thomas Nast, “The Third-Term Panic,” Harper’s Weekly, 7 November 1874.

The image of an elephant as the symbol for the Republican Party was by no means fixed in American minds before 1874, when Harper’s Weekly ran this Thomas Nast cartoon. “The Third-Term Panic” was Nast’s response to editorials in the New York Herald that raised fears Republican President Ulysses Grant might seek an unprecedented third consecutive term (he did not pursue the Republican nomination in 1876, but was again a candidate, albeit an unsuccessful one, in 1880). The ass in lion’s clothing (i.e., the New York Herald) is frightening all the animals of the forest (the other newspapers and states of the Union), including the not-so-staid elephant (the Republican Party), some of whose followers were led to vote Democrat. Nast’s elephant gained recognition as later political cartoonists followed suit. In 1966 the Republican Congressional Committee sponsored a contest to name what had by then become the universal symbol for the Grand Old Party. The winning entry? “Republic Ann.” (Get it? “Republic Ann” = “Republican.”)



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