Sunday, August 31, 2014

Jump on the Bandwagon

Political Rallies and Circus Parades - 
the History and Etymology of "Jump on the Bandwagon"

At the 1884 Republican National Convention in Chicago, Dwight M. Sabin, Senator from Minnesota and Chairman of the Republican National Committee, addressed the convention in support of the Republican nominee for President, James G. Blaine.  In his speech, Senator Sabin announced:

. . . that Minnesota had concluded to be solid for Blain, “getting into the band wagon.”  Sabin delivered it well, and his “getting into the band wagon” was very generally listened to, which is saying a good deal in a convention where scarcely anything was heard but yells and cat calls.

St. Paul (Minnesota) Daily Globe, June 9, 1884, page 4, column 7.

The Daily Globe’s report of Sabin’s speech is the earliest known appearance of the idiom, “get into the band wagon,” in print (“jump into the band wagon” appeared by 1888).  In light of the special reporting of the phrase, and the attention the phrase is said to have received at the convention, it seems possible, if not likely, that Dwight M. Sabin (or his speechwriter) coined the idiom.  Even if he did not coin the idiom, his inclusion of the idiom in a speech before a national audience of power-brokers, businessmen and journalists may well have been the catalyst necessary for the idiom to gain wider acceptance and use.

The Saturday Evening Post, October 6, 1906

The Idiom

The word “bandwagon,” originally a wagon that carried a band, is now used to refer to any, “activity, group, movement, etc. that has become successful or fashionable and so attracts many new people: a bandwagon effect.”[i]  The related idiom, to “jump on the bandwagon,” means “to join an activity that has become very popular or to change your opinion to one that has become very popular so that you can share in its success.”[ii]  Both expressions are based on the use of bandwagons as a mode of advertising, frequently for circuses or politicians.  

“Bandwagon” (or band wagon) is often dated to 1855, when it appeared in P. T. Barnum’s autobiography.[iii]  The idiom, “to jump on the bandwagon,” is often dated to an 1899 letter written by Theodore Roosevelt.[iv]  But both the word and the expression are decades older than generally believed.  Senator Sabin’s speech, at the Republican National Convention of 1884, shows that the idiom is older.  Earlier newspaper accounts of political campaigns and circus parades demonstrate that the word is much older yet.

The Kansas Herald of Freedom, May 22, 1858, page 3.

Band Wagons

Bandwagons were used in political campaigns long before the idiom, “jump into the bandwagon,” was first coined.  The “bandwagon effect,” although not referred to by that name, was already on full display in 1855, the same year in which P. T. Barnum published his autobiography:

[A]s your Know-Nothing neighbor says: “Sam geared up his band wagon, told his boys to get their whistles and come along – catch up some fellow to make a speech, and all would be right.”  The wagon was “geared up,” and as a writer in the Age says: while Mr. Johnston was speaking, the band came along playing a lively air, and took most of his hearers up street to listen to the music and a Know-Nothing speech from a Welshman. . . .

Cooper’s Clarksburg Register (Clarksburg, Virginia), March 21, 1855, page 2.

The use of bandwagons for political purposes was not new in 1855.  “Band wagons,” themselves, were also not new.  A circus history time line, provided by The Circus In America, 1793 – 1940, dates the first us of circus wagons to 1835.  Presumably, circus wagons with performing bands onboard were used shortly, if not immediately, thereafter. 

The earliest use of “band wagon,” that I could find dates from just a few years later, in 1842.  Interestingly, however, it appeared in a reference to a political rally, not a circus bandwagon:

We feel no disposition to crow over the unfortunate, but we tell the whig leaders, with their four band wagons, their foreign silk flags, and their Giraffes[v] that the days of humbuggery have gone by.

The Ohio Democrat (Canal Dover, Ohio), September 15, 1842, page 3, column 2.

It is not clear from the context whether the term, “band wagon,” was already a standard, idiomatic expression or merely one of several ways to describe a large conveyance carrying a band.  But an item on the same page of the same paper might suggest that the expression, “band wagon,” was not yet standard.  An advertisement for S. H. Nichols’ “unequalled troop of Equestrians and Splendid Dramatic Performances,” describes what sounds like a circus parade with a band and circus wagons, but does not use the expression “band wagon”:

A superior Band is attached to this company, and on entering each city or village will head the numerous train of twenty-one new and elegant carriages of the most costly description . . . .

The Ohio Democrat (Canal Dover, Ohio), September 15, 1842, page 3, column 5. 

Two years later, an account of more bands on more wagons in a political rally also avoids the term, “band wagon”:

Second Whig State Convention in Ohio.
Correspondence of The Tribune. Columbus, Ohio, Feb. 22, 1844.
. . . [E]very road leading to our city was thronged with stages, wagons and horses, many of them carrying bands of music with banners flying . . . .

New York Daily Tribune, February 28, 1844, page 2, column 3.

But in 1848, the expression “band wagon” appears in association with both political campaigns and circuses:

Locofoco Pole Raising. 

. . . The Circleville delegation was the last, but not the least; it consisted of one band wagon drawn by four horses, one two-horse wagon, and two or three other vehicles.  The band wagon contained six little children, one man with a five and one boy with a drum! That’s all.

The Lancaster Gazette, Lancaster, Pennsylvania, September 8, 1848, page 2;

A string of half a dozen Elks went through town a day or two ago.  We understand they belong to the Messrs Mabie, and are to be trained this winter for the purpose of drawing the band wagon of the Circus establishment owned by these gentlemen.  Beloit, Wis. Journal, 23d ult.

Vermont Phoenix, Brattleboro, Vermont, December 22, 1848, page 1.

A cartoon from the 1848 Presidential campain may illustrate the meaning expressed in the later idiom.  In the first panel, a wagon filled with band members makes its way to a rally in support of the Whig Party candidate, Zachary Taylor.  In the second panel, the band is no where to be seen at the rally itself, as though they had jumped off the proverbial "bandwagon."

"THE PHILADELPHIA BRASS BAND, As it appeared on its way to the Taylor Meeting."

"THE PHILADELPHIA BRASS BAND, As it appeared when at the Taylor Meeting." The John Donkey, Volume 2, Number 1, July 1, 1848, page 13.

The popularity of band wagons seems to have led to technological advances in bandwagon technology.  In 1852, “a large band wagon on a new principle, by John B. Young,” was singled out for “approbation” at the Northumberland County Agricultural Fair in Pennsylvania.[vi]

During the following decades, the word “band wagon” is used with increasing frequency with reference to circuses, political rallies, and military and civic bands.  Band wagons were also available for rent; a sort of mobile, attention-getting billboard:

That Band Wagon. Los Angeles, April 3, 1888.

Editors Herald: - Mr. Collins has informed the City Council that he has heard of several severe accidents having occurred by reason of the parade of the “advertising band wagon.” . . . Mr. Collins cannot prove that anybody has been killed or hurt by reason of the parading band wagon.

Los Angeles Daily Herald, April 7, 1888, page 3, column 1.  A brief film-clip, shot by the Thomas Edison company on South Street in los Angeles in 1898, clearly shows a trumpet player sitting at the back of a horse-drawn wagon – is this a “band wagon”? – is it the same bandwagon ten years later?

Get Into the Band Wagon

In 1884, after more than four decades of use in political campaigns, “band wagon” jumped on the idiom bandwagon, to become a figurative, idiomatic expression that would remain a fixture in the language.  The first reported use of the expression, “get into the band wagon,” was in Dwight M. Sabin’s speech before the 1884 Republican National Convention.  The specific, repeated reference to the phrase, the comment that Sabin “delivered it well,” and the observation that the expression was “very generally listened to” in an otherwise noisy and chaotic convention, all suggest that Sabin’s turn of phrase was something new at the time.  It seems plausible, if not likely, that Senator Sabin (or his speechwriter) coined the expression for the occasion. 
But whether Sabin coined the expression or not, the expression seems to have remained, largely, a regional idiom for several years; centered in the Upper Midwest, in and around Senator Sabin’s home state of Minnesota and in the Dakota Territory.  Through the end of the 1880s, most of the various metaphorical uses of “band wagon” that I could find in print are from or relate to events in the Upper Midwest, particularly in association with the Dakota Territory statehood debates (one Dakota or two):

It was at first proposed to have [the meeting of the Democratic club of New Ulm] private . . ., but as soon as this was announced there was a strong protest.  There are a good many who are anxious to be in the procession just now, and they want to get into the band wagon too.

New Ulm (Minnesota) Review, February 25, 1885;

And the fact is, Kansas leads the procession – band wagon and all.

Phillipsburg (Kansas) Herald, June 13, 1885;

Mr. Keith is one of the most aggressive and creditable citizens of South Dakota, and will be found on the lead horse when the band wagon turns the corner.

Bismark (Dakota Territory) Weekly Tribune, February 11, 1887;

Mr. Fuller [(Chief Justice Melvin Fuller)] was never ‘one of the boys.’ He never followed the band wagon.

New York Tribune, May 6, 1888 (quoting an article from the Chicago Mail);

When Dakota sees clearly which way the wind blows, she will jump on the band-wagon and blow her full quota of instruments.  She will try to get on the wagon in time to get good seats, and you may depend upon it, Dakota will try to be in the front rank for the winning candidate.  Dakota is for division and admission first, last and all the time.

New York Tribune (quoting Colonel W. C. Plummer, of the Dakota delegation), June 21, 1888;

New York and Vermont were the only states and Dakota the only territory that began voting solid for Harrison on the first ballot of the last day.  On the second ballot New Hampshire came into line and on the third of the last day, or eighth of the session, there was a general scramble to get on the band wagon where Dakota had so early in the day secured a comfortable seat.

Bismarck (Dakota Territory) Weekly Tribune, June 29, 1888;

Get on the Band Wagon

St. Paul Daily Globe, July 28, 1888;

. . . one of the last to climb into the band wagon was Waldo M. Potter . . .
The fact of the matter is that Stutsman county got into the band wagon before the race commenced and remained there and played one of the instruments when the combination went under the wire a winner.
The rustling qualifications of Bob Wallace were displayed every day during the convention.  He is one of the best and quickest band wagon organizers in the territory.

Jamestown (Dakota Territory) Weekly Alert, August 30, 1888;

Mr. Lampman saw the “fish a-making for his boat,” so he crawled out of the Republican wetness into the Democratic band wagon and escaped the “fish” by the dry land route.

St. Paul Daily Globe, November 17, 1888, page 10, column 7.

I find it interesting that most of the metaphorical uses of “band wagon” in the 1880s were expressed in a positive sense, as opposed to the modern, generally negative sense.  Although an early, literal illustration of the bandwagon effect from 1855 (in which one candidate’s audience was seduced away by a bandwagon) was expressed negatively, most of the early metaphorical jumping, getting into or climbing onto “band wagons” was generally portrayed as a good thing.  Of course, whether getting behind a particular candidate or cause is a good thing depends on which side you support, many, if not most, of the early use of the idiom appears to have been expressed in a positive sense, by people who supported or encouraged the particular “band wagon” at issue. 

In modern usage, “bandwagon” is mostly used in a negative sense, to express disappointment that someone switched sides or supports an issue, team or person based merely on the perceived success of that issue, team or person; not based on heartfelt or sincerely held beliefs or feelings.  One of the last metaphorical uses of “band wagon” in the 1880s is an early example of the modern, negative sence of the idiom:

The seventeen Southern Republican congressmen are reported united ready to jump on the band wagon in the speaker contest, as the Dakota figure is.  They have a good deal of the old carpet bag instinct, and are always ready to jump to the side they think has the fat things.  They want the taxes taken off the necessaries of life, such as tobacco and whisky, and put on sugar and the other luxuries.  They take their drinks without sugar.

St. Paul Daily Globe, November 29, 1889, page 4, column 3.

In the 1890s, the expression became much more widespread, in the positive and negative sense, appearing in newspapers from New York[vii] and Washington DC[viii] to Hawaii.[ix]  

In the mid-1890s, the idiom, to get on the "bandwagon" formed the basie of another still-familiar idiom, to get on/or fall off the "wagon."  The original form of the idom was, to get on the "water-wagon;" apparently an allusion to water-wagons, temperance wagons, the temperance movement and its metaphoric "bandwagon." 

Other Theories

The demonstrated early use of the word “band wagon” and the idiom, “get on/jump on the band wagon,” demonstrate that the word and idiom are much older than previously thought.  The word predates P. T. Barnum’s 1855 autobiography by nearly fifteen years and the idiom predates Theodore Roosevelt’s 1899 letter by about fifteen years.  There are, however, at least two further suggestions about the origin of the idiom that deserve mention.

Puck Magazine

William Safire’s Political Dictionary (Oxford University Press, 2008, page 42) states that, “[t]he humor magazine Puck in 1884 depicted Chester Arthur driving a bandwagon carrying other presidential hopefuls . . . .”  He does not give a specific citation with date or issue number for the purported depiction of a bandwagon.  If such an image actually exists, and it had been published after the Republican National Convention, the image might be an early, visual representation of the metaphor uttered by Senator Sabin at the Republican National Convention.  If such an image exists, and it appeared before the convention, it could have been the inspiration for Senator Sabin’s early use of the phrase.

I am not convinced that such an image exists, at least not in the pages of Puck magazine in 1884.  I have personally looked at every page of Puck from that year (or at least every page available to me online, which appeared to be every page of every issue for that year), and I did not see any cartoon, engraving, image, description or depiction of Chester A. Arthur in a bandwagon.  If anyone finds such an image in Puck, or any other magazine, please leave a comment with a citation or link to the image. 

In any case, such an image, even if published before the convention, would not necessarily be metaphoric; bandwagons had been used in politics for more than forty years, and an image of a political bandwagon might be nothing more than a depiction of a literal bandwagon.  The metaphoric use seems to have started with, or at least come to public notice, Senator Sabin’s speech.
Puck, volume 16, number 395, October 1, 1884, pages 72-73

Puck 1884 - a Sleigh
Although there did not appear to be any bandwagons in Puck in 1884, there were several images of politicians in/on/or near various wagons, none of them bandwagons.  Only one of those cartoons depicted a band – a one-man band, not a bandwagon.  The drawing depicts a one-man band, with bells, a barrel organ, bellows, tuba, cannon and a bass drum, marching in front a wagon driven by James G. Blaine.  The wagon is loaded with cash for buying votes and a box of campaign lies and scandals.  A number of presumably recognizable personalities are pulling and pushing the wagon.  The wagon does not have the shape or look generally associated with bandwagons; it appears to be merely a workman’s cart for hauling stuff.  The other wagon-like political cartoons that appeared in Puck in 1884 do not show a band of any kind, and do not show a bandwagon.  The cartoons depict a sleigh,[x] a carriage,[xi] a prison wagon[xii], and a cabriolet;[xiii] but no bandwagon. 

Puck 1884 - a Carriage

Absent the discovery of the image described in Safire’s Political Dictionary, I am inclined to believe that Sabin’s speech is probably the first metaphoric use of the expression, “get into the band wagon,” or at least the first such use a national stage.   That speech, made before a collection of movers, shakers, businessmen and reporters from across the country, would have introduced the idiom to a national audience.  The regional character of the idiom for several years after the convention also suggests that the idiom did not originate in the pages of Puck, or any other national magazine.  The idiom was most popular in the early years in an around Senator Sabin’s home state of Minnesota.
Puck 1884 - a Prisoners' Wagon
Puck 1884 - a Cabriolet

Bandwagon Advertising

A biography for Benjamin T. Babbitt on states that:

His soap, one of the first nationally advertised products, was sold from brightly colored street cars (with musicians), which led to the phrase "get on the bandwagon.”

Ginny M., biographical sketch of Benjamin T. Babbitt,

Babbitt is believed to have been one of the first people to use bandwagons for commercial advertising:


. . . National Association of Ballplayers organized (forerunner of National League).
Benjamin T. Babbitt, 1st to use band wagon for advertising purposes.
Wilhelm Schneider patented the carousel. . . .

Who Was Who in America, Historical Volume 1607-1896, Chicago, Marquis – Who’s Who (1963), page 653.

But in 1871, the use of bandwagons as an advertising medium was not new.  Bandwagons had been used in political and circus advertising since at least the early 1840s, if not earlier.  It is possible, I suppose, that Babbitt’s commercial advertising, and any imitators, may have made bandwagons more ubiquitous, thereby providing fertile ground for the idiom to take root.  However, since the first known use of the idiom, and nearly all of the early uses, occurred in the political arena, Babbitt’s role in the creation or spread of the idiom may be minimal at best. 


The idiom, “jump on the bandwagon” or “get into the bandwagon” has been in use since at least 1884.  Senator Dwight M. Sabin of Minnesota may have coined the expression; the first-known use of the idiom was in his speech in support of James G. Blaine’s nomination for President at the 1884 Republican National Convention.  Whether Sabin coined the expression, or not, the expression seems to have been a regional idiom, confined primarily to the Upper Midwest, in and near Sabin’s home state of Minnesota.  Starting in about 1890, the idiom gained widespread and frequent use throughout the United States.  Although early use of the idiom appears to have been in a positive context, the idiom has been used witn negative connotations, more closely resembling the dominant, modern sense of the idiom, since as early as 1888.  

If you are someone who is susceptible to jumping on bandwagons, be careful.  Remember, the original “band wagon,” James G. Blaine’s 1884 nomination for President of the United States, went down in flames.  Blaine lost the election by a vote of 219-182 in the Electoral College.

So look before you leap.

[i] Cambridge Dictionary Online (definition from the Cambridge Advanced Learners Dictionary & Thesaurus, Cambridge University Press).
[ii] Cambridge Dictionary Online (definition from, Cambridge Academic Content Dictionary, Cambridge University Press).
[iii] P. T. Barnum, The Autobiography of P. T. Barnum: Clerk, Merchant, Editor and Showman, London, Ward & Lock, 1855, page 73. “At Vicksburg we sold all our land conveyances, excepting foru horses and the “band wagon” . . . .”
[iv] Dave Wilton, (citing Oxford English Dictinoary, band-wagon, 2nd Edition, 1989, Oxford University Press).  “When I once became sure of one majority they rumbled over each other to get aboard the band wagon.”
[v] Although the reference to “giraffes” in the parade might otherwise suggest that a circus bandwagon was used in the rally, a separate article on the same page of the same paper refers to, “the picture of a giraffe in the whig procession.”  The Ohio Democrat (Canal Dover, Ohio), September 15, 1842, page 3, column 3.
[vi] The Sunbury American (Sunbury, Pennsylvania), October 30, 1852, page 1.
[vii] The Sun (New York), June 9, 1896. They believe that Mr. Miller simply saw an opportunity to jump aboard the band wagon, and that it was his desire to further his own interests more than McKinley’s that led him to take the step he did..
[viii] Evening Star (Washington DC), January 18, 1894.  Having thus captured the old eastern allies of the Foraker Republicans – the Blaine men – by making Joe Manley of Maine the chairman of the national committee, he leaves to the Foraker men the unpleasant alternative of either getting into the band wagon with the McKinley forces or staying out of the precession altogether.
[ix] Evening Bulletin (Honolulu), October 4, 1898. Join the Procession! And Get in the Band Wagon (in an advertisement for readers to use the want ads).
[x] Puck, volume 16, number 399, October 29, 1884, page 144.
[xi] Puck, volume 15, number 377, May 28, 1884, page 200.
[xii] Puck, volume 15, number 377, May 28, 1884, page 208.
[xiii] Puck, volume 16, number 397, October 15, 1884, page 100.

Update: Edited July 7, 2020, by adding the cartoon of a band in a wagon enroute to the Taylor meeting in Philadelphia.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The Colorful History and Etymology of “Pink Elephant”

Snakes in Your Boots, Blue Monkeys, and Red Giraffes –

a Sober Look at the Colorful History 
and Etymology of “Pink Elephant”

Seeing Snakes and Pink Elephants

Pink elephants, “hallucinations arising especially from heavy drinking or use of narcotics” (, have been a fixture in pop-culture for more than a century.  The high-water mark of pink-elephants in pop-culture may have been Dumbo’s champagne-fueled, psychedelic hallucination of Pink Elephants on Parade in Walt Disney’s 1941 classic animated film, Dumbo.  When Dumbo saw pink elephants in 1941, people had been seeing “pink elephants” for nearly forty years.  But it had not always been that way.  

Long before people saw pink elephants, they “saw snakes”; often “snakes in their boots.”  In time, the standard snake hallucination was amped up to include green and red rats, blue monkeys, red giraffes, pink and green elephants and any number of fantastically colored animals.  Pink (and green) elephants entered the picture in about 1896, and pink elephants were firmly established as the go-to drunken hallucination by 1904. 

But why did pink elephants win out over the blue monkey? One factor that may have driven pushed “pink elephant” to top of the heap was residual fallout from P. T. Barnum’s failed efforts to bring a white elephant to the United States in 1884 –Barnum’s heavily hyped “white elephant” was a big disappointment to many viewers – it was actually more of a “pink elephant.”

Seeing Snakes

By the mid-nineteenth century, “seeing snakes” and “seeing snakes in one’s boots” were well-established euphemisms for hallucinations.  The phrases were based on widespread reports that people suffering from delirium tremens (latin for shaking frenzy) caused by alcohol abuse saw visions of snakes.  A patient who woke up from a night of the “shakes” or the “horrors” might see snakes in their boots first thing in the morning. 

The phrase, “seeing snakes,” was used figuratively to mean seeing things that are not there, as early as 1847.

It is not remarkable that the Southern federalists are beginning to “see snakes.” The prospect of being forced to go into the next Presidential canvass, (as the selection of the Committees indicates,) on the grounds taken to suit the sentiment ruling in the Legislature of Massachusetts, is enough to give them the “thumps,” as well as the “horrors.”

The North-Carolina Standard (Raleigh, North Carolina), December 22, 1847, page 3.  
But the phrase was not merely a joke; it was used in serious medical journals to describe the actual symptoms of patients (note the opium treatment and concern for the moral welfare of the nurses):[i]

Moreover, the patient began to “see snakes.” Delirium Tremens was supervening on the sudden exhaustion and deprivation of liquor.  Continued Opium and Ammon. Carb., and directed warm wrappings and quiet.  We refrained from the use of liquor for the delirium, from a regard for the moral welfare of the nurses, and a desire not to “tempt them overmuch.”

Medical and Surgical Reporter, Volume 6, January 1853, page 110. 

Intemperance had converted the old man into a maniac; his head was often, as he supposed, surrounded by crows and vultures, and mornings always found toads and snakes in his boots.  The rum delirium was doing its work.

The Scalpel: an Entirely Original Quarterly Expositor of the Laws of Health, Volumes V and VI, New York, Sherman & Company, 1854, page 353.

The phrases “to see snakes” and “to see snakes in their boots” were both very common expressions, in both literal and figurative senses, throughout the second half of the nineteenth century, and into the twentieth century. 

Funny Cuts (London), Volume 1, Number 15, October 18, 1890, page 120.

On at least one occasion, those snakes were colorful:

Snakes in Her Stockings. 
[Madisonville (Ky.) Times.]

We have often hearf of men having "snakes" in their boots, but a lady friend tells us of a case where a lady was worried with "snakes" in her stockings.  Her husband had brought home a barrel of hard cider.  Late one evening she concluded that she wanted some of it.  Having no other way of getting the coveted beverage, she inserted a straw in a gimlet hole in a barrel, and helped herself to the apple juice.  When she retired that night her rest was broken by visions of "snakes" twining, coiling, squirming and twisting around her stockings, which she believed she still had on.  She said it was exciting.  Big snakes, little snakes, old snakes, young snakes, green snakes, red snakes, yellow snakes, striped snakes, black snakes, double-headed and double-tailed snakes, all were there . . . .

The Daily Review (Wilmington, North Carolina), December 1, 1875, page 3.

The phrases were still in use in 1920, although they had long been over-shadowed by “pink elephants.” 

But why snakes? A doctor explained the physiology of seeing snakes in 1902.  I cannot vouch for the accuracy of his analysis, but the headline is interesting; it contains an early appearance of “pink elephant,” in the context of alcohol-fueled delusions:

Why Drunkards See Snakes.  

A London Doctor Explains but He Can’t Account for Pink Elephants.

London, Dec. 16. – A London physician has just offered an ingenious and at the same time scientific explanation for the curious symptom, that of seeing snakes, which afflicts sufferers from delirium tremens, induced by too much drink.  The doctor says this hallucination has been the subject of thorough investigation by him for several years and in 16 recent cases investigated by him and examined by the ophthalmoscope, he found that the minute blood vessels in the retina of the eyes were congested.  In this condition they appear black and are projected into the field of vision, where their movements resemble the squirming of snakes.

The Spokane Press, December 16, 1902, page 3.

The good doctor could not account for the pink elephants, but can we?

Why Pink Elephants?

Pink elephants first garnered significant attention in the news in 1884, when the showman P. T. Barnum brought the first “white elephant” to the United States.  You can read more about white elephants, the white elephant wars and white elephant swaps and sales in some of my earlier posts (follow the links).  But for our purposes here, it is only important to know that the “white elephants” were a big disappointment to an expectant public and the press:

I was at the pink elephant’s private view and should have written you about the brute before this, only I said to myself, cui bono? Old Tongue Bramah, or whatever they choose to call the “white” elephant, is a tremendous disillusion and no more white than an alligator is.  He has got a pink patch across his face and trunk, little pink dots on the outside of his ears, yellow toe-nails and a handsome pair of tusks.

St. Paul Daily Globe, March 9, 1884, page 11.  (See also, my post, White Elephants and the White Elephant Wars).

Standing in front of Toung Taloung, a person would believe that he was a pink elephant dotted with slate-colored spots . . . .

The Sun (New York), March 29, 1884, page 3.

At the time, the idiom, “a white elephant,” used to describe something that is desirable, although expensive and useless, was already in current use. (For more on the idioms see my post, The History and Etymology of “White Elephants”).  At least one reporter played off the scandal of the pink “white elephant” and modified the idiom:

The Collar Company have a “pink elephant” on their hands, and until they can dispose of it no good news can be expected.

The Mineral Argus (Maiden, Montana), April 24, 1884, page 4.

I do not mean to suggest that the term or phrase, “pink elephant,” took hold in 1884, but it did bring “pink elephants” into the public consciousness, generally, and may have influenced the rise of the “pink elephant” to the top of the drunken hallucination heap.  A story from 1904, when “pink elephant” had already become a firmly established slang phrase, suggests that the connection may not be so far-fetched:

Chapter XXII.


By this time Harold and Ione were within the territory of the kingdom of Siam.  They decided it would be a fine thing to paint the elephant, so they each took a whitewash brush and began to work for dear life, and in a couple of hours there stood before them their beloved elephant, transformed from a plain, ordinary, mouse colored elephant into a beautiful rose pink one.

Frances Trego Montgomery[ii], The Wonderful Electric Elephant, serialized in The New York Tribune, May 1, 1904, page 6. 

Coming, as it did, after “pink elephant” was an established idiom, it is unclear whether the book played off the then-current slang of “pink elephant” or referred back to the actual pink elephant and the “white elephant wars” of 1884, or both.  It at least shows an awareness of an association between “pink elephant” and “white elephant” during a time after “pink elephant” had became a common idiom.

For “pink elephant” to become a common idiom, however, it had to get past many colored and many-colored animals.  Its earlier notoriety and name recognition may have been the difference that pushed it to the top.

"Wild Bill" Hickock Sees a Monkey

In an anecdote published in 1887, about a man - "Wild Bill" - who had been shot dead eleven years earlier, Hickock's wife is said to have once warned him of the dangers of bad Western whiskey:

"Bill, if you don't quit this drinking pretty soon you will actually begin to see monkeys."

"Monkeys?" said he.  "What do you mean, little one?

"Why, you know, when people back east drink too much of the kind of whiskey they get back there they see snakes, but this awful stuff out here makes them see monkeys."

Bill laughed at her and did not give the matter a second thought, little dreaming that she had 'put up a job' to break him of his intemperate habits.

There was a tame monkey in the town . . . . 
The Opelousas Courier (Opelousas, Louisiana), August 20, 1887, page 2.

It doesn't take a genius to figure out how this story, about a renowned gambler and gunfighter ends. His wife plants the monkey in the bedroom, Bill wakes up thirsty after a hard night of drinking, he draws his gun unsure if it's an actual monkey and pulls the trigger.  As it turns out, he wasn't as drunk as he feared he was, his aim was good, and the monkey paid the price.

Colored animals appeared a few years later.

Colored Animals

The first stirrings of colored animals displacing snakes in hallucinations came in 1889.  In a joke about a man suffering from delirium tremens that was published in a magazine and reprinted in a number of newspapers:

My friend, you should give up strong drink.  Don’t you know that you would be happier and have more pleasure without it?  

Don’t know about that mum! I’ve been seeing circuses an’ menageries an’ snakes an blue monkeys with pink tails for two days, an’ I didn’t have to pay to get in, nuther. – From Drake’s Magazine.

The Manning Times, July 3, 1889, page 4.

Similar jokes, all published in multiple outlets, appeared with some regularity during the following several years:

A Gay Appendage.  
Mrs. Gummey (reading) – A man in Indiana saw a brown rat with a bright red tail the other day.  What do you think of that? 
Gummy – That was an animal with delirium trimmin’s. – Judge.

The Roanoke (Virginia) Times, January 15, 1892, page 6.

Just as Bad. 

“I had always heard there are no snakes in Ireland, remarked Twynn, “so I determined to prove it by going there and drinking whisky ad libitum.” 
“Well,” replied Triplett, “what was the result? Did you see snakes?” 

“No; I saw green rats, with bright red tails.” – Truth.

The Morning Call (San Francisco), November 9, 1892, page 8.

The “pink elephant,” well, initially a pink and green elephant, may have made its first appearance as a drunken hallucination in 1896, in the pages of Life magazine, in a regular feature, Fables for the Time, by Henry Wallace Phillips.  The fable follows the now familiar format; a man recovering from a bender sees things other than snakes.  Well, actually, in this piece, he does see a snake, but he is not impressed – he had seen much worse:

The Man and the Serpent

A man, who had lived a beautiful purple life, went to sleep under a tree in the forest.  Jove sent a huge serpent to destroy him.  The man awakened as the reptile drew near.

“What a horrid sight!” he said.  “But let us be thankful that the pink and green elephant and the feathered hippopotamus are not also in evidence.”
And he took a dose of bromide and commended himself again to sleep, while the serpent withdrew in some confusion.

What this proves to a thinking mind:

Jove himself couldn’t get a position as Sunday School Superintendent on his reputation.

Henry Wallace Phillips, Life, volume 27, number 696, April 30, 1896, page 343.

Fables for the Times (1897)

The fable was reprinted in book form (Henry Wallace Phillips, Fables for the Times, New York, Russell, 1896) and in other magazines (e.g., Godey’s Magazine, volume 135, 1897, page 241). 

A few months later, John Langdon Heaton (a founding, lifetime member of the advisory board of the Pulitzer School of Journalism) proposed his own theory of why people see what they see when suffering from delirium tremens.  He also introduced his own colored animals - blue monkeys:

Mania from drunkenness, delirium tremens, is not always “seeing snakes.”  The snake is a frequent object of the drinker’s mental hell, mainly because his delirium is as painful as an opium dream is pleasant, and because a snake is to most people the reverse of agreeable.  If the sufferer from alcoholism prefers, on the whole, snakes to blue monkeys, he’s pretty apt to see the monkeys.  The visions, whatever they are, are of animals, of something alive, or endowed with life, however distorted from the actual, perhaps because of the malignity of sentiment beings surpasses the cruelty of the inanimate; the delirium tremens doesn’t do things by halves.  But there are, in the cloud of witnesses to the folly of drink, animals never seen in the menagerie – devils and dragons, “gorgons and hydras and chimeras dire,” monsters of size, strange in color, breathing fire.  It is an eloquent offset to the stock joke about women and mice, that the rat is, in the visions of men’s alcoholic mania, almost as frequent a visitor as the snake.
The Morning Times (Washington DC), June 14, 1896, page 12 (reprinted in many other outlets).

Heaton’s Blue monkeys and Phillips’ pink elephants appeared together in 1897, with a yellow giraffe thrown into the mix:

A Candid Editor.

(From the St. Paul Dispatch.) A new play in London is called “The Blue Monkey.” We have seen it.  Also the pink elephant with the orange trunk and the yellow giraffe with green trimmings.  Also other things.

The Evening Times (Washington DC), December 6, 1897, page 4.

For several years, the color and types of animals said to be seen in drunken hallucinations continued to get more colorful and increasingly ridiculous.  In 1900, for example, pink zebras and pink giraffes joined the parade in Clarence Louis Cullen’s collection of stories about members of the “Harlem Club of Former Alcoholic Degerates”:

By the time the meeting closed the tobacco sauce and things were producing night pictures for me of pink zebras crossing purple bridges and that kind . . . . (page 237)

When I got through with the East St. Louis [poker] game – it only took me ten days to get through with it – I had the bundle of green tickets all ready for framing, most of ‘em at three to five on or thereabouts, and several pink giraffes following me around and beating me out by necks at every stage of the route. (page 163)

Clarence Louis Cullen, Tales of the Ex-Tanks; a Book of Hard-Luck Stories, New York, Grosset & Dunlap, 1900 (the sketches originally appeared in the New York Sun in 1899-1900).


“Pink Elephant” Arrives

The “pink elephant” made major strides toward becoming the gold-standard of drunken hallucinations in 1901 when a joke featuring a pink elephant was reprinted in newspapers across the country; today, we might say that it “went viral”:


Detroit Journal.

We contemplated the alcoholic wreck with unmingled pity.

“A sinking ship, indeed.” We exclaimed.

“But the rats do not leave me!” shrieked the fellow, gesturing wildly.

We extended to him the helping hand, of course, but he shrank away mistaking this for a pink elephant.

The Saint Paul Globe, June 13, 1901, page 6.

It is unclear whether the joke elevated “pink elephant” to the status of a common expression, or whether it reflected a status it had already achieved.  But in either the case, “pink elephant” appeared with increasing frequency throughout the ensuing years, often in the company of colored snakes or monkeys:

The patient to be treated is afflicted with weird visions.  A pink elephant is sitting on his chest playing a banjo; a boa constrictor is placidly swallowing his leg; green monkeys are writing with styluses on his face.

The Evening World, November 5, 1903, night edition, page 5.

But the elephant was not always pink:

The Anti-Saloon League is going to see the law is so amended that a separate institution will be built in which the topers can chase the purple elephants all by themselves.

The Washington Times, December 7, 1903,page 8.

By 1904, “pink elephant” was acknowledged to be modern slang of the sort that old fuddy-duddies did not understand:

Why, governor, I think it is another case of pink elephant.”

“What does that mean?” asked Mr. Hill, who does not keep with the slang of the hour.

“Well, a fellow who had been on a long spree woke up one morning and saw a big pink elephant in his room.  He was very much perplexed to know how the elephant was going to get out, he was too big for the windows or the door.  While he was worrying about it the elephant solved the problem.”

“How? Asked Mr. Hill with a curious look.

“By backing out the keyhole.”

Evening Star (Washington DC), July 4, 1904, page 1.

Although “pink elephant” had become, and would remain, the dominant euphemism for a drunken hallucination, other animals and other colors appeared in print throughout the early 1900s, and continuing into the 1920s, in a sort of arms race-style escalation of fantasmical descriptions:

“blue giraffe . . . two pink parrots and a ring-tailed zebra”[iii]

“pink and green goats”[iv]

“hydra-headed snakes and blue monkeys”[v]

“snakes and blue monkeys”[vi]

“snakes, pink monkey and other pet animals.”[vii]

“green dogs, pink kangaroos and purple elephants . . . with the rest of the menagerie”[viii]

“red, white and blue turkeys with straw hats on”[ix]

“purple elephant with wings”[x]

“purple elephants, green rabbits and red frogs”[xi]

“a flock of pink and green snakes, a blue monkey and a red giraffe, and a purple dog all in a bunch”[xii]

The Washington (DC) Times July 26, 1908 - page 8.

The trend prompted one writer to joke:

Well, just as the fashion in drinks has changed, so has the fashion in visions.  A man who could only see ordinary snakes today would be laughed down as an old fogy.  In fact, a man who sees pink rats, blue devils, purple elephants and winged terrapins is something of a has-been.

The Evening Star (Washington DC), September 16, 1906, page 4.

Pink Elephant’s Legacy

As other colors and other animals faded into history, “pink elephants” continued their ascendance; they are still the go-to hallucination more than one hundred years later.   My personal favorite still stands in Marquette Iowa.  Back in the day, it occupied a more prominent position perched above the Mississippi River; visible from the bridge between Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin and Marquette, Iowa,[xiii] it stood as a bright, pink, top-hatted beacon, signaling that a long road-trip was nearing its end.  

Numerous restaurants, bars and taverns from all around the world still bear the name, “Pink Elephant.”  All of these Pink Elephants owe a debt of thanks to P. T. Barnum and Henry Wallace Phillips.  If not for P. T. Barnum’s “white elephant” debacle, and Henry Wallace Phillips’ fable, those same restaurants, bars and taverns might be called “Snakes in Boots,” or the “Red-Tailed Rat,” the “Blue Monkey,” the “Green Goat,” the “Red Giraffe,” the “Purple Elephant,” or some other ridiculous name.


“Pink Elephant” – that’s not ridiculous.

[Revise November 28, 2017]

[i] The term, delirium tremens, and its hallucinations appear as early as the 1822.  “In some instances they imagine they see some disgusting and loathsome animal in the room; as rats, mice, or snakes . . . Occasionally they imagine they see some frightful object, as the devil . . . .” Dr. Stephen Brown, Observations on Delirium Tremens, or the Delirium of Drunkards, with Cases, The American Medical Recorder of Original Papers and Intelligence in Medicine and Surgery, volume 5, number 2, April, 1822, page 194.
[ii] Frances Trego Montgomery’s book, Billy Whiskers at the Circus (1908), used the phrase “box of monkeys” to refer to a cage of monkeys, which illustrated the literal meaning of the now forgotten idiom, “more fun than a box of monkeys,” which is related to the better known idiom, “more fun than a barrel of monkeys.”
[iii] The San Francisco Call, July 14, 1904, page 9
[iv] Our Paper, volume 21, 1905, page 386.
[v] Los Angeles Herald, June 25, 1905, page 6.
[vi] The Spokane Press, September 12, 1906, page 3.
[vii] The Washington Times, July 26, 1908, page 8.
[viii] New York Tribune, August 2, 1908, page 6.
[ix] Albuquerque Citizen (New Mexico), March 8, 1909, page 3.
[x] The Washington Times (DC), February 23, 1912, last edition, page 12.
[xi] The Tacoma Times, June 15, 1912, page 1.
[xii] Hopkinsville Kentuckian, October 5, 1915, page 8.
[xiii] Marquette’s sister city, Macgregor, Iowa, is the birthplace of the Ringling Brothers.  Perhaps their spirits had a hand in bringing the Pink Elephant to Marquette-Macgregor, as a way of thumbing their noses at P. T. Barnum? – or celebrating him?