Q. I recently attended a party at which, just for fun, we had a regifting exchange of unwanted items that had been gathering dust. How did things like these become known as “white elephants”?
— Wayne Baird
“Oh, you REALLY shouldn’t have!” you might exclaim after opening a velvet painting of President Obama or a Jar Jar Binks alarm clock (a “gift” I actually gave at such a party). Afterward, of course, the item is quickly hustled off to the attic or basement, never again to see the light of day — at least not until the giver visits again.
Centuries ago, it wasn’t nearly that easy to dispose of such a gift, especially when that present was a living, breathing albino pachyderm given to you by your king.
Even today in some Southeast Asia countries, owning a white elephant is a sign that the ruler is a just and powerful monarch in charge of a peaceful, prosperous kingdom. Some even bragged about such ownership in their name — for example, Hsinbyushin (“Lord of the White Elephant”), the third monarch of Burma’s Konbaung dynasty.
Because they are rare, albino elephants (which are usually pinkish or whitish-gray) became an integral part of the region’s religions, too. For example, in the Hindu cosmology, Airavata is the elephantine mount of Indra, leader of the Vedic gods. Some say the Buddha’s mother dreamed that a white elephant presented her with a lotus flower the night before her son was born.
As you might imagine, owning such animals was no picnic. So, according to legend, it was a king of Siam (now Thailand) who came up with the brilliant scheme of giving actual white elephants to his most annoying, obnoxious courtiers as revenge.
It was the perfect good-news/bad-news gift. On the plus side, the recipient had to show gratitude because the animal was supposedly a sign of the monarch’s favor. On the other hand, the new owner now had to care for and feed the beast and could not dispose of the animal or even put it to work or ride it because it was sacred. In other words, he had a literal white elephant on his hands, much to the king’s amusement.
Turns out that not even other kings could escape this double-edged sword of a gift, according to Charles Earle Funk in his book “A Hog on Ice & Other Curious Expressions.” In 1629, for example, the emperor of Siam reportedly gave King Charles I of England six camels and an elephant just as Charles, facing a stubborn Parliament, was desperately trying to raise money through any means possible.
Not wanting to insult his fellow monarch, Charles had to set aside 275 pounds in ye annual royale budget to care for the beast, forcing even his wife to postpone her trip to Bath. Not only did he have to supply the standard feed and care, but “his keepers affirm that from the month of September until April, (the elephant) must drink not water, but wine, and from April unto September, he must have a gallon of wine per day.”
Still, it took flamboyant circus showman Phineas Taylor Barnum to forever cement the connection between “white elephant” and a burdensome gift or venture that fails to live up to expectations.
In the winter of 1883, Barnum announced in the Times of London that he had spent 40,000 pounds to buy Toung Taloung, the Sacred White Elephant of Burma. It would be, the paper promised, “the first and only genuine white elephant ever imported.”
En route from Rangoon to New York, the rare pachyderm would make a stop at the London Zoological Gardens. Anticipation was fever-pitched, but cries of fraud arose almost as soon as the ship docked at Liverpool. Barnum apparently had been snookered with an elephant that was dirty gray in color with a few pink spots.
“At first glance, the beast ... looked very much like any other elephant, except that it had been lying in dust,” The Times reported. “A more careful examination, however, showed it to be of lighter complexion, though it seems to be a stretch of language to call it ‘white.’”
Soon the term was being used to describe any almost bigger-than-life object, scheme or business venture that turned out to be a financial flop. On Wikipedia, you can find dozens of examples from the New South China Mall, which has been 99 percent vacant since it opened in 2005, to the Tu-144, the Russian version of the SST. Closer to home, many have put MidAmerica Airport in the same class.
By the early 1900s, though, the definition was expanded to include any kitschy bric-a-brac that winds up at bad-gift exchanges. In the end, I suppose it’s all aptly named. Like an elephant, you could never forget receiving a Jar Jar Binks alarm clock.
St. Louis film trivia part II: How did the St. Louis Theatre/Powell Hall play a role in hundreds of Warner Bros. cartoons?