Going to See the Elephant

Historic Arkansas Museum - Sunday, March 15, 2015

“Going to see the elephant” is an expression that is not often heard nowadays but was widely known and used in the mid and late 1800s. The phrase became popular during the late 1840s and early 1850s as it became associated with the California Gold Rush. Later in the same century, it was used in reference to the experience of soldiers in the Civil War. A cursory exploration into the use of the expression will show that this wartime association has prevailed and the expression can be found in reference to recent veterans.

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It is clear, though, that the expression gained steam with the Gold Rush. We have our own connection here at the museum, as two of the people who built houses on our historic block (open for touring) were ‘49ers: James McVicar and Robert Brownlee. A chapter in the autobiography of Robert Brownlee (An American Odyssey edited by Patricia Etter) is titled “To See the Elephant.” Brownlee left Arkansas for California during the Gold Rush. This chapter is the portion of his diary covering that adventure.

But what does “going to see the elephant” mean? The explanation used by the authors of the play, Going to See the Elephant, which will be performed at the museum in late February and early March, 2008, is “crossing the hill to see what lies on the other side.” In the play it is used as a metaphor for human curiosity and the character of Maw explains it as, “believing the grass is greener, so you just have to see for yourself.”

But what does an elephant have to do with any of this?

In Robert Brownlee’s autobiography, Etter notes that the expression dates back to around 1820 and cites an 1850 explainer in the Arkansas State Gazette & Democrat thatrecounts the story of a pageant held in Philadelphia. The performance required an elephant onstage (in this case, two men in a single costume) for a long duration. The men inside whiled the time away drinking and when it came time to perform, stumbled drunkenly into the orchestra pit. The amused audience members left exclaiming, “Have you seen the elephant?”

A more apt explanation is often given—the tale of a farmer who had never seen an elephant but wanted to see one. Upon learning of a circus caravan traveling through, he ventured to town with his horse and a cart loaded with produce. His horse had never seen an elephant either and was spooked, toppling the cart and ruining his harvest. Unshaken by his loss, the farmer surmised, “At least I have seen the elephant!” This version of the phrase’s origin better reflects one of its meanings—to have seen the elephant is to have overcome adversity and hardship in the pursuit of something grander.

And one other rarer explanation that rings no less true is the notion that as the elephant was always the last act of the circus, those who had seen the elephant had, as a consequence, seen everything.

Going to See the Elephant

A production by the Community Theatre of Little Rock in partnership with Historic ArkansasMuseum

Evening performances on:

February 22, 23, 29 and March 1

7:30 pm

Sunday matinee performances on:

February 24 and March 2

2:00 pm

All performances held at the museum in the Ottenheimer Theatre