Elephant in the room

With every exhibition that goes on view, you develop a bit of an object crush; that one artwork that calls out above the rest and speaks to you personally. When California Design closes in two short weeks, I will bid special adieu to Charles and Ray Eames’ 1945 Elephant. This cheerful and unassuming creature has stood in residency in PEM’s galleries for the last three months — quietly displaying its planar-but-biomorphic, simplistic-but-inviting traits.

Elephant, 1945 (Carles and Ray Eames)

Charles Eames, Ray Eames. Molded Plywood Division, Evans Products Company (Venice, 1943-47). Elephant, 1945. Eams Collection, LLC. © The Eames Foundation. Courtesy Eames Office LLC (eamesoffice.com)

The California Design wall text notes:

“Through their work for the Navy, the Eameses made technological advances molding plywood into compound curves. After World War II, this innovation enabled them to realize their vision for mass-produced molded-plywood furniture and products. Among the first designs they created with the new technique was a series of prototype toy animals, reflecting their lifelong fascination with objects for children.”


California Design galleries. © 2014 Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Kathy Tarantola.

As elephants are famously correlated with memory, you can’t discuss them without digging into your own memory bank — or that of your city — and Salem’s history, it turns out, contains some elephant tales of its own.

A New York newspaper from April, 1796 recounts how the first elephant, ‘Old Bet’, landed in the U.S.:

“The Ship America, Captain Jacob Crowninshield of Salem, Massachusetts, Commander and owner, has brought home an elephant from Bengal in perfect health. It is the first ever seen in America and is a great curiosity. It is a female, two years old.”


Courtesy http://timemarcheson.wordpress.com

Also on board that fateful 1796 journey was Nathaniel Hawthorne’s father who noted in his diary:

 “This day begins with moderate breezes . . . latter part employed in landing 23 sacks of coffee . . . took on board several pumpkins and cabbages, some fresh fish for ship’s use, and greens for the elephant.” Below is written in large letters “ELEPHANT ON BOARD.”

Image courtesy www.naturalhistorymag.com

Image courtesy www.naturalhistorymag.com

Old Bet was exhibited in New York, Boston and Salem where diarist William Bentley saw her on August 20, 1797, noting:

“Went to the Market House to see the Elephant. The crowd of spectators forbad me any but a general & superficial view of him. He was six feet four inches high. Of large Volume, his skin black, as tho’ lately oiled. A short hair was on every part, but not sufficient for a covering. His tail hung one third of his height, but without any long hairs at the end of it…Bread & Hay were given him and he took bread out of the pockets of the Spectators. He also drank porter & drew the cork, conveying the liquor from his trunk into his throat.”

On June 23, 1885 — 129 years ago today, in fact — The Barnum Circus came through Salem and the following image, now part of PEM’s Phillips Library Collection, was taken:


230 Essex St. (Town House Sq.) Salem, Barnum Circus 1885. Phillips Library Collection, Peabody Essex Museum.

There are many bread crumbs on the elephant trail and we learn from Barnum’s diary that the circus had traveled 25 miles, stayed at the Essex Hotel and that weather was ‘warm with slight rain’.

When Eames’ iconic Elephant leaves PEM on July 6 we will not be wholly abandoned by our pachyderm friends. Head to the Art & Nature Center where you’ll find paintings by elephants, courtesy of the Asian Elephant Art & Conservation Project.


Noppakhao #087, 2012. Painting done by an elephant. Courtesy of the Asian Elephant Art & Conservation Project founded by conceptual artists Vitaly Komar and Alex Melamid. www.elephantart.com

A video of their uniquely collaborative process may be found below:


  1. Michele Moon says:

    Let’s not leave out the wonderful Lucy, the Margate Elephant! New Jersey folk will share my love for her.


  2. Donna Seger says:

    Great Post!

  3. Danielle Eliska Lyle says:

    Awesome post!
    I was drawn to it because my mother always loved elephants.
    I have a deep appreciation for them as well.

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