No, the doctor replies, “You have been drinking; you are supposed to see PINK elephants. A WHITE elephant is defined as something that is useless or troublesome.” But Doc, I reply, these are saloons named “White Elephant” and they are all over the pre-Prohibition landscape. Why?
It seems no one really knows. For example, in the late 1800s White Elephant saloons proliferated in Texas. They could be found in Austin, San Antonio, Denison, Mobeetie, Panhandle, Fredericksburg, El Paso, and Lampasas — with the most infamous one in Fort Worth, represented here by its logo.
The history of the White Elephant Saloon in Ft. Worth spans from 1884 to about 1914. It was located at two different spots on Main Street during that time, first at 308-310 Main St. and later at 606-608 Main St. After a series of owners, about 1886 it fell into the hands of Bill Ward, a man who knew the saloon could prosper by expanding into gambling and as his concessionaire a gunslinger named Luke Short. One night Short was confronted by “Longhaired Jim” Courtright. They dueled it out in front of the White Elephant where Short got five shots off before Courtright could fire and killed him. Short was put in jail overnight, then released and never brought to trial.
While the White Elephant Saloon of San Antonio has no dramatic shoot on premises, it has been described as a “rough and rowdy” premier drinking establishment in town. It was located on San Antonio’s Main Plaza, close to city hall and the stockyards. Popular at night, the saloon was adjacent to the north side of the plaza where “scuffles, skirmishes and shootings were commonplace.”
Only several years after it opened, this White Elephant was forced to close by a crackdown on gambling in San Antonio. The local newspaper commented: “When the boys to San Antone, they can not milk the elephant any more.”
The White Elephant in Bryan, Texas, has not been as prominent as the other two Texas saloons. Represented here by a jug that indicates it sold whiskey — “pure liquor — at retail as well as over the bar. Part of a land grant by the Spanish to Stephen A. Austin and named for his nephew, Bryan was the seat of Brazos County in west central Texas. Its history seems less identified with violence and thus not as elaborately recorded.
As noted here on an ad, the White Elephant Saloon of Dennison regarded itself as “The largest and most elegant resort in North Texas.” Founded in 1884 this “watering hole” was in business under a series of owners. The saloon, billards and restaurant were on the first floor of the building on Dennison’s West Main Street. Gambling and sleeping rooms were on the second floor. In 1884 the establishment harbored a man named Jim McIntire, wanted for murdering two French squatter on ranch land in New Mexico. When the law came to get McIntire in Bryan, he was tipped off and hired a horse from the White Elephant livery stables and escaped to New Orleans.
Not only Texas harbored saloons under the sign of the white elephant. They could be found throughout the West and South. W. R. Monroe owned one in Kansas City, Missouri. As many saloonkeepers of the times did, Monroe issued bar tokens good for drinks at his bar. The one shown here for his White Elephant Saloon was worth five cents in trade. This token is distinguished among representations of the pachyderm by the predominance given to one (unmentionable) physical attribute.
I am still puzzling over why Wichman would name a saloon White Elephant and then represent it with a ceramic pig big bottle. As it turns out Wichman in addition to selling whiskey over the bar also was retailing liquor to customers in glass and ceramic containers. Obviously a figural elephant likely would have held more booze than the proprietor might have wanted to give away, so Wichman chose a pig to convey a slug or two of his whiskey.
Another Tennessee White Elephant saloon artifact is a stoneware jug covered in dark Albany slip glaze into which has been scratched a rather primitive elephant. The crudeness of the design indicates that it was created relatively early in the 1800s. The saloon apparently belonged to Querna Clerk, about whom I can find nothing. Nor does the jug given any clue as to the city or town in which the White Elephant was located.
Two cities named Richmond, one in Virginia and one in Kentucky both harbored White Elephant Saloons. The Virginia example is unusual since this establishment was owned and operated by a woman, Mrs. Mary Enright. Directories show her in business at 420 Louisiana during the early 1900s. In addition to serving drinks at the bar she was blending her own whiskeys and selling them at both wholesale and retail. Like the prior jug, this one too is scratched into brown Albany slip, but is legible.
Called a “scratch jug” when it was offered at auction, the Albany slip covered beehive-shaped container shown here actually was covered by a stencil that masked the glaze from the body to create the letters. It appears to be quart size. Details about this White Elephant Saloon are similarly masked in history.
In Tuscaloosa, Alabama, the White Elephant was selling whiskey in a wide variety of ceramic jugs. The one shown here offered a discount of ten cents on a refill of the jug when brought back to the saloon. This was a popular Tuscaloosa watering hole. Locals are said to have ridden horseback up to the place at Sixth Street and 24th Avenue of a morning to get cold glass of beer. In 1932, workmen excavating at a construction site unearthed 75 brown and white jugs that bore the name of the White Elephant.
We still have not unraveled the prevalence of the name. Several explanations have emerged as possibilities. After the Civil War, a cliche’ was common in the U.S. referring to a neophyte having traveled afar and bragging about seeing something common to experienced travelers. Such was called “seeing the elephant.” It also has been suggested that white paint was readily available and a pachyderm painted on a portico would have been an eye-catching graphic.
The name might also have had a racial connotation. In states with “Jim Crow” laws such as the word “white” would warn all blacks away from the establishment. Those would include Alabama, Kentucky, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia. Notably, Ft. Worth had a Black Elephant Saloon whose clientele was limited to those of African origin.