The Most Famous Elephant Was
Named Jumbo, Not Dumbo
Undoubtedly, the most famous elephant that ever lived was Jumbo. His fame spanned several decades and two continents, and his fans included Queen Victoria of England and that American King of Show Biz, P.T. Barnum. Jumbo’s fame was so great that his name itself was introduced into the language meaning anything that is “extra large.”
The history of Jumbo began in 1865 when he was traded to the Regent’s Park Zoo in London by the Jardin des Plantes Zoo in Paris. The then-little African elephant took his name from a derived African word that at that time meant “a clumsy or unwieldy fellow.”
For the next 17 years he grew, gave rides on his back and generally became a great favorite of English zoo-goers.
But by 1880, Jumbo was reaching full maturity and showing signs of being dangerous. Zoo officials were faced with the need to dispose of him before he killed someone.
At this point, Barnum entered the picture. He offered the London Zoological Society $2,000, and this generous offer was quickly accepted.
The outcry from the public press, and even the Queen, was instantaneous and loud. Jumbo added to the story himself as he knelt down on his way from the Zoo to the docks and refused to move.
Barnum was ecstatic over all of the uproar. He cabled his reaction, “Let him lie there a week if he wants to. It is the best advertisement in the world.”
Jumbo eventually got back up, and on April 10, 1882, arrived in New York aboard the Assyrian Monarch. “Jumbomania” arrived with him.
Barnum‘s ad for Jumbo’s appearance the next day at Madison Square Gardens appeared in the New York Times, heralding “That Colossus of Elephants now here, JUMBO, the biggest and most famous animal in the world.”
For the next three years, Jumbo traveled in a specially designed railway van dubbed “Jumbo’s Palace Car,” and he thrilled audiences wherever he went.
Then on September 15, 1885, while Jumbo was being led along a train track at St. Thomas in western Ontario, he was struck by a freight train and killed.
A variety of items are available to anyone interested in “Jumbomania.” A piece by a Staffordshire pottery would be a good find. In fact, there were so many things made at the time that one London newspaper complained of “Jumbos in India-rubber, Jumbos in terra cotta, Jumbos in porcelain, Jumbos in ivory, Jumbos in Meerschaum.”
In the United States, souvenir production on the fancier side included a pressed glass butter dish with a frosted glass elephant as the knob on the lid and a spoonholder designed to stand on a table and consisting of an ornate glass column over a foot high on top of which is a frosted Jumbo.
On the inexpensive side, there were cards that were given away with thread, charms, photographs, paper hats, pull toys, peanut butter jars, cigarette boxes and a Jumbo metal Crackerjack premium.
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