Race and the White Elephant War of 1884
November 28, 2017 5:06 PM Subscribe
Of course we have all learned by this time,” Barnum told his retinue, “that there is no such thing as a really pure white elephant. This is a sacred animal, a technical white elephant, and as white as God makes ’em. A man can paint them white, but this is not one of that kind.” Although readers who had followed the coverage of Toung Taloung’s reception in London would indeed have learned that white elephants are not literally white, Barnum’s matter-of-fact statement belied the controversy that the color of white elephants had already engendered in the popular imagination. In 1884, Toung Taloung was the catalyst for a broader public debate about race and authenticity.Ross Bullen on how a bizarre episode in circus history became an unlikely forum for discussing 19th-century theories of race.