Tickling the Ivories

LCP has an enormous collection of sheet music. One could almost say that it is elephantine in size. Amidst this veritable jungle of well-thumbed-through pages are examples of the polkas and mazurkas of the 1840s, as well as twangy hillbilly and cowboy songs, circa 1940. There is a gaggle of Civil War patriotics, sad ballads (“oh if I could only be in my mother’s arms before I die!”), and raucous melodies made famous by now long-forgotten quartets. Some of the earlier works sport beautifully printed and hand colored front covers, produced by the eminent lithographers of the day.

Much of LCP’s music collection is composed of scores for the piano (known in 1840s lingo as the piano forte). Our allusion to “tickling the ivories” refers to the archaic term for “playing the piano.” At one time piano keys were made of ivory. Since ivory-yielding animal species are endangered and protected by international treaty, piano manufacturers now utilize plastics that are more durable than their ivory counterparts.

J. W. Wheeler’s “White Elephant March” of 1884

Of all the wonderful sheet music in LCP’s mammoth collection, J. W. Wheeler’s “White Elephant March” of 1884, depicting the forlorn animal seen in this simple crude illustration, has been chosen to be highlighted since it unravels a tale of duplicity and greed. It also has a strong Philadelphia connection.

White elephants are albinos. Most of the white variety actually have yellowish or reddish brown skin. Historically, the lower class populations of Laos and Siam believed the white elephants to be divine. The lords of these countries captured the gargantuan white creatures and housed them in huge stables, where they drank from golden water jars laced with perfumed flowers and were bedded upon gold inlaid floors. In 1884 P. T. Barnum purchased “Toung Taloung” (English translation: “Gem of the Sky”), a towering white behemoth from Burma. He was advertised as the “first and only genuine sacred white elephant ever permitted to leave his native land.”

Adam Forepaugh, born into an impoverished Philadelphia family, made his fortune during the Civil War dealing in livestock. He became a circus operator, opening a permanent circus building in Philadelphia. During his career, he actually owned more elephants than Barnum: 39 as compared to P.T.’s 36. Forepaugh, upon learning that Barnum was about to introduce his white elephant to the American public, formulated a dastardly plan to one-up the master showman. Six days before Barnum’s Toung Taloung was to appear in Madison Square Garden, Forepaugh trotted out his own white elephant, dubbed “The Light of Asia” (later renaming him “John”). While Barnum’s albino was actually a disappointing spotted brownish color, “The Light of Asia” was brilliant white since he had been painted that color by Forepaugh’s circus workers!

Upon Toung Taloung’s death, Barnum was quoted as saying “I was greatly disappointed in him. He was as genuine an animal as ever existed, but, in fact, there was never such an animal known. The white spots are simply diseased blotches… I can’t say that I grieved much over him.” The term “white elephant” has been handed down to us from Barnum’s era meaning something that has been given away, but is generally useless to the receiver.

Incidentally, Adam Forepaugh died in 1890 and was interred in the family vault at Laurel Hill Cemetery.

Gus Spector

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