Elephants have been public attractions in America since the early decades of the eighteenth century. At first the exotic mammals were exhibited along the eastern seaboard by individual entrepreneurs. As early as 1805, Hachaliah Bailey of Somers, New York, was traveling with an Asian elephant named Old Bet, who was soon joined by other animals in a traveling menagerie. The circus as we understand it today was innovated in large part by showman P. T. Barnum, who joined forces in 1881 with James A. Bailey and James L. Hutchinson. The following year Barnum purchased the famous African elephant Jumbo from the London Zoo.
The weathervane was found in Bridgeport, where Barnum made his home, and perhaps it was intended to represent Jumbo. However, it seems closer in form to an Asian elephant and thus may depict Old Bet or one of Hachaliah Bailey’s other elephants, Little Bet or Columbus. The elephant was also by this time the symbol of the Republican party, an association first made by Thomas Nast in the political cartoon he published in Harper’s Weekly on November 7, 1874.
Stacy C. Hollander, “Elephant Weathervane,” exhibition label for Self-Taught Genius: Treasures from the American Folk Art Museum. Stacy C. Hollander and Valérie Rousseau, curators. New York: American Folk Art Museum, 2014.