Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Posts Tagged ‘white elephant’

White Elephant

Posted by Admin on March 24, 2014

If you have a white elephant, what you’ve got is a valuable but burdensome possession you just can’t unload (no matter how much or little you’re asking for it) that’s costing you an arm and a leg to keep.

In the book, “Marjorie Daw, and Other Stories” by Thomas Bailey Aldrich (published in 1969 as a reprint from the 1885 edition), the story, “A Rivermouth Romance” made great use of the idiom.

If Margaret Callaghan, when she meditated matrimony, indulged in any roseate dreams, they were quickly put to flight. She suddenly found herself dispossessed of a quiet, comfortable home, and face to face with the fact that she had a white elephant on her hands. It is not likely that Mr. O’Rourke assumed precisely the shape of a white elephant to her mental vision; but he was as useless and cumbersome and unmanageable as one.

It was indeed an idiom that was understood as it was used by Reader Charles (1814 – 1884) in his book “The White Elephantthat was published the year he died. The first chapter of the book began with this:

In the month of April 1828, Mr. Yates, theatrical manager found his nightly receipts fall below his nightly expenses. In this situation a manager falls upon one of two things — a spectacle or a star. Mr. Yates preferred the latter, and went of to Paris and engaged Mademoiselle Djek.

Mademoiselle Djek was a White Elephant of great size and unparallele sagacity. She had been for some time performing in a play at Fransconi’s, and created a great sensation in Paris.

In Volume 12 of “The Friend Religious and Literary Magazine” edited by Robert Smith and published in 1938, the story entitled, “Court Of Siam” was included. Written by John Crawford, it was originally published ten years earlier under the title of “Journal of an Embassy from the Governor-General of India to the Courts of Siam and Cochin China” and was dated April 8, 1822.

Upon enquiring into their history, we found that they were all either from the kingdom of Lao or Kamboja, and none from Siam itself, nor from Malay countries tributary to it, which last, indeed had never been known to afford a white elephant.

The rareness of the white elephant is, no doubt, the original of the consideration in which it is held. The countries in which it is found, and in which, indeed, the elephant in general exists in the greatest perfection and is most regarded, are those in which the worship of Buddha and the doctrine of the metempsychosis prevail.

Kings were usually the only ones able to afford white elephants as the upkeep for an elephant is an expensive undertaking for anyone, even a king. But if a king was displeased by a member of his court, the gift of a white elephant, while being a great honor, was also intended as a punishment in that the financial burden crippled the households of those with inferior monetary revenues and assets.

Between 1839 and 1873 — when a Letter to the Editor was published in the New York Times edition of May 28th — the term white elephant became known as a situation or an item that was costly. In the case of the Letter to the Editor, the white elephant in question had to do with the case of George Francis Train (24 March 1829 – 5 January 1904) that had been dragging on in the courts for months by that time.   Train had been charged with “issuing obscene publications.

Now, Train was not unknown to the American public. In fact, he was a well-known American entrepreneur who had been instrumental in establishing Credit Mobilier in the United States in 1864 as the Transcontinential Railroad was being built, and he had already made his name as a Civil War reporter.  The year his fortune was built by Credit Mobilier was the same year he began referring to himself as “Citizen Train.” He ran as an independent candidate for the office of President in 1872, and in 1873, he began charging admission fees to his campaign rallies where his primary focus was on attaining the position of Dictator of the United States.

Initially, the attempt was to have Mr. Train committed to an insane asylum, but on March 20, 1873 the following was reported:

Dr. Hammond, one of those commissioned by District Attorney Phelps to examine into his mental condition, says, with some reluctance, that the commission found Train to be a man of good education, of brilliant intellect, but undoubtedly of unsound mind. When, however, the usual form of commitment was presented for signature, Dr. Hammond refused to sign it, as he does not believe that Train can at all be considered a person dangerous or likely to do bodily harm either to himself or anybody else. The usual commitment will not be signed, and, of course, he cannot be transferred to the asylum. His latest assertion is that in thirty days not one stone in the bastile shall be left standing on another, and that the streets ot Sew York are to run with blood. Should this come to pass he may be dangerous enough, but his assertions are regarded only as idle words.

Six weeks later, it was reported on May 7, 1873 that the previous day the courts had ruled as follows:

The investigation which has been going on for the past few weeks before Chief Justice Daly and the Sherriff’s jury into the mental condition of George Francis Train was concluded this evening by a verdict rendered that he was, and is, sane and responsible for his acts. The District Attorney will now prosecute Train on the indictment found against him for publishing obscene literature in connection with the Woodhull-Ciaflin matter.

But the author of the Letter to the Editor, whose patience seemed to have reached an end, stated his opinion succinctly, writing:

For months the Courts have been trying to get rid of this dreadful person, but in vain. . . . In the meantime he is in the public hands, a white elephant of prodigious expensiveness in judicial time, patience and dignity.

In early 1864, and just weeks after the Gettysburg Address of November 1863, as the Civil War raged on, Ward Hill Lamon wrote about a discussion he had with Abraham Lincoln.

Jumping up from his reclining position he advanced, saying: “You know better than any man living that from my boyhood up my ambition was to be President. I am President of one part of this divided country at least; but you look at me! I wish I had never been born! It is a white elephant on my hands, and hard to manage. With a fire in my front and rear; having to contend with the jealousies of the military commanders, and not receiving that cordial co-operation and support from Congress which could reasonably be expected; with an active and formidable enemy in the field threatening the very life-blood of the government — my position is anything but a bed of roses.”

And it’s known that Belle Boyd — the famous Confederate spy who, when she was arrested and taken to General Patterson‘s headquarters for having shot a Union soldier for insulting her mother — was quoted in the Northern papers as saying that “like a white elephant” she was pointed out to thousands of troops coming into Virginia as being the most dangerous Rebel in the country.

Back in 1851, Geraldine Endsor (G.E.) Jewbury used the expression in “Letters.”

His services are like so many white elephants, of which nobody can make use, and yet that drain one’s gratitude, if indeed one does not feel bankrupt.

What is known about the idiom is that just about 40 years earlier, the idiom white elephant had positive connotations. In fact, Josef Semmelweiss (1788 – 1846) opened a wholesale business specializing in spices and general consumer goods in 1806 and named it zum Weißen Elefanten (at the White Elephant). By 1810, the business had made Josef Semmelweiss a rich man.

NOTE: Josef Semmelweiss was the father of Ignaz Semmelweis (1 July 1818 – 13 August 1865) who is regarded as the pioneer of antiseptic policy and prevention of nosocomial disease.

Somewhere in the forty or so years between the establishing of Josef Semmelweiss’ successful business where the idiom white elephant had a positive association and G.E. Jewbury’s use of the idiom which had a negative association, the shift in perception happened. Without proof of an earlier published reference, however, Idiomation is unable to take this idiom back any further than this point.

Posted in Idioms from the 19th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

Spruce Goose

Posted by Admin on October 7, 2013

When you hear someone talk about a Spruce Goose, it refers to a very specific item at a very specific time in history and is an updated version of the idiom white elephant. A white elephant is a valuable possession that the owner cannot get rid of and where the cost of ownership seems to be more than it’s worth. To this end, a Spruce Goose is just another white elephant.

The late rapper Johnny Burns (1979 – 2000) aka DJ Quik aka Mausberg’s song “Ring King” has the expression Spruce Goose in the lyrics:

I flow like the Spruce Goose, sting worse than a bullet from a deuce-deuce
I’m ’bout to cut loose and react with raw tactics
Rights and lefts be bustin’ like fully automatic, I love static

So does rapper Danny! aka American record producer, Danny Swain’s song “Rhyme Writer Crime Fighter” where he says:

I slayed spooked troops in my youthful days
And flew away in the Spruce Goose, ruthless ways
Now you could say my style was aloof but hey
I gotta stay elusive

But rap fans appear to be perplexed by the expression Spruce Goose, as evidenced by the many questions in various music and rap forums asking what it means.  Strangely enough, one may also wonder if the lyricists understand the expression as well.

In the July 2003 edition of Wired Magazine, Chuck Squatriglia wrote used the expression Spruce Goose in an article about aircrafts.  He wrote in part:

The “Spruce Goose” was either a brilliant aircraft years ahead of its time or the biggest government boondoggle ever. By far the largest aircraft ever conceived — its wingspan was 319 feet — the Spruce Goose was intended to be a military transport plane.

While it’s surprising that so many these days seem to be unfamiliar with the Spruce Goose, the fact of the matter remains that it was a seminal part of American aviation history.  Back on November 14, 1993, the Seattle Times newspaper carried a story out of McMinnville, Oregon that stated:

Congress has approved $4.5 million for the museum that will serve as the new roost for the Spruce Goose flying boat. The money, included in the defense appropriations bill approved Wednesday, will get the museum through planning and into the construction phase, said museum director Howard Lovering.

In other words, this airplane was of significant historical importance that it warranted being preserved in a museum supported by money approved by Congress.

But for whatever reason, the importance of this airplane seems to escaped the memories of Americans over the decades. In fact, in a Letter to the Editor published in the February 24, 1971 edition of the St. Petersburg Times, William J. Carter of Yankeetown wrote this about the airplane.

Designed to answer a desperate World War II call for transport in a Pacific area where the sea would have to supply the runways, the huge airframe housed eight nacelles for propeller driving piston-engine units, the largest power units then existing

Later in the letter he also wrote:

Rather than scorn a great pioneer’s effort to meet emergency needs in wartime, we should join Howard Hughes to such other pioneers of multi-engined aircraft as Sikorsky and Dornier, whose creations were airborne, one in 1914 and the other in the 1920s, when lesser men were living with small dreams and small aspirations.

On January 20, 1954 the Milwaukee Journal ran a series of articles on Howard Hughes, with the article in this edition dedicated to the Spruce Goose. The article contained the following facts about the airplane:

Weight – 425,000 pounds
Height at tail – 2 1/2 stories
Wingspan – 320 feet, just big enough to touch both goalposts on a football field
Hull – 220 feet long, 30 feet high, 25 feet wide
Engines – Eight of 3,000 horsepower each
Gas load – 14,000 gallons, enough to drive your car around the earth more than eight times if there were a highway at the equator
Payload – 750 soldiers fully equipped or a 60 ton tank, something that 100 World War II cargo planes were needed to carry

It was a magnificent example of aeronautical engineering at a time when aluminum was scarce due to the war, and ships were being destroyed by enemy fire. The Spruce Goose — erroneously dubbed since it was built from birch plywood and not spruce — was a solution to that problem. The Milwaukee Journal article was aptly entitled, “$41,000,000 Spruce Goose Climbed 70 Feet.”

The Schenectady Gazette of October 31, 1947 reprinted a story out of Hollywood that had been posted the day before. Entitled, “Howard Hughes To Launch Huge Plane Tomorrow” the story began thusly:

Millionaire plane designer Howard Hughes announced tonight he would launch his giant 200-ton flying boat Saturday morning at Lost Angeles harbor. The $23,000,000 flying boat will be floated from its graving dock at Terminal Island to undergo dockside tests for several hours.

The launch took place two days before a Senate committee investigating Howard Hughes’ government contracts resumed in Washington the following Monday.

And five years before the Hercules — because that was the plane’s real name — took to the skies, Henry J. Kaiser and then 36-year-old Howard Hughes were in the news as reported in the St. Joseph Gazette of September 19, 1942 in an article entitled, “Will Build 3 Cargo Planes: Kaiser And Hughes Get Authorization For Big Craft.” The article shared general details about the venture which included the following:

Neither Kaiser nor Hughes will make any profit from the job, arranged through a letter of intent from the defense plant corporation, but Kaiser was directed to draw plans for a factory in which the giant twin-hulled flying boats could be manufactured in volume should the army and navy find the experimental ships successful.

Putting the situation into perspective, by July 1942, America had just lost 800,000 tons of supply ships to German U-boats. The cargo planes were meant to address this problem.

It was also reported in the article that if the ships were successful, the earliest that Kaiser and Hughes would begin turning the ships out would sometime in 1945. When the war ended, it was expected that this project would also come to an end. Instead, Howard Hughes invested more of his money into bringing the Hercules project to its conclusion.

As readers can see, the Hercules aka Spruce Goose — while successful in that it did fly — was an expensive proposition at best and one that certainly expanded the knowledge base in aviation, but it cost Howard Hughes dearly both to persist with the project and then to house the project once completed.

Posted in Idioms from the 20th Century, Politics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »