"Seeing the elephant" was one of 19th century America's most popular

phrases. RHHDAS A-G has it from 1835.

Not cited is the humor magazine, THE ELEPHANT, which began 22 January


I found the phrase in numerous advertisements from 1813. I can't find

them all now, but this is from the Otsego Herald, 16 October 1813, pg. 3,

col. 2:

Now or Never!



Thirteen years old, upwards of eight feet high, and weighs more than _five

thousand seven hundred pounds_, to be seen at JOSEPH GRIFFIN'S in the village

of Cooperstown on _Thursday_, _Friday_ and _Saturday_ the 21st, 22d and 23d

inst. Those who wish to gratify their curiousity by viewing the wonderful

works of nature, will do well to call on either of the abovementioned days,

as she positively will be removed the next morning. Perhaps the present

generation may never have an opportunity of seeing an Elephant again, as this

is the only one in the United States, and this, perhaps, the last visit to

this place. (...)

This "folk" definition is from THE COMIC ALMANAC FOR THE YEAR 1865,

Hollowbush & Carey, Philadelphia, pp. 30-31:

Origin of "Seeing the Elephant."

Some years since, at one of the Philadelphia theatres a pageant was in

rehearsal in which it was necessary to have an elephant. No elephant was to

be had--The "wild beasts" were travelling, and the property man, stage

director and manager almost had fits when they thought of it. Days passed in

the hopeless task of trying to secure one; but at last Yankee ingenuity

triumphed, as indeed it always does, and an elephant was made to order of

wood, skins, paint and varnish. Thus far the matter was all very well, but

as yet they found no means to make said combination travel. Here again the

genius of the manager, the stage director and property man struck out, and

two "broths" were duly installed as legs--Ned C--, one ofthe true and genuine

"b'hoys," held the station of fore legs, and for several nights he played

that part to the entire satisfaction of the managers, and the delight of the


The part, however, was a very tedious one, as the elephant was obliged

to be on the stage about an hour, and Ned was too fond of the bottle to

remain so long without "whetting his whistle," so he set his wits to work to

find a way to carry a weedrop with him. The eyes of the elephant being made

of two porter bottles, with the necks in. Ned conceived the brilliant idea

of filling them with good stuff. This he fully carried out; and elated with

success, he willingly undertook to play fore legs again.

Night came on--the theatre was densely crowded with the denizens of the

Quaker City--the music was played in the sweetest strains--the curtain rose

and the play began. Ned and the "hind legs" marched upon the stage. The

elephant was greeted with round up[on round of applause. The decorations and

the trappings were gorgeous. The elephant and the prince seated upon his

back, were loudly cheered.

The play proceeded; the elephant was marched round and round the stage.

The fore legs got dry, with frew (?) one of the corks and treated the hind

legs, and then drank the health of the audience in a bumper of genuine

"elephant eye" whiskey, a brand, by the way till then unknown. On went the

play and on went Ned drinking. The conclusion march was to be made--the

signal was given and the fore legs staggered towards the front of the stage.

The conductor pulled the ears of the elephant to the right--the fore legs

staggered to the left. The footlights obstructed the way and he raised his

foot and stepped plump into the orchestra!--Down went the fore legs on to the

leader's fiddle--over, of course, turned the elephant, sending the prince and

hind legs into the middle of the pit. The managers stood horror struck--the

prince and the hind legs confounded--the bozes in convulsions, the actors

choking with laughter, and poor Ned, casting one look, a strange blending of

drunkenness, grielf, and laughter at the scene, fled hastily from the

theatre, closely followed by the leader with the wreck of his fiddle,

performing various cut and thrust motions in the air. The curtain dropped on

a scene behind the scenes. No more pageant--no more fore legs--but every

body held their sides. Music, actors, pit, boxes and gallery, rushed from

the theatre, shrieking between every breath: "HAVE YOU SEEN THE ELEPHANT?"