Heavy Metal Madness: Seeing Pink Elephants

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It's the holidays and that means company Christmas parties, acrimonious family gatherings, tree-decorating get-togethers and New Year's Eve celebrations. And for many, those events are accompanied by a few, or by many, cocktails. And though we have, in recent years, taken a slightly more critical look at alcohol consumption, that wasn't always the case.

The art of drinking has manifest itself in a variety of images, depending on the times. For the majority of the last century, drinking and drunkenness was considered a humorous sport, and the images, on the whole, had a comic and playful look. From tipsy pink elephants to happy drunks clinging to a lamppost, most drinking art showed few, if any, consequences to imbibing. And a whole new vocabulary was created to describe the various states of inebriation.

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Figure 1: Holidays bring out the drinker in everyone, as illustrated here in a 1967 San Francisco Chronicle photo used to illustrate a special section on how to drink.

It wasn't just art that promoted excessive alcohol consumption. The entertainers of the day played their role too. Dean Martin sipped cocktails during his TV show, Foster Brooks made a career out of his drunken persona, and in the early days, Hugh Hefnerwas almost always pictured at the Playboy mansion, cocktail in hand. For the generations that came of age in the '30s, '40s and '50s, drinking was a pastime, a hobby, and a passion. Kind of like coffee and Red Bull are now.

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Figure 2: Being sloppy drunk is even funnier if you're a mouse, as shown in this cocktail napkin from the '50s.

There's Something About an Elephant
It's a little unclear why pink elephants have been associated with drinking for a number of decades, but they are one of the more consistent images. I found one reference to seeing pink elephants and pink spiders as a drinking hallucination, attributed to the 1890s. In 1913 Jack London wrote in "John Barleycorn": "There are, broadly speaking, two types of drinkers. There is the man whom we all know, stupid, unimaginative, whose brain is bitten numbly by numb maggots; who walks generously with wide-spread, tentative legs, falls frequently in the gutter, and who sees, in the extremity of his ecstasy, blue mice and pink elephants. He is the type that gives rise to the jokes in funny papers."

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Figure 3: For some reason, pink elephants were the most popular image for drinking during several decades, beginning in the '40s.

And then in 1932, Guy Lombardo had a popular hit with the song "Pink Elephants" composed by Mort Dixon and Harry Woods. Sample verse:

Pink elephants on the table.
Pink elephants on the chair.
Pink elephants on the ceiling,
Pink elephants ev'rywhere.

Now I'm through making whoopee,
I raised my hand and swore
That I never intend to see
Those pink elephants any more.

It should be noted that the song also referred to a lavender alligator, a purple cow, a polka-dot boa constrictor, a beetle, a monkey, and a whippoorwill. But it was the pink elephant that stuck.

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Figure 4: Even an elephant can't disguise being drunk-it's all in the eyes.

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Figure 5: In 1943, a pink elephant could drink and ride a bike at the same time, as demonstrated in this cocktail napkin found at a garage sale.

By 1941, pink elephants were everywhere, including in the Disney movie "Dumbo," which features a famous scene called "Pink Elephants on Parade." That drunken-elephant sequence also inspired a drink of the same name, which consists of 2 oz. Vodka, 4 oz. Pink lemonade, 2 tbsp. Sugar and .5 oz. Midori melon liqueur.

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Figure 6: Not sure if this 1944 pink elephant is sad because it's also drunk, or because it's not.

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Figure 7: Both hosts and guests suffered come Sunday after a weekend bender.

At about the same time pink elephants became an image for the effects of over drinking, elephant jokes became a pop phenomenon as well. That led inevitably to pink elephant jokes-the best of both worlds.

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Figures 8 and 9: Combine pink elephants and elephant jokes and you have a riot fest, as shown in this napkin from 1965.

Learning to Hold Your Liquor
It's no wonder so many references are made to drunken behavior in the decades preceding the '70s. In the 1964 Calvert Party Encyclopedia it is suggested that at a typical party, the hostess should calculate an average of three to four cocktails per guest, at a rate of one and a half oz of gin or whisky each. That's five and a half to six ounces of high-proof alcohol each. Depending on the length of the party, this would easily put every guest over the current legal limit for driving. And when you consider the size and weight of American cars at the time, that's pretty scary.

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Figure 10: As late as the '60s, drunks were still pretty happy as illustrated in this card deck, each festooned with a different drinking cartoon on the back.

Of course being plied with six ounces of gin may have been the only way guests could endure the inevitable party games as suggested by Calvert. Aside from the well-known charades and eye spy games, the Party Encyclopedia includes instructions for "Talkathon," a hilarious exercise where guest A is given an ice cube and has to hold it as long as guest B continues talking non stop. If guest B stops talking, then guest A hands the melting cube to them and begins talking non stop themselves. It's not clear who wins or loses this match when the cube finally melts, but you can imagine the laughter and gaiety that unfolds.

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Figure 11: Drunks and lampposts have gone together since lampposts were invented.

And if you're worried about the melted ice staining your hardwood floors, you can always play "Jumbled Words." In this laugh fest you scramble the names of popular movie titles, famous people, etc, and set your guests loose trying to figure out the right phrase or name. Calvert suggests such brain teasers as:

EREGOG SNIHANGWOT
(George Washington)
NEOG HIWT HET DNIW
(Gone With the Wind)
OWSN ITHEW DAN ETH VNEES RAWFSD
(Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs)

Every Drinker Needs Accessories
I'm not exactly sure when drinking accessories became popular, but during the '50s and '60s it wasn't unusual to find gag gifts for your favorite drinker at the local novelty shop. I can remember my father getting and laughing hysterically at some of these items, all of them were funny due to some sort of humiliation or embarrassment. I thought of them at the time as a little odd, much like the special Christmas cartons of cigarettes, complete with festive wrapping, that my grandmother would give to my mother. I suppose it's no different than the birthday bong my nephew is hoping for this year, but somehow drug or alcohol accessories don't seem to be a worthwhile theme for gift giving these days.

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Figure 12: Drinkers of distinction needed a fair amount of accessories in 1964, like this inflatable elbow cushion from the H. Fishlove Novelty Company.

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Figure 13: In this 1966 Boozemood Indicator, the drinker could determine their level of inebriation simply by touching the glass bulb. Clearly not admissible as defense in drunk-driving court.

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Figure 14: There's nothing funnier than a drunk falling off a bar stool, so why not a joke safety belt? According to the instructions included with this device, "the management in most saloons takes a dim view of finding their bar stools in the men's room, so when you feel the urge, remember to unhook the clasps."

Drunk, Drunker, Drunkest
According to "The Dictionary of American Slang," there are more synonyms for the word "drunk" than any other word in the English language (last count a minimum of 353). Apparently our own Ben Franklin was the first to compile a list of them -- he came up with 228 in 1737, including such chestnuts as oiled, lubricated, cock-eyed, mellow, soaked, buzzed, stiff, stewed to the gills, jagged, pigeon-eyed, limber, fuzzled, cherry-merry, top heavy, glaized, moon-eyed and nimptopsical.

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Figure 15: Stealing olives from martinis was a popular pastime -- hence these special rubber gloves suited for the task. Date unknown, but long before the current martini resurgence.

As you may imagine, many of the synonyms for drunk have origins in England. The word "drunk" itself dates back to 15th century England and is the short version of drunken. "Inebriated" is also from the English, though it's origins are from the Latin ebrius, or e (out) plus bria (wine jar) -- literally "having emptied out the wine jar." Other English terms: intoxicated, (Latin toxicum, poison), soused, boozy, blind drunk, high as a kite, jolly, and tiddly.

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Figure 16: According to this 1950s cooking apron, after 20 highballs, all women look beautiful.

Americans easily kept up with the Brits, however, and are credited with such illustrative terms as polluted, gassed, having a snoot full, juiced, potted, buried, crocked, busted, swacked, sloshed, clobbered, hooted, plastered, zonked, lit, pixilated, swizzled, loaded, corked, petrified, blotto, shellacked, looped, paralyzed, tight, damaged, primed, bombed, shit faced, and feeling no pain.

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Figure 17: After a few glasses of bubbly and a cigarette, the phone inevitably comes off the hook and foolish things happen, as demonstrated in this 1957 album cover.

Not all drinking takes place on one night as part of a party celebration. Some unfortunates end up going on a drinking spree, and a number of terms have been coined to describe such binges. You can go on a bender, on a bat, on a toot, on a jag, a booze fight, or simply on a drunk. Watch out, though, for the pink elephants.

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Figure 18: It was always cocktail hour back in the era when work actually ended at 5 pm.

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Figure 19: A good shot of booze became known as an "eye opener", as illustrated in these 1950s shot glasses.

Have we Learned Our Lesson Yet?
By the time Alcoholic Anonymous was formed in 1934, it had been clear for many decades that not all drinking was fun and games. In the 1890s many drinkers were encouraged to "take the cure," and give up the evil fluid. And of course America's Prohibition proved that not everyone in this country was in a party mood.

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Figures 20 and 21: We took their land, killed most of them off, introduced them to alcohol, then made fun of their drinking. Pretty funny, huh?

Today we still have hard liquor ads on TV, in magazines, and on billboards. And despite minor mentions by liquor producers of adhering to sensible limits, we're still presenting alcohol use as fun, sexy, and hip. Only we don't typically portray drunks as a happy lot, unless it's a sitcom, and then there is always a consequence, or at least a bad headache the next morning.

I doubt it will be very long before the pink elephants come back in vogue, only this time, there will probably be a designated driver elephant that abstains from drinking and remains a pale shade of grey. And of course these pink elephants will be available at your local toy store in the form of action figures and trading cards.

Read more by Gene Gable.

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