Why Do We Have White Elephant Gifts?


If you’ve ever done a gift exchange, you might have done one with some extra shenanigans. Maybe it was something like Yankee Swap because your boss was annoyed they got mittens for Christmas or something. Maybe it was just a low budget gift exchange for gags at a random point in the year for team bonding. Who knows what strange bonding exercises you’ve had to do for school or work; it’s like everyone has their own universal yet uniquely odd experience. Weird activities aside, let’s actually unpack the phrase “white elephant.” Why do we have white elephant gifts?

White Elephants

The white elephant tradition actually predates your weird team building exercises by a pretty long shot. In the West the term “white elephant” for an opulent yet burdensome gift has been in regular use since the 1800s. The term in general has been kicking around since the 1700s.

White elephant gifts are said to originate from old monarchs of Thailand, some records citing the Konbaung dynasty. The stories hold that white elephants were sacred animals, and given as valuable gifts. However, white elephants were so sacred that they could not be used for labor (normal elephants were common beasts of burden in Southeast Asia), and thus just became animals that had to be fed 300 pounds per day. Letting the animal die would be a massive slight against the monarchs, and likely bring retribution. The idea was that this super valuable animal would financially ruin anyone who was gifted one–hence the modern idiom “white elephant.” The writings of Frederick III, Duke of Holstein seem to indicate that Europeans would have had a similar conception of white elephants being sacred as far back as their earlier ventures to Southeast Asia in the 1600s. 

Other Elephant Idioms

But those same writings indicate that white elephants were so sacred that monarchs would be unlikely to use a white elephant for such petty reasons. 

Elephants in general would be burdensome gifts for a layperson in the 1800s, and they were used as a metaphor for burdensome gifts in America as early as the 1800s. However, it didn’t take very long for Americans to make the metaphor racist. Americans in the mid 1800s used the term to describe enslaved persons they deemed useless. The term “like the man who won an elephant at a raffle” was often used, exemplified by a wildly offensive politician cartoon penned in the 1860s.

Early Uses of the White Elephant

One of the earliest western uses of “white elephant” as a metaphor at all dates back to Frederick II (King of Prussia), who offered philosopher Voltaire position as his court philosopher. Frederick II called Voltaire a white elephant in 1750 as a compliment though–he was calling the philosopher incredibly valuable. 

The contemporary use of “white elephant” dates at least as fat back as the 1850s in a letter by Geraldine Jewsbury. In it, she describes her annoyance at someone else’s services as a white elephant.

“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.”

Letter 116, London, Monday, July 23, 1851, Selections from the Letters of Geraldine Endsor Jewsbury to Jane Welsh Carlyle

Look at other things that are also sort of elephants here.