Fabulous Collection Was Started As a Family Joke Twenty Years Ago
“If I had really thought about starting a collection, I don’t know whether it would have been elephants or not. It might have been eats, or dogs, or any other animal. I was never interested in elephants — I m not superstitious, and the fact that they are supposed to bring good luck doesn’t interest me. It all started more or less as a joke.’’
And the joke that began at Christmastime in 1927 has now filled the home of Mrs. Nellie Shumaker of 27 Day street with over 1200 elephants. It has brought her a good deal of publicity, including an invitation to speak over a coast-to-coast WNAC broadcast, which she declined, as well as an actual broadcast over a WHDH program entitled ‘”Women in Review” It has brought her letters from all over the country, gifts of elephants from people she has never known, invitations to show her collection at numerous collectors’ and hobby shows. When, in 1936, she showed 100 of her enormous collection of elephants in the Norwood Hobby Show, she won a special award—but this was the only public appearance lier famed elephants have ever made.
Mrs. Shumaker belonged to a group that at Christmas exchanged inexpensive gifts. In 1927, she purchased pink glass elephants filled with bath powder for members of the group, and on each elephant’s trunk tied a large, red Christmas bow. She thought they made attractive gifts, and mentioned to her family that she would like to have one herself. But Christmas came—and no elephant for Mrs. Shumaker. Jokingly, she pretended disappointment over Santa’s forgetfulness and a few days later her husband came home with the pink glass container that now stands on a table in her living room. A few friends also tried to make up for the thoughtlessness of the old gent from the North Pole— they brought her elephants. And it was not very long before Mrs. Shumaker counted one day, and found that she had a collection of almost 73. “Then I decided to aim for 100 elephants—and after a while, I decided to have 200 elephants—and there you arc. But I’m definitely not a hobbyist. I don’t buy elephants. I don’t exchange them. In the twenty years that I’ve had them, 1 haven’t spent over ten dollars purchasing elephants. It’s purely a sentimental collection, and my friends have made it for me.”
Through these friends. Mrs. Shumaker has acquired miniature Jumbos from England, Scotland, Switzerland, Norway. Sweden, South America, the Belgian Congo, Alaska, Gibraltar, Panama, Mexico, Belgium and Burma. It happens just as easily as this. One day the piano tuner came to tune her piano con the rack of which stands the bid favorite song “Pink Elephants”). He noted her collection and asked her if she had any representatives from Switzerland. Mrs. Shumaker replied that she had none—and the following summer a box of Swiss elephants arrived. The piano tuner had written home to his father in Switzerland and told him about the lack.
Á missionary friend of Mrs. Shumaker’s, Miss Ruth Dickey, sent a tiny elephant carved from an elephant’s tusk by a native boy of the Belgian Congo. Dr. Marinus James, who has taken a great interest in the collection, brought another member of the elephant family from South America. Other friends wrote to Norway.
Anyone who has never made any particular note of elephants, their popularity as a decorative motif, the number of forms or materials in which they are fashioned, need only see Mrs. Shumakers collection to find that there is hardly an article one can think of that has not been decorated with an elephant at one time or another.! And all these things have found their way into Mrs. Shumaker’s elephant family. She has elephant lamps, curtain pulls, penny banks, bulb dishes, flower pots, watering pots, coasters, book-ends, bottle openers, stamp moisteners, a pencil sharpener, powder dish, jardiniere. cigarette snuffer, lighter and holder, and ashtrays. She also has elephant teapots, a milk pitcher, a Dedham pottery plate decorated with elephants, blotters, key rings, an incense burner, numerous salt and pepper shakers, a hot water bottle, a bathroom soap dish, a bottle stopper, a cane, playing cards, bookmarks, and stationery. She has a miniature compass set into a miniature elephant. She has a little matchbox with a little elephant .standing atop. She has books on elephants, an oil painting of an elephant, a great deal of jewelry—bracelets carved in elephants, pins and bracelets —and she has elephant buttons, water tumblers painted with elephants. dish towels embroidered with elephants, chair back sets sporting elephants, a sofa and a boudoir pillow. There are napkin rings, and even a clock that was once a wooden elephant into which her son set a watch. And each of these has an interesting story behind it. Each of the elephants is tagged with the giver’s name and the date and the origin of the gift.
At random, »no might choose a few of these items In an attempt to picture the range that the collection has come to covert-only to do Injustice to the others. There is a black and gold ring made or elephant hair—the gift of Miss Thelma Sylvester of East Monroe street. There is a little red Mcxican jumping bean which lifts up at the top—and inside is a hand-carved ivory elephant that could sit comfortably on the head of a pin. There is an elephant made out of an inner tube—another gift from Dr. James. There is an elephant made of adobe clay brought from Mexico. There is a pink elephant with a fly perched on its trunk, and another elephant, looking highly dismayed, who be vainly trying to brush a fly from his tail. There are Christmas tree bulbs, elephants of course, that trim the Shumaker’s tree every year. There are elephants made of candy, others of sponge—and Mrs. Shumaker’s collection also includes the elephants that her family sits upon the frosting on her birthday cakes. An elephant made of tropical shells from Florida—another made of a pine cone and pointed pink, wearing an Inscription that Identified him as the original pink Jumbo that perhaps gave birth to the song about his appearance on the ceiling and the walls. There is an orchestra of elephants, each playing an instrument. Then, of course, there are all the lovely ivory and marble elephants in graduated sizes, sot upon curved bridges or grouped together holding up little crystal balls.
There are elephants all over the house. They’re In every room, and in every drawer we open, there are still more of them. Every year I have a housecleaning and the whole family gets scrubbed. Now and then they get on my nerves, and I look around and think—’what a mess.’ But no matter where 1 go, I notice them. In a store, there might be any number of things on the counters—but one elephant, no matter how far away, can always catch the corner of my eye,” Mrs. Shumaker said. She has elephants from every town in Massachusetts, as well as from all the New England states, Illinois, Maryland, Virginia, ‘Washington, Washington, D. C., Ohio. South Carolina, California, New York. Texas, Nebraska, Michigan, New Mexico, Arizona. Colorado, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Florida and Georgia. She feels that when the rest of the 48 states are represented. that her family will be complete.
Letters and Gifts
When the Associated Press spread the story of her collection across the continent, Mrs. Shumaker began to receive letters and elephants from everywhere. One was sent by a man who found it “while wandering through the wilds of Woolworth*s/’ Another sent a gourd dressed in gay gingham. and, of course, shaped like an elephant. woman wrote, sending an elephant and asking that Mrs Shumaker return her gift by mailing ‘a rock from Massachusetts’ ‘‘She must have meant a stone, of course” Mrs. Shumaker said, “and I was looking for some- lining pretty when she wrote me again and said that she had changed her mind. She was going to collect buttons instead’
In her count of the elephants, Mrs. Shumaker does not include the numerous cards, clippings, pictures and other items that she has assembled in her scrapbook. She herself usually tries to find Christmas. birthday and other greeting cards with elephants on them to send to her friends — and her friends do the same thing. In her scrapbook, she even has a recipe for something called “Elephant’s Ears.’’ although she has never tried it out. She does have an elephant cookie cutter, however, and serves them often, dotting their faces with little raisin eyes.
There are numerous anecdotes connected with this fabulous collection. There was the letter she received addressed simply to “The Elephant Woman, Norwood. Mass.” There was a friend who went to a funeral, and after the services, while the will was being read, went into the kitchen to give the family privacy. On the kitchen table was a pencil sharpener made in the shape of an elephant. With the family’s permission, the friend brought back what Mrs. Shumaker calls her “funeral elephant.” Mrs. Shumaker is no longer surprised to receive gifts from strangers. For years she lias received handkerchiefs trimmed with lace, with elephants crocheted into the lace pattern: of her wide assortment of jewelry she remarks. “I’d look like a walking circus if I ever tried to wear it.”
Other elephant collectors have written her. Some of them won’t have any elephants that have their trunks turned down — that’s supposed to bring bad luck. But 1 don’t bother about that. Once some people came here who have a place in Pembroke called The House of 1000 Elephants. They brought elephants for my collection and I gave them some for theirs. I went there once to visit and found that they had an entire room devoted to their collection. But they not only counted the miniatures — they counted cards and drawings and clippings. If I staged to do that, my collection would run into thousands, rather than 1200.”
Mrs. Shumakers prize elephants are kept in two cabinets, are also has a wall plaque sewn with the very smallest in the group. Among these are Willkie, Hoover and Curtis GOPers. as well as souvenirs from church conventions and world fairs. The rest of the elephants are put to work — to serve smilingly as cookie jars, to protect chair backs, to serve the various purposes for which they were created. One of the items in the collection is a hooked rug made by a lighthouse keeper in Nantucket.
Mrs. Shumaker’s son and a number of other people often jokingly threaten to send her real elephants to end all elephants. And this was the sentiment expressed in a letter she received a few years ago from a Boston insurance man who had read about her collection. For her scrapbook he enclosed a little story about elephants and in an accompanying letter said that when he was a boy he had worked at a circus as a water bot. “You’re lucky,” he wrote, “that they’re not alive- and that you don’t have to feed them.”
By Patricia Chism