The Glory That Was Jumbo

An art exhibition and book chronicle the history of the legendary Tufts mascot
Watch a video about the life and times of Tufts’ mascot, Jumbo. Video: Steffan Hacker
September 22, 2014

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Jumbo, the elephant Tufts never forgets, is being celebrated this fall with an art exhibition and a commemorative book to mark the 125th anniversary of the university mascot’s arrival on campus.

A walk through the exhibition Jumbo: Marvel, Myth and Mascot, showing at the Koppelman Family Gallery in the Aidekman Arts Center through Dec. 7, is proof that “Jumbo was the most famous animal on the planet in his day,” says exhibit curator Andrew McClellan, a professor of art and art history.

Images and artifacts drawn from public and private collections in the U.S. and Canada chronicle the gentle giant’s international rock-star status during the latter half of the 19th century, first at the London Zoo and finally as part of showman P.T. Barnum’s traveling circus in America.

The exhibition includes not only posters and photographs from Jumbo’s days as a beloved public figure, but also evidence of how he became part of our culture. The gallery exhibition includes Jumbo soda bottles, popcorn bags, matches, playing cards, puzzles, children’s toys—and even an advertisement for Jumbo auto tires and a spark plug bearing the elephant’s image and name.

The Tufts mascot is, in fact, responsible for the introduction of the word “jumbo” to our language. The term had never been used to describe something humongous until the enormous elephant—he stood more than 11 feet tall and weighed over five tons—came along. “So anytime we use the words ‘jumbo jet’ or ‘Jumbotron,’ we are referring back to Jumbo the elephant,” says McClellan, who wrote a lavishly illustrated, 72-page book about Jumbo’s life that is also titled Jumbo: Marvel, Myth and Mascot. (Visit Tufts’ eCommerce Marketplace to order a copy.)

Perhaps Jumbo’s greatest legacy—aside from living on as Tufts’ mascot, of course—is his role in America’s late 19th century cultural history. “Jumbo’s life intersected with so many important strands of modern American history: the rise of mass entertainment, of museums, of advertising, and the notion of celebrity itself,” writes McClellan. “And at the center of Jumbo’s tale is the great P.T. Barnum. . . pioneer of popular culture, marketing genius and philanthropist.”

After Jumbo was killed by an oncoming train in Canada in 1885, Barnum, a founding trustee of Tufts, donated his stuffed hide to the university’s natural history museum. Jumbo met his second demise in 1975, when the museum and all its contents were destroyed by a fire; his tail survived. A staff assistant from the Athletics Department had some of Jumbo’s ashes scooped up in a peanut butter jar. Today, the jar of ashes resides in the athletics director’s office, and is used in a ceremonial “passing of the ashes,” when one athletics director leaves and a new one comes on board. Jumbo’s tail and ashes are part of the gallery exhibit.

Here at Tufts, though, Jumbo is first and foremost a mascot. “It’s not clear when Jumbo became recognized as the Tufts mascot,” says McClellan. Like any good tradition, it emerged slowly and was student-driven. “We have a couple of photographs from 1910 and 1913. In the latter, students are dressed in a Jumbo outfit going to a football game at Bowdoin College. So certainly by then, Jumbo was used on different occasions as the mascot, and his image becomes more pervasive in the 1920s and 1930s.”

Next spring Jumbo’s legacy will be memorialized for generations to come when a life-sized bronze sculpture, based on an archival photo of the elephant at the London Zoo, is dedicated in front of Barnum Hall on the Medford/Somerville campus. Created for Tufts by sculptor Stephen Whyte, the bronze pachyderm was underwritten by Dick Reynolds, A67, a former vice president of operations at the university.

“Jumbo connects us to so many strands of history,” McClellan says. “And just as important, the arc of Jumbo’s life illustrates the complicated and shifting relationship human beings have had with animals. There is no other college mascot so rich in tradition.”

Special tours of the exhibition will be given as part of Parents Weekend next month. On Oct. 17 from 11 a.m. to noon, exhibit curator McClellan will guide a tour, and on Oct. 19 from 12:30 to 2:30 p.m., gallery guides will offer tours. McClellan will also give a public lecture on Jumbo on Oct. 16 in Alumnae Lounge at 5 p.m. with a walk through of the exhibition and book signing to follow. The exhibition is free and open to the public.

For more information on the exhibition Jumbo: Marvel, Myth, and Mascot and gallery hours, visit the Tufts Art Gallery website.

To order a copy of Andrew McClellan’s book Jumbo: Marvel, Myth, and Mascot, visit Tufts’ eCommerce Marketplace.

Steffan Hacker can be reached at steffan.hacker@tufts.edu. Gail Bambrick can be reached at gail.bambrick@tufts.edu.