Work, Play, and Elephants in South Florida’s Leisure Landscape
During the Florida Land Boom of the 1920s, entrepreneurs and real estate developers deployed creative tactics to woo potential clients to the Sunshine State to invest in Florida land. All-expense paid trips to Miami Beach, Coral Gables, and other South Florida developments drew potential investors from points northward, enticing them with exotic architecture, imported tropical foliage, and an array of leisure amenities.
At Miami Beach, where Indianapolis-based entrepreneur Carl Fisher invested millions in resort development during the 1920s, tourists encountered a surprising attraction: elephants. Two elephants were brought to Miami Beach. They were named Carl II (named after Fisher himself) and Rosie (who arrived later as a companion for Carl II).
These elephants were not part of a zoo, but they were integral to the leisure landscape. The pachyderms delighted visitors by caddying on the golf course and frolicking in the waves. In one photograph, an elephant pulls a cart of tourists while carrying young children on its back; other youngsters eagerly await their turn.
Nestled within a palm-studded landscape with one of Fisher’s swank hotels rising in the background, the elephant stands within Miami Beach’s carefully curated landscape of leisure. Yet the elephants were more than props; they also hauled building materials and cleared land for development. Seeing the elephants’ work at Miami Beach positions these more-than-human actors in the histories of leisure in South Florida, as they signal the uncomfortable degree to which work and leisure were deeply entangled in this place.
The elephants resisted pigeonholing. At one level, Carl II and Rosie were anthropomorphized, but at another, they were cordoned off—physically and socially—from the tourists they entertained. Because the elephants were (partly) laborers, they were often described as akin to Black workers. And yet, when they entertained white, leisure-class tourists, they occupied spaces that African Americans could not. By keeping elephants at all, Fisher hoped to put them to work creating a resort for humans, which would outlast their time on the island.
Thinking with animals, as Gregg Mitman and Lorraine Daston have encouraged, can transform our notions about differences and boundaries. This includes boundaries between work and play, between nature and culture, between the human and non-human, and between different social and racial categories. To think with the Miami Beach elephants suggests ways in which these animals disrupted categories that separated nature from culture, animals from people, white from Black, and work from leisure.
Playful Worker, or Working Plaything?
The first elephant, Carl II, came to Miami Beach from Peoria, Illinois, in February of 1921. According to the Miami Daily Metropolis, Ed Ballard, who owned several circuses in the Midwest, gifted the elephant to Carl Fisher to thank him for a trip he had taken to one of Fisher’s hotels.1 Initially, Fisher seems to have delighted in accommodating the barrier island’s new resident. In his biography of Carl Fisher, The Pacesetter, Jerry M. Fisher claims the hotelier wrote to a friend, “I am going to get a million dollars’ worth of advertising out of this elephant.” According to an article in the Miami Herald, the elephant quickly started making rounds at Fisher’s hotels, performing stunts and delighting guests by catching peanuts and popcorn in his trunk.2 Carl II also carried advertisements on boards hung over a saddle.
Local newspapers of the time provided a space where reporters and their readers experienced the Miami Beach elephants’ life on the beach. From the outset, the elephants were infantilized.
When Carl II arrived on the barrier island, he was only two years old. Newspapers described him as a “baby elephant”—even if at 1000 pounds, he was still very large, particularly compared with young children who rode him. Infantilizing Carl II, as reporters often did in the Miami newspapers, seems to have made him seem less physically threatening. It also helped uphold his value as a toy of sorts, which supported the idea of Miami Beach as a “playground,” as it was called at the time. While “young and old alike” appreciated Carl’s antics, calling him a “baby” fit the bill. It also may explain why his trainers expressed concern about his appetite and weight, which threatened his youthful status and thus his value as a living plaything.
During Carl II’s first year, reporters chronicled the young pachyderm’s journey from youth to adulthood, his experiences with a series of trainers, and his workday duties that ranged from entertaining the crowd to helping with construction. As the Miami papers documented Carl II’s first year, articles stressed, however, that the elephant’s education would involve more than “play.” The Miami Daily Metropolis reported that “Carl, the elephant will be put to work.”3 This is coupled with language that strikes a disciplinary tone; the reporter stated that “he must earn his keep.” Fisher believed that work would make Carl II “a better pet.” Such work ranged from moving portable houses on the beach to pulling presses on the polo field. Carl also cleared mangrove swamps to make land suited for residential development and hauled building materials for Fisher’s hotels and resorts.
Making Work Visible in a Leisure Landscape
The ongoing reporting about Carl II’s and Rosie’s activities on the island helped the writers as well as their audience situate the elephants in this landscape. Discussion of Carl and Rosie at “work” and “play” in particular reveal ways in which the elephants unsettled categories on which the landscape of 1920s Miami Beach depended.
Like other resorts that pandered to a growing middle-class market for leisure in the roaring 1920s, Fisher’s venture on Miami Beach was carefully curated as a “playground to the World.” Just as Henry Flagler had separated “work” from “leisure” by building Palm Beach separate from West Palm Beach in the 1890s, Fisher kept his beach workers’ labor largely invisible—except when it enhanced the tourist experience of its middle- and upper-middle class clientele, as when the elephants caddied on the golf course or stomped divots on the polo field.
Fisher’s plan was to attract visitors to Miami Beach to come back year after year. His hotels, in fact, were means to an end, which was to prompt permanent settlement in his island subdivisions. These subdivisions, like his hotels, were meant to be exclusive. Since they required a significant down payment and a short-term loan, houses on Miami Beach were available almost solely to upper middle-class Americans in the period. Country clubs, too, formed part of this cultural landscape of white, middle-class privilege.
As Miami Beach grew in the 1920s and 1930s, that privilege was often attached to property in the form of restrictive covenants as well as codified in advertising and the law. Fisher’s hotels, such as the famous Hotel Flamingo, catered to a “restricted” or “selected” clientele—a euphemism for barring Jewish guests. And while this landscape depended on an African American workforce, the city enacted Ordinance 457 in 1936, requiring the more than 5,000 service workers at the time to “register.” In addition to being photographed and fingerprinted, Black workers had to carry identification with them.
Pachyderm Personhood & Racing Elephants
Commentators described Carl II’s behavior in anthropocentric terms, projecting human action and even emotions onto the pachyderm. When a new trainer arrived, Carl immediately took a liking for him, which allowed the trainer to introduce Carl to the various points around Miami Beach as part of “kindergarten” training.4
Elsewhere writers remarked on Carl II enjoying children’s attention or expressing pleasure—he reportedly loved frolicking in the Atlantic Ocean. Carl II even had a bungalow house built for him. The Miami Daily Metropolis described this bungalow as similar to the new houses being built in Miami Beach’s subdivisions: “Carl’s new home is one story, has wide eaves, and the upper half of it is latticed; it is about 24 x 25 feet in size and its style of architecture fits in well with the other buildings there and with the landscaping being done on the grounds.”5 These descriptions paint Carl II like a human actor within the cultural landscape of the resort island.
Yet these comments also reveal ways that viewers at the time struggled to make sense of Carl II’s place. Some of this related to the fact the elephant worked at the resort island. Like other laborers who built the luxury hotels, maintained the golf courses, and waited tables at posh dining establishments on the Beach, Carl II supported the tourist clientele. Yet where service was supposed to be largely invisible, the elephant’s work was meant to be highly visible. When Carl II took over tamping the polo field, the Miami Daily Metropolis heralded Carl’s new duties: “This is expected to be a big advertisement for the polo. Probably never before will a polo audience have seen an elephant repairing a polo field.”6 Here, work and leisure blur in that the elephant’s work became entertainment.
Carl II’s presence also prompted comments that alluded to racial difference. As Carl II took on more duties like the polo pitch, he displaced what was previously African American labor. Reporters often described Carl II’s duties in vaguely racialized language, as a trainer’s account of “breaking” Carl II in the Miami Daily Metropolis suggests: “The elephant resented my commands for a time…but the experience I had with wild animals and the trainer’s way of disciplining sulky fellows like Carl brought him to understand quickly that I was master.”7 In the Jim Crow era, terms such as “master” as well as “obedient” and “docile” evoked the legacy of enslavement.
Nevertheless, because of his ambivalent place between “work” and “leisure,” “laborer” and “entertainer,” Carl II could move in places that disallowed African Americans. In March of 1921, Carl II lived at the local fairgrounds, where he served as a backdrop for photos. He delighted guests with his “funny antics”—another phrase that would have potentially recalled for readers the practice of minstrelsy. An article in the Miami Daily Metropolis that celebrated Carl II’s presence there also noted that “the fair doors are not open to the colored population this year.”8 Despite some of his own misgivings (as evidenced by his “haughty” and disinterested attitude), Carl II could move in spaces that Black visitors could not.
Part attraction and part workhorse, Carl II moved across spaces dividing work and leisure, non-human and human, and Black and white on which Miami Beach’s status as a “tropical paradise” for the white leisured classes depended. A 1925 promotional brochure for the island attempts to fix the elephants’ place by representing them at “work” and “play,” as if this solved the dilemma. Yet the fact the pachyderms are positioned alongside other amusements within the landscape of leisure shows that even their “work” formed part of the “play.” After all, as Fisher said, the elephants were going to make him millions.
Good to Play With, Good to Think With
Fisher’s pachyderms did not fit easily into neat categories of work or play outside of their entertainment value. Even their animality challenged the domestication of Miami Beach’s tropical landscape. Carl II’s “teenage” antics, which included chasing an Indian trainer up a water tank, led Fisher to hire a series of trainers in quick succession without much success.
Ultimately, however, the elephants’ residency on Miami Beach was short-lived. Carl II was shipped off to the Circus in 1926, the same year that a devastating hurricane struck the beach and brought the “boom” years to an end. His companion, Rosie, eventually met the same fate.
As Fisher and others sought to explain Carl II’s “work” and “play,” they brought to the fore hidden aspects of this leisure landscape and the degree to which it depended on difference. While Miami Beach was developed as a playground for the white leisure class, its success was inextricably bound with the labor force that built and sustained it. The laboring of the elephants temporarily disrupted the invisibility of work in this landscape, as the newspapers accounts reveal an invisibility that was vital to sustaining Fisher’s “playground.” Through reading these accounts today, moreover, we can find the deeply entangled relationships between human and more-than-human, Black and white, and “work” and “play” in Jim Crow South Florida’s resort landscape.
Featured image: Elephants named Carl and Rosie worked as golf caddies in Miami Beach, Florida in 1923. Image courtesy of State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory.
Anna Vemer Andrzejewski is Professor of Art History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She served as director of CHE between 2019 and 2022. Anna is completing a book on the history of South Florida’s vacation and retirement landscape after World War II. Contact.
“Carl Fisher is Given Elephant by Ballard,” Miami Daily Metropolis, February 5, 1921, 4. ↩
“Baby Elephant is Beach Attraction,” Miami Herald, March 13, 1921, 12. ↩
“Baby Elephant Must Earn His Keep Now,” Miami Daily Metropolis, April 23, 1921, 4. ↩
“Baby Carl Starts His Kindergarten Instruction Course,” Miami Daily Metropolis, March 12, 1921, 11. ↩
“‘Carl’ is Name of Baby Elephant on the Beach,” Miami Daily Metropolis, February 25, 1921, 1. ↩
“Baby Elephant Must Earn His Keep Now,” Miami Daily Metropolis, April 23, 1921, 4. ↩
“Baby Carl is Most Intelligent Animal,” Miami Daily Metropolis, May 11, 1921, 5. ↩
“Flower Displays at County Fair on Opening Day,” Miami Daily Metropolis, March 25, 1921, 1. ↩