German-American History in Buffalo - Table of Contents

"Elephant Joe" Josephs
Special thanks to Z&K Antiques for permission to reproduce their photos of Self Portrait, Joseph Josephs

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"Elephant Joe's" Josephs Pictorial Paintshop

Self Portrait, Joseph Josephs

 

 

Excerpt from
"Elephant Joe's"
Scott Eberle and Joseph A. Grande
Second Looks: A Pictorial History of Buffalo and Erie County
Donning Co., 1993

Joe Josephs, sign painter, sometime artist, and Liedertafel singer, was one of Buffalo's authentic characters Like many of his fellow Protestant Germans in the post-Civil War era, he was also staunchly Republican. He was captain of the local rail splitting team for two Republican presidential candidates, Lincoln in 1860 and Garfield in 1880.

Josephs understood the publicity stunt. His shop at the foot of Exchange St. in Buffalo was decorated top to bottom with visual word puzzles and pictures of elephants. A publicity wizard, Elephant Joe could (as the saying went) make people "see an elephant" where there was none.

Excerpt from
"The Red Hot Republican"
American Heritage Magazine
April/May 1978. Vol. 29 Issue 3

"Elephant Joe" Josephs: ... this one-man GOP whirlwind from Buffalo, New York. Most of the time, Josephs was simply the city‚s best-known sign painter, celebrated only for his flamboyantly decorated shop (see American Heritage, February, 1975), and for his habit of handing out miniature elephants as a personal trademark to potential customers.

But every four years between 1856 and 1880, at presidential election time, Josephs became a man obsessed.

From street parading to stump oratory, Joe Josephs could do it all. Parades may have been his first love: he organized, drilled, and led uniformed marching units- the Lincoln Rail Splitters, the Grant Tanners, the Garfield Wood-Choppers; he painted the banners and transparencies they bore and devised elaborate floats for them to drag along with them. (The 1860 version featured muscular Lincoln enthusiasts on a bunting-draped wagon bed splitting real rails.)

Josephs ran rallies and Republican galas, too: he hired the hall; rehearsed the bands; festooned the walls with thirty-foot banners, portraits of party heroes, and brutal caricatures of the opposition. He could make a speech when the occasion called for it, and he also liked to sing, bellowing words of his own composition in "his own peculiar fashion" to the tune of "Rally ‚Round the Flag, Boys" and other Republican anthems.

Democrats foolhardy enough to try to shout him down were squelched with lyrics improvised on the spot. All in all, wrote one observer, "He created a fund of amusement with his unique songs and capital caricatures."


Excerpt from
Encylopedia of American Folk Art,
by Gerard C. Wertikin and L. Kogan
Pub. by American Folk Art Museum, Taylor & Francis, 2004
, page 521

The entire three story building served as an advertisement, in which every exterior surface was covered with letters, pictorial images, cutouts, and framing devices, creating an amalgamation of signs that communicated the sign maker's craft, skill, as well as sense of humor.

A reporter for the Buffalo Advertiser wrote that the shop evidenced "the strength and follies of the present day. A historian a century hence, without any other source of information could read aright the riddle of the times from the designs which Joe Josephs has spread out so voluminously to the gaze of an admiring community."


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