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The euphemism “seeing pink elephants” was first used in the 19th century to describe the hallucinations experienced by drinkers of absinthe, the anise-flavored and highly alcoholic beverage associated with bohemian culture, especially among artists and writers in Paris. Vincent Van Gogh, Ernest Hemingway and Oscar Wilde were well-known absinthe drinkers.
Absinthe was banned by 1915 but the phrase remained popular up to the 1950s as a way of describing someone who had drunk too much. “I was seeing pink elephants last night” is an elegant way of admitting you had one too many.
This charming pink elephant image, and others in the series, was featured on cocktail napkins in the Cellar Bar in the basement of San Francisco’s Geary Theatre. Described as “a relaxation center for celebrities,” actors such as Clark Gable, Marlene Dietrich and Boris Karloff are likely to have been entertained here after they performed in the theater.
The great American jazz pianist and composer Dave Brubeck also played here at the start of his career in the 1950s.
This illustration is a great example of the humor and whimsy of vintage menu art.