At 6 feet long, an average giraffe's neck is taller than the average height of a man. Add the rest of the giraffe's elongated figure, and you have a creature that towers two stories tall. Thanks to this unique anatomy, the giraffe has been an animal of great fascination. Early Bushmen in southern Africa told folk tales about how the herbivore's neck got so long, and even performed a giraffe dance to cure headaches and injuries. In fact, cultures all over the African continent, including the Kiffian, Egyptians, and Meroë Nubians, depicted giraffes in their art. Giraffes were also hunted in ancient Africa. Their tail hair was used to make flyswatters, bracelets, necklaces, and thread, while their skin was used to make shields, sandals, and drums. Giraffe tendons were also employed as strings in musical instruments.
In 46 B.C., Julius Casear imported the first giraffe to Europe, to be publicly exhibited in Rome. Greeks and Romans thought the giraffe was a freaky combination of a camel and leopard they called, "camelopardalis." To flaunt his wealth and power, Casear fed this strange, gentle creature to his lions in a Coliseum spectacle. But in the Middle Ages, giraffes became a thing of legend to Europeans, who only knew of the animal from Arab stories, which spoke of the creature in tones of reverence. Chinese explorer Zheng He captured a giraffe in what is now Kenya and brought it to China in 1414, drawing a great crowd to the Ming Dynasty zoo; many people believed it to be the magical creature of Chinese mythology called Qilin.
Florentine artist and diplomat Lorenzo de Medici received a giraffe as a gift in 1486, possibly from an Egyptian sultan. When Medici added the live giraffe to his family menagerie, it caused a stir in Florence. Great painters like by Botticini, Vasari, and Bacchiacca depicted the exotic animal in their works, and poets like Antonio Costanzo rhapsodized about it. While Medici tried to build it a special stable, the animal died after breaking its neck in the rafters shortly after arriving.
It was nearly three centuries before Europeans would see another giraffe. In 1827, the Ottoman Viceroy of Egypt, Mehmet Ali Pasha, gifted three giraffes to rulers in Europe; one to King Charles X in France; one to King George IV in the United Kingdom; and another to Roman Emperor Francis II in Austria. The giraffes were instant sensations in their respective countries.
In France, the female giraffe called Zarafa drew more than 100,000 visitors to Jardin des Plantes in Paris. She inspired a story by Honoré de Balzac and a painting by Jacques Raymond Brascassat. In fashion, women wore their hair in towering styles meant to resemble the giraffe's neck and went crazy over giraffe-spot fabrics. The Austrian giraffe, living at the palace, spawned popular "Giraffeln" pastries. The English giraffe was one of the first animals in the pioneering London Zoo, and was painted by Jacques-Laurent Agasse in "The Nubian Giraffe."
The Austrian giraffe lived only one year in Europe, while the London giraffe died after two and was taxidermied by John Gould. Zarafa lived an astounding 18 years. After her death, she was taxidermied and now lives in the museum at La Rochelle.
Despite the short lives of these creatures, the Victorian Era fascination with them did not abate, in no small part because the 19th century was a time of great curiosity about the natural world. In 1859, British naturalist Charles Darwin published his ground-breaking "On the Origin of Species." Over the course of the century, swashbuckling hunters and naturalists like William Cornwallis Harris, Roualeyn Gordon Cummings, and America's Carl Akeley embarked on romanticized safaris in Africa to kill or capture animals for study, either to be skinned and taxidermied for new natural history museums or brought back alive for zoos...
In England, potteries like Staffordshire painted giraffes on their porcelain dinnerware and made giraffe figurines, while German plush toy company Steiff made its first giraffe doll in 1892. In the United States, the Ringling Brothers founded their traveling circus in Wisconsin in 1884, and in 1907, they bought the Barnum & Bailey Show, with which they eventually merged. The giraffe was the biggest animal attraction at the circus; most Americans had never seen anything like it. Because the animal was difficult to train and drew crowds in and of itself, it was not included in performances. In fact, the circus only traveled with one giraffe, since transporting the animal was difficult and costly. The roof of the wagon or train car had to be cut out so the giraffe could stick its neck through the top. A sudden stop could break the giraffe's neck and kill it instantly.
Nonetheless, the giraffe was featured prominently in lithographed circus posters and advertisements. In 1903, American toy company Schoenhut introduced its line of Humpty Dumpty wooden circus toys, named after the popular stage play. This continually expanding set, which peaked around 1908-1910, included human figures like the ringmaster, clowns, and acrobats, as well as exotic animals like the elephant and giraffe. Naturally carousel manufacturers added giraffes to their carved-wood menageries.
The first giraffe postage stamps were issued in 1901 in the Portuguese colony of Nyassa, in what is now known as Mozambique. In the 1920s, Ethiopia, Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) and Tanganyika also released giraffe-themed stamps. By mid-century, Sudan, Angola, Uganda, Kenya, Cameroon, Congo and Niger all had giraffe stamps. Later, non-African countries like East Germany and Poland issued giraffe stamps to celebrate the animals in their zoos.
In America and Europe, exotic animals were particularly popular motifs in the '20s, as glassmakers like Lalique and Ludwig Moser & Söhne etched giraffes into their art glass and fashioned giraffe figurines. Throughout the century, giraffes were consistently produced by glassmakers in Murano and manufacturers from Heisey to Swarovski.
Giraffes were also popular themes for costume jewelry, which often incorporated animal figures into its shapes. Kenneth Jay Lane and others made bangles that resembled two giraffes kissing, their long necks wrapping and merging around the wrist. One of Hattie Carnegie's most sought-after brooches is a giraffe figurine, made out of coral- and turquoise-colored plastic.
Schoenhut wasn't the only 20th century toy company to tap into the popularity of the circus. Many manufacturers came out with toy train sets featuring animals like giraffes to ride in the cars, and "animal crackers" were sold in circus-car style boxes. Toy retail company Children's Bargain Town, now known as Toy "R" Us, even introduced a giraffe mascot in its 1950s advertising. First named Dr. G. Raffe, the mascot was renamed Geoffrey the Giraffe in the 1960s.
Today, giraffes are as popular as ever, but they're also endangered. Naturalists estimate there are only around 80,000 giraffes left in the world, down from 140,000 just a decade ago.