2024-04-01 9 min read

White Elephant.

White Elephant.
Inside the Oakland Museum of California White Elephant Sale warehouse. Image via OMCA White Elephant Sale.

In common parlance, a white elephant is an unwanted possession that is burdensome and often costly to maintain. The phrase traces back to the rare and prestigious white elephants kept by monarchs in Southeast Asia. In the apocryphal tale that birthed the phrase, the king of Siam (modern-day Thailand) would gift a white elephant to a courtier who displeased him. The white elephant’s sacred nature meant it couldn’t be re-gifted or put to work, and the cost to feed and house it would be financially ruinous to the new owner. It’s the gift that becomes a curse.

While this story likely has no basis in fact, it had the ring of a fable, and in the 19th century the term began to circulate widely. White elephants could be empire-sized: In October 1870, after Napoleon's army abandoned its occupation of Rome, The Economist opined that “In some respects, the gift of Rome and the Vatican to Italy will be like the gift of a white elephant.” Today, the term most commonly describes an office gift exchange where people bring a goofy or unwanted object to be traded and fought over in a display of enforced holiday levity. In all cases, the white elephant is the gift that sours into a burden — the costly, the broken, the ugly, the regrettable.

Like us, you might have a drawer or closet (or, heaven help you, storage unit) full of such things. It’s hard to live with these items, but it’s even harder to get rid of them – especially if, like us, you’re aware of how little ‘recycling’ ends up recycled, and how many donations end up in the trash. For residents of the Bay Area, a solution to some of these problems might be the biggest white elephant of them all: the Oakland Museum of California White Elephant Sale. This massive, month-long charitable rummage sale blows anything but the biggest antiques fair out of the water. This season (WES #65), Kelly became a volunteer and got a chance to discover some of its secrets and inner workings. What follows is a bit of an old-school Scope of Work format, all about this one big white elephant.

— Kelly Pendergrast and Anna Pendergrast

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It sounds benign: an annual rummage sale that raises money for the Oakland Museum, run by its Women’s Board. This is vastly underselling it. The sale is huge. Housed in a 96,000-square-foot warehouse in a semi-industrial part of town, the White Elephant sells used goods ranging from flower pots to fur coats to thousands of shoppers during sale days from late January to early March. 

Racks of clothes for sale in the womenswear department. Image via Kelly Pendergrast.

The sale takes items most thrift stores wouldn’t touch: half-used reams of printer paper, mysterious sewing implements, circular saws. It’s a year-round enterprise to prepare for and run the sale, and it relies almost entirely on the unpaid labor of over 900 volunteers, most of them women and mostly retirees. The sale, profiled in this 2011 short documentary, succeeds in raising massive amounts for the museum (about 10% of its annual operating budget) while diverting tons of would-be trash from the waste stream. This year it raised $2,652,675.07, beating the previous sales record, set in pre-Covid 2020, by $341,000.


  • The White Elephant warehouse is owned by the Oakland Museum Women’s Board, and its cavernous capacity is available to the sale year round. The interior of the warehouse is divided into 17 departments ranging from jewelry to sporting goods to bric-a-brac, each of which is managed by a different volunteer committee. 
  • The warehouse receives donations throughout the year, via a collections truck that picks them up from around the region. Volunteers receive, price, and arrange these donations in the sale space so everything is ready to go by late January. Each department has a list of items they cannot accept – so you’re out of luck if you have a boat with an outboard motor, a mounted trophy fish, an old computer manual or a grand piano you want to find a new home for. 
  • The White Elephant’s distribution and logistics master is Operations Manager Terry Sok-Wolfson, a dynamic and ever-cheerful presence in the warehouse who just rounded out her first year on the job. She entered the season swinging, with a big goal: “We’re going to do $250k more than last year if it kills me.” Mission very much accomplished.
  • Even with the massive size of the warehouse (approaching two football fields), there are space constraints which limit how many donations can be accepted. This presents a particular challenge for  departments which trade in bulky items like furniture: The warehouse can only hold so many mid-century sofas, even if shoppers are clamoring for more of them. This year, Terry made friends with a neighbor who allowed the White Elephant to store 16 pallets of furniture in their warehouse, and she carved out space for an additional 8 pallets to be stored on site. This enabled the White Elephant to accept more donations and replenish stock on the sales floor throughout the sale.
  • Along with managing staff and supporting volunteers, Terry manages the flow of shoppers in the space. The first day of shopping, ‘preview day,’ is reserved for those who pay a higher entry fee to get their hands on the best stuff. Preview is not for the faint of heart: over 200 people, many of them resellers and vintage store owners, were waiting in line by 06:00 on preview Saturday, hours before the doors opened at 10:00. As soon as they enter, shoppers sprint through the aisles to their favored department. The sixteen Eames chairs on sale were snapped up within two minutes, and one shopper in the womenswear department purchased $2,300 worth of vintage and antique clothes on preview morning.


There is no making and manufacturing at the White Elephant. That’s the point. Everything here has been made, has lived a life, and is now ready to be re-circulated to a new owner. Although there is no production per se, the labor and other inputs needed to keep objects in circulation (and short-circuit the linear cycle of production-consumption-disposal) are considerable.


  • In departments that sell mechanical and electrical items, each object is tagged with a piece of masking tape with a Sharpie note that confirms the item is tested and functional. Some have extra detail (“cassette player works great!”), while others describe non-fatal flaws (“alarm very loud”). As the notes imply, each item is examined by the department’s volunteers as they come in, so customers can buy things with confidence — important considering the age of some of the things for sale. Formally, the sale doesn’t accept donations of broken things, but the spectrum of “broken” is broad and many things in slight disrepair are considered a worthwhile investment of mending energy.
  • This year, the sewing department sold 86 sewing machines, which ranged from hundred-year-old Singers through to almost-new Berninas. Volunteers in the department know their stuff, and identify which machines need oiling and which ones need a belt adjusted before they’re put on the floor for sale. If you’re looking to purchase, they’ll chat with you about which machine or accessory would fit your needs and experience level.
Womenswear volunteers tallying and bagging garments for a buyer. Image via Kelly Pendergrast.


  • As an incoming volunteer, I submitted my list of expertise and interests to the volunteer coordinator (textiles, vintage clothes, sewing) but ultimately was assigned to where I was most needed. This was womenswear — a separate department from women’s sportswear, in a historically-situated division of clothing that is mostly illegible to younger volunteers and shoppers alike. The learning curve was steep, and every step from sorting garments (into categories as general as vintage and sleepwear and as specific as avant garde, resort, and Eileen Fisher) to choosing the right hanger has its own time-honed process and lore.
  • Not every garment that comes through the doors is in pristine condition. Womenswear doesn’t sell heavily damaged or soiled garments, but some things are an easy fix. Sweat rings can be dabbed out with certain industrial textile cleaners. Precious vintage dresses might get a small repair to make them rack-worthy. And small moth holes in an otherwise gorgeous sweater will get marked with painter’s tape and priced low to sell in as-is condition.
  • Garments that aren’t sellable are diverted to a number of different streams. Some are bagged up for Saint Vincent de Paul, with whom the White Elephant has a partnership. Heavily damaged or dirty items are sent to a local textile recycler, which processes and shreds unusable clothing for dog beds and rags and the like. Thanks to a long list of partnerships and a commitment to recycling and repurposing, the White Elephant reduced the amount it spends on dump runs from $9000 in 2020 down to only $600 this year.
  • Decisions about pricing ranges and sales priorities are made collectively and discussed at length. My colleagues were dedicated to the core mission of museum fundraising, but as co-chair Jess O’Brien describes it, “folks here tend to have a holistic view of how we fit together as a community.” This year, that meant lowering prices across many categories to ensure clothes were affordable for all members of the community, and because selling more of the stock means more stuff stays in circulation. “We are a community resource” says Jess. The White Elephant is a lot of things — a collective cause, a community, a case study in radical reuse. It’s not a cure for waste or a cure for loneliness, but it’s something.


  • Despite their English name and depiction in drawings, white elephants are a light clay or pink color. Not a distinct species, they are (usually) Asian elephants which have a rare genetic mutation, which is sometimes described as a form of albinism. This blog post describes the attributes used in Thailand to determine whether an elephant meets the criteria of ‘chang samkhan,’ or auspicious elephant.
  • In 1883, after years of wrangling, P.T. Barnum acquired a genuine white elephant from Burma (current day Myanmar) which he named Toung Taloung. On a stop-over en route to New York, the elephant made its public debut in the London Zoological Gardens. Sadly for Barnam it proved a disappointment to the waiting crowds, who expected a milky-white creature. 
  • Whenever we’re digging into new topics for Scope of Work, we search Papers Past, a digital archive of old New Zealand newspapers. For “white elephant” we found a potato variety (1890), sale advertising (1939), and a joke about women bringing their husbands to give away at a white elephant gift exchange (1917). According to this detailed history of the gifting tradition, the husband joke was originally posted in Nebraska’s Columbus Journal in 1907, and was the first appearance of “white elephant” in relation to gift swap parties. The joke circulated nationally and internationally for decades, with a 10 year delay between its debut and when it showed up in the New Zealand newspaper. 
  • In the 1800s, Paris was home to two towering elephant statues. The first, the Elephant of the Bastille, was conceived by Napoleon in 1808 as a cast bronze monument to his military prowess. It was only ever realized as a full-scale plaster model over a wooden frame, built in 1813 and eventually demolished in 1846. The elephant has an enduring legacy through Les Miserables, with street urchin Gavroche using the structure for shelter.

    The second statue, a stucco elephant that was originally built for the 1889 Paris Universal Exhibition, became a feature of the Moulin Rouge’s garden, where its body was reportedly home to an opium den that could be accessed by a staircase in one of its legs. A fantastical reimagining of the elephant’s interior can be seen in this extremely cringe clip from the film Moulin Rouge (2000).

Thanks as always to Scope of Work’s Members and Supporters for making this newsletter possible. Thanks to Terry Sok-Wolfson and Jess O’Brien for talking with us about the sale.

Love, Anna and Kelly

p.s. - We care about inclusivity. Here’s what we’re doing about it.

Anna Pendergrast
Anna Pendergrast is a writer and strategist based in Wellington, New Zealand. She is co-founder of Antistatic, a research and communications consultancy.
Kelly Pendergrast
Kelly Pendergrast is a writer, researcher, and sometimes art worker based in Oakland. She is the co-founder of Antistatic, a consultancy that focuses on issues around technology and the environment.
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