So, over at the Temple of Demogorgon, Brunomac makes fun of poor Indel, the unfortunate elf who starred in those silly D&D comic book ads from the early 80s. He even goes so far as to mock him as a "Keebler elf," which is fair enough, considering his attire.
Now, I'm not here to defend Indel's honor, as he pretty much defines "hapless." I do, however, want to point out that many gamers' conception of what an "elf" is has changed considerably over the years and that Indel, while pathetic, is very much in line with the earliest depictions of elves in Dungeons & Dragons. As I have argued before, Gygax's consistent assertion that Tolkien's influence on the game was minimal is borne out if you look at the way elves have been illustrated in the game prior to the late 1e era -- case in point being this fine fellow from Volume 1 of OD&D:
He doesn't much look like an elf to me either, but he's clearly labeled as such. I'm guessing he's AWOL from Santa's workshop or something, because I can't recall ever seeing an elf portrayed with a beard outside of that context.
Then there's this lovely lady from the AD&D Players Handbook. She's standing next to a human male and it's clear if you see the original illustration that early D&D elves were (largely) much shorter than Men. Take note of her costume, with its tasseled skirt.
This guy is also from the PHB and he looks like Spock robbed Merlin's closet. Interestingly, he's roughly the same height as a human being.
I still can't make up my mind if this guy is in fact an elf or not, although I am coming round to the notion that he is probably meant to be. He looks like Indel's long-lost brother and appears to be slightly less hapless.
These are elves from the Monster Manual. Their height is difficult to make out from this illustration, but I don't get the impression of their being very tall.
I've always been very fond of this piece by Dave Trampier, which shows wood elves. Take a look at their ears and general attire. They're definitely more in line with a "fairy tale" sensibility than anything Tolkien-esque.
It's possible this guy from the cover of module D1-2 isn't an elf, but I've long assumed he was, based on the clothing he's wearing. The only guys you ever see wearing hoods like that are archers or elves and he doesn't appear to be the former.
I think it's interesting to see how the portrayal of elves has changed over the years, since I think it strongly supports the notion that elves have changed in D&D from the early days. Speaking only for myself, I vividly recall that my friends and I just assumed that all elves were short little guys with funny hats and shoes for the first couple of years we played the game. I'd place the shift in our perceptions to somewhere around 1981 or thereabouts, maybe a little later.
Nowadays, I tend to use "elf" in a situation-dependent way. It's basically a word I use to describe any inherently magical not-quite-human race, whether they look like Ernie or Elric. In my Dwimmermount game, elves, especially the red-skinned Eld, are more like Melnibonéans than repairers of shoes, but, in a different campaign setting, who knows? I prefer a lot of malleability in what constitutes demihuman X or Y, as that approach gives me more freedom to do with them what I want.