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Ivory Trade Connecticut

The Ivory Trade and the State of Connecticut
From the art exhibition Piano As Art at the Flinn Gallery, 2012 Artists Penny Putnam and Shauna Holiman

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In 1862, the height of both the Civil War and the Industrial Revolution in the United States, Samuel Merritt Comstock and George A. Cheney joined forces in West Centerbrook, CT (not long after renamed Ivoryton) to form Comstock, Cheney & Company to manufacture ivory goods. Their firm grew rapidly to become one of two largest manufacturers of piano actions and keyboards in the world, the other being Pratt, Read & Company in nearby Deep River, CT. The two towns are near Essex, located on the Connecticut River in Middlesex County. Together the two companies imported over 90% of all unworked ivory that entered the country for the next 60 years and used it in the manufacture of Victorian era ornamental goods such as toothpicks, hair combs, billiard balls, dominoes, letter openers and, most importantly, piano keys. At a time when every self-respecting household had a piano in the parlor, this was big business. (At the turn of the twentieth century when the U.S. population was around 100 million, about 500,000 pianos and organs were sold annually. Today, the number sold is one tenth of that amount even though our population has more than tripled.)

 
 


The ivory used for piano keyboards was the softer variety that came from the tusks of African elephants. The harder variety, used in fine carving, came from Asia. In either case, the ivory had to be harvested from a freshly killed animal; otherwise the material became too dry and brittle for use. Both elephant species were driven to near extinction by the ivory trade. The tusks ranged in size, the largest around 200 pounds with the prime pieces averaging 90 pounds, each of which provided ivory for about 45 pianos. The entire tusk was utilized, the first cuts for keyboards, the scraps for various trinkets and the dust sold for fertilizer. In keyboard manufacture, the tusk was first “junked” into 4” lengths that were marked for parting and blocking, a procedure that required a great deal of skill and experience as it was important to both match the grain in the head and tail sections of the key and get the same number of sets of heads and tails from each tusk. The blocks were then sliced into keys with specially designed saws, cooled and powered by water from Falls River. They were then bleached using a combination of hydrogen peroxide and sunlight.

 

Ivory Trade Connecticut  
  Ivory trade CT

The Island of Zanzibar, now known as Tanzania, located about 20 miles off the coast of what is now Mozambique, was the gateway for ivory coming out of Africa. It then traveled by boat to east coast ports in the U.S. and by steamboat, (later by rail) up the Connecticut River to Ivoryton and Deep River. African natives, who hand carried the 90 pound tusks out of the bush, were, once they reached Zanzibar, sold into slavery, usually in Arab markets. According to Around Essex, Elephants and River Gods by Robbi Storms and Dan Malcarne with the Ivoryton Library Association, “it is estimated that five natives either died of were sold into slavery for every tusk that came out of Africa.” In its 60-year history, Comstock, Cheney and Company alone used at least 100,000 tusks, thereby killing or enslaving at least 500,000 people. It is ironic that George Read, President of Pratt, Read & Company, was outspokenly abolitionist and an active participant in the underground railway at the very time when Africans were being enslaved to provide raw goods for the businesses that made him and the towns of Ivoryton and Deep River extremely prosperous.
 
 

Comstock, Cheney and Pratt, Read were the major employers in the area, Comstock engaging at the turn of the century over 500 people and paying 65% of Ivoryton’s taxes in the period between the Civil War and World War II. The workforce at first consisted of Yankees (the English descendants) and Swedes, who arrived in large numbers in the 1860s and later, “Ellis Island immigrants” from Italy, Poland and Hungary. A large part of the force was women who performed the highly skilled job of grading the ivory. By all accounts, the two firms were excellent places to work. Housing, especially in Ivoryton, was provided at a reasonable cost, workers were well paid and trained and turnover was low.

The last shipment of ivory arrived in Ivoryton in 1954 by which time its importation into the United States had been banned. Over time, the two companies merged to form Pratt Read Corporation and ultimately reverted to the manufacture of screwdrivers, Samuel Comstock’s original business before he went into ivory. The company continued to be managed by members of the Comstock family until 2009 when, bankrupt, it was sold to Ideal Industries. Now a part of Ideal, it operates under the name of Pratt Read Tools out of Shelton, CT. Piano keys are now made out of plastic.

A visit to the Essex, Ivoryton, Deep River area shows the mark of the history of these companies in the many remaining fine houses and factories. The Ivoryton Library, still housed in its original and charming Victorian building on Main Street, has a large collection of historic photographs and documents from the era and has published two books about the area. We are indebted to Robbi Storms, Ivoryton librarian and author, for her help on this project.

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Ivory trade Conencticut  
  Ivory Trade CT  
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