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From Combs to Keyboards: Cutting Ivory in Connecticut
Brenda Milkofsky

It was a cold, dark December morning. Deacon George Read sat reading, unwilling to leave the warmth of the parlor stove…but if the ice on the mill pond prevented the wheel from turning…there would be no need to ring the factory bell. Soon he closed his calf-skin covered Bible and leaned forward to blow out the whale-oil lamp… Stepping into the cold hall, he reached for his tall, beaver-fur hat and settled it on his head. Outside, he pulled up the seal-skin collar of his coat against the sharp wind. Once he was settled behind the reins on the seat of the sleigh, he pulled the Buffalo robe up over his lap and set out for the ivory shop.

On the other side of the world, the young ivory trader George Cheney stepped quickly out of the hot and glaring whiteness of the Zanzibar street into the shadow of Ivory House. In the reception room the house-boy was already seated on the floor working the large ostrich-feather ceiling-fan back and forth to create a breath of air. Cheney called for the mail and some cold tea. He sank down in the chair, the rhino leather cool under him, if only for a few minutes.

Although their ages were twenty years apart, George Read and George A. Cheney were both men of their time. They were used to the whole of the Natural World, both animate and inanimate, providing people not only with comfort, but with all the necessities of life. It had been thus since man first warmed himself under the fur-skin of the Wooly Mammoth and worked a piece of that long, curved tusk into a tool.

As in our own time, and in this the first quarter of the nineteenth century, technology was transforming life everywhere, here in America, in Connecticut and ultimately in the savannahs of Africa. George Read and George Cheney shared a vision of a new economic order in which American-made products would take their own place in the world and end our reliance on English manufactured goods. The two men ultimately shared an industry that created new landscapes and a new economic order in the lower Connecticut Valley, in Deep River and in Ivoryton.

In 1809 George Read was the first to harness water-power to the comb-saw invented by his brother-in-law Phineas Pratt of Essex, Connecticut. Ivory combs from England were so dear that some were listed in wedding dowries. More affordable combs were hand sawn out of cow-horn that was available in the fall when farmers were butchering.

Salted meat went into barrels for trade; the hides went to Hartford for book-covers; the bones went for buttons; and the horn went for combs.

The financial investment in a water-powered mill, from the land acquisition for the pond, to the granite for the dam, to the engineering of the iron wheels and pulleys, to the brick for the building itself, demanded a large, year-round supply of raw material.

Well, how did the soft elephant ivory of East Africa become the material of choice for this enterprising comb-maker in Deep River, Connecticut and for his fellow artisan-entrepreneurs: Julius Pratt, the other Pratt Brothers, Ezra Williams, Alfred Griswold and Samuel Merritt Comstock in Ivoryton, Conn? Unlike the poachers in Lynn Nottage’s play, these artisans were not seeking one pair of tusks, but hundreds and over time, thousands.

The Industrial Revolution enabled the production of large amounts of products seeking markets. New England merchants from Salem, Mass. and Providence, R.I. sent their ships to Africa laden with cotton cloth, wooden clocks, brass pans, New England rum and with firearms and powder. Then they sent men such as George Cheney to buy up some kind of raw material as a return cargo.

Although other raw materials such as hides, copal used in varnish, palm-oil, and gold dust were collected in small quantities, the New England merchants became ivory importers. They looked around for good water-power sites with related technology and they invested in developing an industry that would flourish using African elephant ivory. They invested in George Read’s comb-shop in Deep River, in Julius Pratt’s ivory-handled-cutlery factory in Meriden, and in Samuel Comstock’s Ivoryton company that made ivory paper folders, pocket calendars, tooth-picks, and other objects including piano key-veneers. They invested their funds and sat on those Boards.

The Industrial Revolution occurred first in Europe, but as Americans entered the marketplace the demand — and therefore the price — of ivory grew. Higher prices encouraged native hunters, now using British or American firearms, and the markets in

Mombasa, Aden and Zanzibar soon became awash in ivory. The movement of ivory from the interior to the coast was controlled by Arab Traders and African villagers were enslaved to carry the heavy tusks to the coast where both were sold.

Ivory House in Zanzibar was built by Salem merchant John Bertram and was the American Trading House. It was here that ivory-buyer George Cheney of Arnold & Cheney Co. weighed and sorted the tusks as hard from West Africa or soft from the East; Central Africa provided either. Cheney visited the ivory auctions looking for the undamaged, soft ivory most desirable for Arnold & Cheney’s clients. The transportation by water from Zanzibar off Africa’s east coast to Boston, Salem, or New York and then up the Connecticut River added little to the cost. At the factory, tusks were stored in windowless stone or brick vaults where the steady, cool, damp environment kept the ivory in good condition.

After George Read died in 1859, several small firms operated by Phineas Pratt’s children combined to form Pratt, Read & Co. in Deep River, Conn. In 1860 former ivory buyer George A. Cheney left Africa for the last time. Three years later he purchased one quarter of Samuel M. Comstock’s ivory business on the Falls River to create Comstock, Cheney & Co. in West Centerbrook, a village renamed Ivoryton in 1881.

In the years after the Civil War the nation went through profound changes. People moved off their marginal farms for jobs in the cities or in factory villages that grew up around water-power sites. Leisure time became a possibility and real wages rose while the cost of living remained fairly constant.

Ivory novelties, often made from scrap, found easy markets and what had once been a hand-crafted luxury-item fit for kings was now an industrial product available to the rising middle-class. The various small ivory-shops divided up the market to lessen competition between them. Pratt Brothers specialized in turned goods, such as organ pulls or collar buttons.

Initially both Pratt, Read & Co. and Comstock, Cheney & Co. sold graded key veneers, or key covers, to piano builders and this soon became their primary product. The thin slips of ivory made the most efficient use of the tusk. By the 1860’s improvements in piano construction, namely the use of steel frames, heavier strings and the industrialization of piano-building made the instrument affordable to what Jonas Chickering called “decent people,” and that class was increasing in numbers.

When removed from the ivory vault each tusk was washed and then first sawn or “junked” into 4 inch “drums.” A master ivory-cutter determined how the drum should be cut depending on the end use, condition, grain and any defects. The drum would then be put to the “parting saw” where it was further cut into chunks. Some were cut for “heads,” the top or front of the piano key; and some were cut for “tails” that ran back along the ebony sharps. The left-overs went for novelties. Bleached in jars of peroxide and other chemicals and then dried; the slips were placed in racks facing the sun in bleach houses for varying amounts of time depending on the weather. Eventually piped-in steam kept the heat and humidity in the bleach houses rather constant, for ivory is sensitive to changes in conditions. Bleach houses were once common structures on the landscape in Deep River and Ivoryton and are unique to the production of white, piano key-tops. Today, a remnant of a bleach house stands on the grounds of Deep River Historical Society.   

In 1879, Steinway & Sons arranged for Pratt, Read to supply them with keyboards. Neither Comstock, Cheney nor Pratt, Read ever made pianos but they both created wood-working divisions and within a few years were supplying not only finished keyboards but piano actions as well. By purchasing these components that required a great degree of precision and skill, piano-makers were able to increase production by concentrating on the frame and furniture and “dropping-in” the actions and keyboards. Affordable up-right piano models sold in national catalogues fueled demand.

In 1882 The New York Times reported that Europe and America together were consuming 2 million pounds of ivory annually and that the population of elephants had declined by 30% in the prior twelve years. The shortage only increased the price of ivory which provided a stimulus for hunting. Rather than propose a program for conservation, the newspaper suggested that a different location, such as the plains of Central Africa, was the new hope as a source for ivory.

By 1913 the United States was using nearly two hundred tons of ivory each year just for the thin facing that was glued onto the linen-covered wooden keys. Each keyboard required a pound and a half of ivory for the full eighty keys. By this time, “big-tuskers” like Mlima were all but gone and tusks averaged only sixty to seventy pounds. One sixty-pound tusk might yield enough ivory for some three dozen keyboards. One source suggested that Pratt, Read was using some 12,000 pounds of ivory per month, accounting for the destruction of more than 1,000 elephants per year.

1913 was also the peak year for American piano builders when 350,000 were produced. They were in production during World War I but the public was diverted from buying, and dislocations in Africa created by the War caused shortages of ivory. In the Post-War period of the Roaring Twenties there was growing popularity for recorded music, the gramophone, the radio and motion pictures. The newly affordable automobile began to take people out of their homes for entertainment and away from the parlor piano.

During the Great Depression Pratt, Read’s sales fell from $2.1 million in 1925 to a mere $148,000 in 1932, and Comstock, Cheney suffered a similar fate. The two-largest makers of piano actions and keyboards decided to reorganize and form one company. They took the name of the older firm, Pratt, Read & Co. and took over the newer facilities of Comstock, Cheney in Ivoryton.  

Just as they were getting their combined feet under them, World War II put a hold on the production of non-essential goods including pianos and their keyboards. The Company steered their wood-shops toward the War-effort, making some one thousand wooden gliders for the U.S. Army and Navy.

After the War, the Company resumed the production of keyboards and actions but with new, young leadership they sought to diversify. Celluloid had been invented in the 1870’s by someone looking for a substitute material for billiard ball ivory, but substitutes had yet to replicate the “feel” or touch of ivory to the fingers of the pianist on the keys. But in the post-war period the use and chemistry of plastics was growing and changing. Pratt, Read looked into the future and after 150 years of consumption, they went out of the ivory business. They bought their last shipment of ivory in 1956 and by 1958 their stocks were used up. From then-on the “ivories” on its keyboards were of plastic.

As the old industrial consumers of African ivory began to fade away, new markets in Asia and elsewhere appeared and poachers continue to be rewarded for their largely illegal kills. Game preserves and international treaties have created islands of safety, but contemporary elephant “management” presents overwhelming challenges to governments and conservationists alike.

For a thorough and highly readable text on this industrial history, the elephant trade and current efforts to preserve and accommodate elephants and people in their own lands, see John Frederick Walker’s excellent work, Ivory’s Ghosts, The White Gold of History and the Fate of Elephants, published by Atlantic Monthly Press in 2009.

Brenda Milkofsky is retired from her post as Senior Curator at The Connecticut River Museum in Essex, Conn. and works as a museum consultant in exhibition development.


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