Ivory and Company Towns


This topic can be integrated into unit on industrialization, the market economy and company towns for 8th grade/10th grade

Lesson plan contents:

Compelling Question: How did company towns shape communities and the people that lived there?


This lesson fits in the context of a larger unit on globalization and industrialization.

The ivory trade was a part of a larger trading system in Africa and Asia in the nineteenth century. Ivory was a key commodity in intercontinental trade due to the surging demand in India, a colony of Great Britain, Europe and North America to make knife handles, piano keys, billiard balls and other luxury items.

Zanzibar became a thriving port as a result of this trade. Other exports to China and India, in addition to ivory, included metals, tortoiseshell and slaves. Imports included cotton (from the American South) as well as rifles and ammunition. Connecticut traders participated in this ivory trade. In fact, Deep River and Ivoryton were the center of ivory milling in the United States.

Comstock, Cheney & Company in Ivoryton and Pratt, Reed and Company in Deep River were Connecticut’s ivory manufacturers. In fact, Deep River and Ivoryton processed up to 90 percent of the ivory imported into the United States. Both companies bolstered the economy of the lower Connecticut River Valley. Increased employment opportunities in the late 19th century drew hundreds of immigrants to the area’s ivory workshops; the majority of these workers came from Poland, Italy and Scandinavia.

Supporting Questions

Eco 8.3, Eco 9-12.1, and Eco 9-12.5 refer to the Connecticut Social Studies Frameworks.

  • How have science, technology, innovation, and natural resources affected the development of our community and state? (Eco 9-12.5)
  • What impact did new technologies have on the production of goods and services in Connecticut? (Eco 9-12.5)
  • Did different towns, cities, or other regions in Connecticut tend to specialize in certain types of production? (Eco 9-12.1)
  • How did the rise of manufacturers affect the wages and living standard of workers? (Eco 9-12.1)
  • In what ways have the rivers and waterways in Connecticut influenced economic development? (Eco 8.3)
  • What types of economic opportunities were available to these immigrants? (Eco 9-12.5)
  • Was America a land of opportunity for immigrant groups that came to the United States from the 1870s to World War I? (Eco 9-12.5)


Students will understand the role that ivory production played in the industrial development of the Connecticut River Valley. In addition, students will analyze the social and economic implications of the company town on workers and their families.

Historical Context

At one time, manufacturing facilities in the lower Connecticut River Valley town of Deep River and the village of Ivoryton in Essex processed up to 90 percent of the ivory imported into the United States. Ivory, a dentine of exceptional hardness that composes the main part of the tusks of the elephant, walrus, and other animals, had for centuries been a prized natural resource. Used mostly for carving and ornamental purposes, its unique strength and beauty made it an ideal material for such goods as combs—and Connecticut entrepreneurs were not slow to recognize its potential. As trade between eastern Africa and the United States, England, and the Netherlands expanded during the first part of the 1800s, ivory became readily available. This development, and its effect on the local area, became an important part of the Industrial Revolution in the United States.

Combs and Comb-Making

The ivory trade’s transformation of the lower Connecticut River Valley all started with hair combs. In the late 1700s, craftsmen made combs primarily out of cow or ox-horn cut and fashioned by hand. This limited production and created a relatively expensive grooming tool. In 1798, silversmith and Congregational church deacon Phineas Pratt, who made the clockwork timer for David Bushnell’s submarine, Turtle, invented a device that allowed for the mechanical cutting of combs. This sped production and lowered costs—and demand for combs, an essential article of human hygiene, rose quickly.

The comb-making business centered along the Falls River, where Phineas Pratt owned land, and the Deep River in Potapoug (the Native American name for the area that became known as Deep River and Ivoryton). Prior to 1810, Ezra Williams established a comb-making shop at his father’s shipbuilding yard at the mouth of the Falls River and soon moved it to Deep River, where it became the largest of its kind in the country. George A. Read, another ivory pioneer, partnered with Williams and carried on the business after Williams’s death in late 1818.

Piano Keys and the Demand for Ivory

The start of the Industrial Revolution in the United States coincided with the advent of widely available popular sheet music. And, as playing music became a significant feature in American homes, a growing middle class with money to spend made pianos a mainstay of 19th-century culture. The demand for ivory then accelerated because it was regarded as the best covering for piano keys, and an adult African elephant tusk of 75 pounds, properly milled, could yield the wafer-thin ivory veneers to cover the keys of 45 pianos.

George Read and the Pratt Brothers in Deep River, along with Samuel Merritt Comstock in West Centerbrook (later Ivoryton), had become the leading manufacturers of ivory combs and when the demand for ivory piano keys exploded in the decades prior to the Civil War, these men moved into that field. Their firms, however, were generally underfinanced, which limited production.

Yet, what occurred in 1862 and 1863 made Deep River and Ivoryton the center of ivory milling in the United States. George Read & Company combined with the Pratt Brothers and Julius Pratt & Company of Meriden, Connecticut (Julius was the youngest son of Phineas), to form Pratt, Read & Company in Deep River. The S. M. Comstock & Company in Ivoryton expanded into Comstock, Cheney & Company with the infusion of $4,500 by George A. Cheney, an ivory trader who spent 10 years as a buyer on the East African island of Zanzibar.

Connecticut’s Ivory Giants

These mergers proved monumental for the piano industry; each factory expanded into the manufacture not only of ivory key veneers but of piano actions, keyboards, and sounding boards as well. Employment rose rapidly, so that by 1900 these two factories employed more than 1,400 men and women.

A few smaller ivory shops, such as A. Griswold & Company and George Dickinson & Company, also established roots in the immediate area, but they did not approach the size of the two giants, and in Ivoryton, Comstock, Cheney & Company absorbed most of these small firms. The increased employment opportunities in the late 19th century drew hundreds of immigrants to the area’s ivory workshops; the majority of these workers came from Poland and Italy.

During the initial decade of the 20th century, the annual figure for number of pianos sold exceeded 350,000. Pratt, Read & Company, along with Comstock, Cheney & Company, supplied the majority of keyboards and actions to the various piano manufacturers, including Baldwin, Chickering, Wurlitzer, Everett, and Sohmer.

Factories also produced toiletries, toothpicks, billiard balls, letter openers, and many other household items made from ivory. These items emerged from the thousands of tons of ivory purchased and shipped from Africa. Comstock, Cheney & Company records show that the firm milled an estimated 100,000 tusks before 1929. The ivory initially came from central East Africa through the island port of Zanzibar, but later purchases came from the Congo and Egypt as well.


—From: Ivory Cutting: The Rise and Decline of a Connecticut Industry by Donald L. Malcarne and Brenda Milkofsky, CT History.org,