Ivory and Company Towns


Classroom Setup, Part 2 

Document 1, Map of Ivoryton and Essex Village

Map of Ivoryton and Essex Village


Document 2, New Haven and Hartford Railroad Map

New Haven and Hartford Railroad Map

Document 3, Advertisement for Hartford New York Steamship Line

Advertisement for Hartford New York Steamship Line

Document 4, E.D. Moore, Pratt Read Company Trader, in Zanzibar

E.D. Moore, Pratt Read Company Trader, in Zanzibar

Document 5, Ivory Trade Routes in Africa

Map of Ivory Trade Routes in Africa

Document 6, Delivery of Ivory to Deep River Factory

Delivery of Ivory to Deep River Factory

Document 7, Deep River

32 tusks of ivory worth $9,000 on a horse-drawn cart in Deep River, CT

Document 8, Mid-19th Century Catalog from Julius Pratt Co in Deep River

Mid-19th Century Catalog from Julius Pratt Co in Deep River

Posters from the the Connecticut Historical Society, Ivoryton Library, Connecticut Explored and Deep River Historical Society. 

Document 9, One Elephant, 45 Pianos

Indeed, Deep River owes a steep debt to the African elephant. Nestled in the lower Connecticut River Valley, it and the nearby village of Ivoryton in Essex at one time processed up to 90 percent of the ivory that was imported into the United States. John Heminway, writer and director of Battle for the Elephants, and I spent hours learning about the fascinating history of the town's ivory past, which is beautifully documented and displayed in its local museum.

We discovered that during the 19th century, the trade contributed to the slaughter of 100,000 elephants each year, and this went on for decades.

According to the Deep River Historical Society, it began with Phineas Pratt's invention of the circular saw. This led to the area's dominance in the production of piano keys—made of ivory. The ivory business was so profitable for Deep River that it won the town the dubious title of "Queen of the Valley," which refers to its location in the lower Connecticut Valley. Between 1862 and 1863, Deep River and Ivoryton were at the center of ivory milling in the United States.

It was a lucrative business; a 75-pound adult African elephant tusk could yield the wafer-thin ivory veneers to cover the keys of 45 pianos. Ships sailed for East Africa, docking at Zanzibar to load the ivory cargo taken from elephants gunned down deep in the interior of Africa. The business takes an even darker pall when one considers that the ivory was carried on the backs of African slaves.

—From: Deep River and the African Elephant, by Paula Kahumbu

Document 10

"The publication of sheet music that was played on pianos encouraged songwriters such as Stephen Foster, and essentially a new industry was started. The overriding factor for (interest in the piano) was the continuing growth of a middle class in the United States, due to the Industrial Revolution. This group demanded more and more consumer goods. In addition, it became almost obligatory that young women of this class learn to play a musical instrument, and the piano was ideally suited for this purpose. Home entertainment was paramount in the Victorian Age, so all the above factors came together and the production of pianos skyrocketed...

As the demand for ivory expanded due to its use on piano keys, special purpose machinery to properly cut the ivory and to manufacture piano keyboards was required. Samuel Comstock was an inventor of machinery specifically concerned with ivory…George Cheney became invested with Samuel Comstock in 1860 when he invested $4500 into the firm of SM Comstock…Thus was born Comstock, Cheney and Company."

—From: Legacies of White Gold, Ivoryton Library Production

Document 11

People called Deep River "the queen of the valley" 150 years ago. Mills and factories and timber made the town well-to-do. But it was ivory that made Deep River rich.

Between 1840 and 1940, the wagons of Pratt, Read & Co. traveled this same route (Connecticut River Valley), carrying hundreds of thousands of elephant tusks from ships up to the company's factories and workshops. Pratt, Read was the biggest importer of ivory in the world at the time.

The big brick factory at the top of the road — it's longer than a city block — is now a condominium called Piano Works. Water still cascades through a nearby sluice that ran the factory's machines.

Jeff Hostetler, president of the Deep River Historical Society, says it was one machine in particular that brought ivory to this town and this factory. "What happened is Phineas Pratt, a very good mechanic and inventor, developed an ivory lathe to cut the teeth in ivory combs," he explains. "And, of course, all of Phineas' relatives bought one of Phineas' machines and went into the comb business."

And then into making billiard balls, cutlery handles, shirt buttons — all manner of ivory knickknacks.

Then came the piano; in the mid-1800s, a piano in the parlor became a symbol of middle-class cultivation. Pratt's efficient, mechanized cutting lathes were modified to make ivory piano keys. Piano keys required extra labor, and soon the business sprawled all over town. "Pianists liked white," Hostetler says of the piano keys. "So the way to get a good, uniform white color is to take these thin wafers of ivory and just bleach them in the sun." Acres of bleaching houses sprang up — huge greenhouses containing blocks of ivory instead of plants. People fertilized gardens with ivory dust. Kids swimming in local ponds came out of the water coated in it.

—From: Elephant Slaughter, African Slavery and America's Pianos

Classroom Setup, Part 3

Document 1

"It's hard for us now to grasp the extraordinary intimacy with elephant tusks that was once commonplace in town. These days, scientists tracking the illegal ivory trade can map the provenance of a tusk by studying its isotopes, persistent biochemical traces of what the elephant ate and where it lived.  But the old ivory cutters had something like that knowledge in their hands. They could tell Congo ivory from Sudanese, Mozambique, Senegalese, or Abyssian ivory, Egyptian soft from Egyptian hard, Zanzibar prime from Zanzibar cutch. They knew it not just by how it responded to their saws, but by how it felt beneath their fingertips. "To observe a man at work with ivory," a reporter who visited the Pratt, Read cutting rooms once wrote, was "to watch a man in love. As it is sorted, sliced, cut, and matched, each workman actually fondles and caresses it."

Nobody in the factories would have phrased it quite that romantically. The work started with "junking" tusks into squared-off cylinders. A skilled marker then studied each cylinder and drew a precise map on one end to identify the least wasteful pattern of subsequent cuts. As the ivory went under the saw, a jet of water played over the surface to prevent burning. Even so, the air in the workrooms was filled with ivory sawdust, and what the reporter called "a penetrating, unpleasant odor not unlike the smell of burning bones."

"To tell you the truth, I didn't think much of it," an old ivory cutter once told me. "Your hands were in water all day and once in a while you'd hit a pus pocket in the ivory and—whoosh, it would smell." Bullets embedded in the tusk were also a frequent hazard.

Every scrap and wedge of ivory got cut into some useful product, from cutlery handles to collar buttons and nit combs (small and fine-toothed for picking lice and their eggs out of the hair). The sawdust that didn't wash down into the river served to fertilize tomatoes in local gardens. "Nothing was wasted out of those damned elephant tusks," another worker told me.

But what the ivory workers of the Connecticut River Valley came to know best was the art of cutting tusks into narrow, four-inch-long blocks, and wider, two-inch-long blocks. These blocks then had to be "parted" horizontally into veneers, at a rate of 16 per inch. The narrow veneers, called tails, were then glued down between the black keys on a piano, while the wider veneers, or heads, went on the front of the piano key, where the fingers touched. Beginning in the early 1850s, when this country produced just 9,000 pianos a year, the business boomed.

By the peak year of 1910, when production hit 350,000, this country had become the largest manufacturer of pianos—and ivory keyboards–in the world."

—From Strange Behaviors by Richard Conniff

Document 2

"Cheney developed new strategies in advancing Comstock's plan for Ivoryton as a town built around the factories, its streets lined with Victorian structures, its neighborhoods divided into ethnic sections, it residents treated to socially reforming entertainment. The company kept an agent in New York to funnel immigrants to meet the factories' growing labor requirements. As the immigrants arrived from Sweden, Italy, and Poland, Cheney, and later Robert H. Comstock, Samuel's son, exercised a form of social control over the workforce.

Unlike neighboring Deep River, which had a more diverse economy, Comstock, Cheney was the only substantial employer in Ivoryton, making it a typical company town. For a time, as the village's sole employer, largest taxpayer (accounting for approximately 35 percent of the town's tax revenue), and largest real estate holder, Comstock, Cheney wielded almost complete control over the workers' lives and community…

During the Gilded Age, a period characterized by confrontational labor relations, Comstock, Cheney was able to stave off the formation of labor unions through a practice called welfare capitalism. Under this business strategy, companies made selective investments in the local community in the hope of counteracting labor unrest caused by low wages and employees' lack of control over their own lives. Such philanthropies also significantly increased productivity and decreased absenteeism among the workforce. This "welfare capitalism" system was successfully employed by Comstock, Cheney until the onset of the Great Depression. The company didn't need highly educated employees; just well-behaved, reliable workers.

Beyond creating factory housing, Comstock, Cheney and Company financed the construction of, and many times retained control over, many other buildings in town. In 1889, the Ivoryton library was established with a thousand-dollar gift and land donated by the Comstock family…

One common practice of welfare capitalist's was to create constructive opportunities for workers to socialize in an effort to reduce the amount of time spent at the saloon. In Ivoryton, a "wheel club" was established to provide for bowling, bicycling, a band and other social activities. In 1886, a competitive baseball team was established, along with a new ballpark, which still is used by the town today."

—From: CT Explored: Ivoryton, by Christopher Pagliuco

Document 3, Worker Cutting Ivory

Worker cutting ivory

E.D. Moore Collection, Ivoryton Library Association and the Treasures of Connecticut Libraries

Document 4, Cheney Employee Cutting Tusks, 1900

Cheney Employee Cutting Tusks, 1900 

Ivoryton Library Association and the Treasures of Connecticut Libraries

Document 5, Comstock Cheney Factory

Comstock Cheney Factory

Document 6, Ivoryton Baseball Team, 1897

Ivoryton Baseball Team, 1897 

Essex Historical Society

Document 7

"The Ivoryton Inn, like the village in which it is located, has had its share of peaks and valleys, its times of prosperity and austerity. And like its namesake village, the Ivoryton Inn is experiencing a revival.

Historically, for better or for worse, Ivoryton, is, indeed, "the Town that Elephants Built." A true factory town (although it is a village of Essex), Ivoryton was built around the ivory trade, primarily by Comstock, Cheney and Co. Until World War II, Ivoryton, along with its next door neighbor of Deep River, was a dominant economic power in the Lower Connecticut River Valley. Comstock, Cheney & Co. was responsible for the construction of many buildings in the village, most of which stand to this day.

The Ivoryton Store, known previously as the Rose Brothers Store and most recently as the home of Gather of Ivoryton, was built by Samuel Comstock to be a store, post office and recreation hall (upstairs) for the village. In 1904, the Post Office was moved to a new building west of the library, now home to Hammered Edge and the Ivoryton Studio. The recreation hall was no longer needed when Comstock Cheney Hall was built in 1910. This building is now known, of course, as the Ivoryton Playhouse. Even the Ivoryton Library Building Committee, formed in 1988, consisted of people all directly connected to Comstock, Cheney & Co. Several of the houses in the village were built by or mortgaged through the company for employees' residences. On Main Street is the largest residence of all, the Ivoryton Inn.

In 1865, the Ivoryton Inn was built on property owned by Samuel Comstock, the president of Comstock, Cheney & Co. and expanded by the addition of a section of the Reverend Denison School, a girls' boarding school in the Winthrop section of Deep River. As was common at the time, this dormitory was brought down by rollers and affixed to the new structure. The Inn served as a boarding house for male workers at the Comstock, Cheney & Co. factory. In 1866, Samuel Comstock transferred ownership to Comstock, Cheney & Co."

—From: Looking Back: History of Ivoryton Inn in the 'town that elephants built', by E. Alvord

Document 8, Ivoryton General Store  

Ivoryton General Store

History of Essex

Document 9, Ivoryton Inn

Ivoryton Inn 

Looking Back: History of Ivoryton Inn in the 'town that elephants built'

Document 10, Ivoryton Library

 Ivoryton Library


Document 11, Comstock Cheney Hall

Comstock Cheney Hall 

Connecticut History Illustrated

Document 12, Interviews with Comstock Cheney Workers

"If a husband died and there were three or four kids, without tooting their horns, they (company) took care of it. They weren't the kind who was throwing their money around right and left every time somebody wanted it. But if somebody was in trouble they helped."

—Alfred Griswold

"This town was the Comstock's town, that's all you can say. And it was a good town. It was much better than it is now. Everybody kept their places nice. You never saw any garbage and cans lying in the street the way you do now...in those days it was different. The company kept their places up. And whenever you wanted anything done, why, like papering or painting, you got it. They had a man who went around and kept them up."

—Edna Gill

"Those immigrant workers, they had allegiance to the company. When one got a job here, petty soon his relatives came from Poland or Italy, and worked there and were glad to work there. And the company was glad to have them."


"The older men, like our parent's generation were told to vote Republican. And they said so, and they were afraid. They had that fear, apparently enough in them, that they-they did it. And another thing...they weren't even supposed to talk about it (politics) and they didn't. You know those people, their lives depended on this (living and working here) and they did what they were told to do."

Lillian Pandia

—From The Rise and Decline of Welfare Capitalism and the Emergence of a Union in Ivoryton, Connecticut: 1900-1941, Tom Furrer, Wesleyan University, 1980