In a simpler time, Americans couldn’t imagine the consequences of using elephant tusks from Africa to equip every parlor with a piano.

Last summer on the island of Zanzibar, off the East Coast of Africa, authorities seized a stash of more than 1,000 elephant tusks. The contraband had been hidden in sacks of dried sardines, in a container about to be shipped to Asia. Such incidents are becoming common again, after a 20-year hiatus when poaching seemed to be under control. Some conservationists estimate that as many as 40,000 elephants are being slaughtered each year for their tusks. Wealthy people in China and India come in for most of the blame and probably deserve it: They want ornately carved pieces of ivory as symbols of their prosperity.

But it reminds me of a time when Americans behaved in much the same fashion, not least in my hometown of Deep River, Conn. I used to live there in a house that looked out across the broad green hills along the lower Connecticut River. Deep River was (and remains) an idyllic little New England town, with a white clapboard Congregational church on the green and a picturesque landing down by the river. The town grew up in the 19th century around Pratt, Read & Co., a maker of piano keyboards, during an era when the piano in the parlor was the essential symbol of middle-class wealth. In the post– Civil War prosperity of 1867, the Atlantic Monthly called the piano “only less indispensable than a kitchen range.” And all piano keyboards then were covered with ivory.

The Pratt, Read factory stood at one end of my street. At the other end, just below my house, was the river landing that once served as the unloading point for ivory shipped from Africa. Pratt, Read’s only competition was Comstock, Cheney & Co., in the neighboring village of Ivoryton, and together they dominated the piano keyboard business in North and South America. At the height of the piano craze, from 1860 to 1930, this burgeoning enterprise helped determine demand for ivory in Zanzibar, the major trading center, and even the price paid for tusks in the East African bush, where the elephants were killed. About 50,000 elephants died each year to supply the ivory trade. At the risk of overstating the moral complications of what seemed an innocent pastime, elephants died so families could gather around the piano to sing.

The father of Deep River was a man acutely attuned to moral complications. George Read was 6 feet tall, blue-eyed, clean-shaven, with a quiet, self-effacing manner. As a young man at the beginning of the 19th century, he built a dam on the  village’s namesake river, with a waterwheel to drive saws in a small shop. There a couple of men cut ivory into combs and other knickknacks. Working with elephant tusks was already a local industry, probably through trade between the Connecticut River’s coastal sea captains and the trans-Atlantic merchants in New York, Boston or the Caribbean islands. Read found a way to build his business into a major company that eventually employed hundreds of local residents.

He was a deeply scrupulous man of the familiar New England model, a careful steward of time and money, practical and relentlessly industrious. At a time when a fortune of $100,000 made a man rich, he believed that “no Christian man ought to accumulate over $25,000,” and he was apparently generous enough to live and die by this rule. He made the rounds of the village several times a day to keep tabs on its progress, and he founded the Baptist church, the local bank and the town cemetery. At one point, his wife mentioned to him that the townspeople were gossiping about some transgression he had supposedly committed, and Read replied with a characteristic blend of reticence and quick conscience, “No, I did not do that, but I do worse things.”

Read’s strong sense of moral responsibility led him to become an abolitionist at a time when it was dangerous to be one. In retaliation, Southern customers might shift their business to ivory companies in England. Even in Connecticut, where slavery was not entirely abolished until 1848, riots sometimes broke out when antislavery activists spoke. Read was already a stationmaster on the Underground Railroad in 1828, when a fugitive slave from the Carolinas showed up at his door seeking refuge. Billy Winter, a name given to protect him from recapture, remained in the Read home for the next 20 years and went to work in the ivory business. Read founded the local branch of the Anti-Slavery Society, which had more members in the backwater village of Deep River than in New Haven. He seems never to have recognized a horrible irony: His success depended entirely on slave caravans to carry tusks from the African interior to the coast.

In truth ivory was simply another commodity then, and one that seemed to be available in almost limitless quantities. As a result, a retired ivory trader would later write, the children of Deep River and Ivoryton for generations were “born to the touch of ivory and have cut their teeth on ivory rings.” In the 1980s, when I lived in Deep River, the old Pratt, Read factory was abandoned. No tusks had arrived there in 30 years. But it was still possible to find people who had grown up like that and who had spent their careers working with elephant tusks in the local factories. One of them recalled swimming in a local pond with his boyhood friends, at a time when so much ivory sawdust washed down from the factory that it covered them head-to-toe. “We’d come out looking like the Gold Dust Twins. My God, how my mother would holler.”

Ivory trinkets turned up at tag sales, and newcomers restoring old houses were sometimes astonished to discover that their doorknobs were made from elephant tusk. One day, an oddly angled glass structure rotting in a side yard caught my attention. It turned out to be an old bleaching shed, designed to expose racks of cut ivory to the whitening power of the sun. At the height of Pratt, Read’s success, an entire field of these glass houses stood behind the ivory factory, and Read himself kept a careful journal, totting up the 30 days of sunlight needed to turn ivory white. “No sun! No bleach day! No nothing!!” he lamented during the cloudy March of 1852. But a break in the dreary weather also moved him to exultation: “Rejoice! Oh ye Comb-makers for today are ye blessed with sunshine!”

It’s hard to grasp the extraordinary intimacy with elephant tusks that was once commonplace in Deep River. 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, Mozambican, Senegalese or Abyssinian 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 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 work rooms 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 tusks 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 removing lice and their eggs from hair). Ivory sawdust that didn’t wash into the river fertilized the rows of 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, 4-inch-long blocks, and wider, 2-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 of polished ebony on a piano, while the wide veneers, or heads, went on the front of the piano key, where the fingers touched. Beginning in the early 1850s, when this country produced 9,000 pianos a year, the business boomed. By the peak year of 1910, when production hit 350,000, the U.S. had become the largest manufacturer of pianos—and ivory keyboards—in the world.

For the Victorian Era the piano was “a badge of gentility,” as one social observer put it, “being the only thing that distinguishes ‘Decent People’ from the lower and less distinguished… ‘middling kind of folks.’ ” Every respectable parlor had a  piano, and as television and the computer do today, it drew people away from public entertainments and back into the home. There was, however, nothing passive about the instrument. “Every American woman feels bound to play the piano, just as she feels bound to wear clothes,” a French visitor reported in 1860. Men were expected to sing along, or at least clap appreciatively.

Lowell Mason of the Boston Academy of Music had recently launched the “better music” movement, which promoted music as the path to “the perfecting of man’s emotional and moral nature.” For newly wealthy Americans, the piano was the best available means for tapping “what is most deep and holy…in the soul of man,” as another musical proselytizer put it. Earnestly practiced scales and arpeggios drifting from pianos through open windows onto elm-lined streets became the standard background music of small town life.

Popular tastes didn’t always follow the edifying path Mason had in mind. Among the favorite themes in popular sheet music, according to one writer, were “dead babies, crippled children, blessed old decrepit grandparents, dying sweethearts, and ascents into Heaven.” Even classical performers found gimmicks essential for luring American hoi polloi through the door. The Austrian virtuoso Leopold de Meyer promised to perform melodies on the piano with elbows, fists and even a cane. New Orleans concert pianist Louis Moreau Gottschalk kept audiences awake by playing “Yankee Doodle” with one hand and, at the same time, “Hail Columbia” with the other. Duly inspired, their many admirers went out to buy pianos of their own. Like newly wealthy people in the developing world today, Americans yearned for a cultural refinement they could not quite comprehend. Steinway, Chickering, Baldwin, Aeolian (“Yoly-yoly” to immigrant workers back in the ivory factories) and other piano manufacturers rose up to fill that need.

Their instruments required the exquisite luster of ivory. “It is yielding to the touch, yet firm,” one writer explained, “cool, yet never cold or warm, whatever the temperature; smooth to the point of slipperiness, so that the fingers may glide from key to key instantly, yet presenting just enough friction for the slightest touch of the finger to catch and depress the key and to keep the hardest blow from sliding and losing its power.” When Stephen Foster wrote “My Old Kentucky Home,” and when Scott Joplin composed “Maple Leaf Rag,” they played on ivory that almost certainly came from the factories in Deep River and Ivoryton.

By the turn of the century, Pratt, Read was sometimes cutting 12,000 pounds of ivory a month, almost entirely for the piano trade. Tusks then averaged 60 or 70 pounds apiece, so the Deep River factory by itself accounted for the deaths of well over a thousand elephants each year. The human toll inflicted by the ivory trade is harder to calculate. But the explorer Henry M. Stanley, who witnessed the way slaves were used to carry tusks to the coast, once loosely estimated that every pound of ivory “has cost the life of a man, woman, or child” in Africa. In the Connecticut River Valley, it took a pound and a half of ivory to make a single keyboard.

It’s possible George Read went into the ivory business because he believed it to be free of messy moral complications. He probably knew of his fellow abolitionist Moses Brown, who lived just up the Boston Post Road in Providence, R.I. Brown had denounced his involvement in slaving voyages as a young man in his family’s mercantile firm. But Brown also made clear that he regarded ivory as a moral alternative for the Africa trade.

The map of Africa then was a blank. Few Westerners knew where ivory came from or how it reached the African coast. That began to change only after 1830, when a Salem, Mass., merchant named John Bertram set up a trading station in Zanzibar that was to supply the bulk of the world’s ivory for the remainder of the century. In 1844, a Bertram employee there noted, without comment: “It is the custom to buy a tooth of ivory and a slave with it to carry it to the sea shore. Then the ivory and slaves are carried to Zanzibar and sold.” The slaves, he added, were “discharged in the same manner as a load of sheep would be, the dead ones thrown overboard to drift down with the tide…the natives come with a pole and push them from the beach.”

The trip from the mainland across to Zanzibar was only about 20 miles, but it came at the end of ivory caravans that had often traveled hundreds of miles from the interior. Arab traders penetrated deeper inland, bringing trade goods supplied by the Zanzibar merchants, notably gunpowder and the Massachusetts-made cotton cloth known everywhere as merikani. In 1848, one of the Connecticut River Valley’s own sons went to Zanzibar to trade cloth, gunpowder and kerosene for ivory. George A. Cheney, later employed at Comstock, Cheney in Ivoryton, proudly reported that he once purchased 60,000 pounds of ivory brought in by a single caravan.

Back home in Deep River, George Read was certainly aware of delays in getting the ivory to the coast, because of the resulting fluctuations in supply and price. Perhaps mercifully, he died in 1859, just as Western explorers in Africa were beginning to reveal the horrific details of how the ivory was obtained. The standard procedure, they reported, was for the Arab trader to befriend tribal chiefs, enlist their help to empty an area of tusks, then slaughter those former allies, burn their villages and chain up the survivors to carry tusks to the coast. A French traveler wrote that caravans abandoned their dead and dying to the hyenas. An English missionary reported that slaves who could no longer carry tusks were left by the water so crocodiles could take them.

In 1882, a missionary met the ruthless trader Tippoo Tib as he was leading a caravan down to Zanzibar. Pairs of slaves carrying tusks were fastened at the neck with poles, the missionary wrote, and “the neck is often broken if the slave falls.” Enslaved women carried babies on their backs as well as tusks on their heads, and if a woman became too weak to carry both, a trader told the missionary, “We spear the child and make her burden lighter.”

Tippoo Tib’s caravan took more than a year to force its way down to the coast, because a local chieftain named Mirambo had blockaded all trade at Lake Tanganyika. Ernst Moore, an ivory trader who represented Pratt, Read in Zanzibar, later wrote about that expedition in his 1931 book Ivory—Scourge of Africa: “During this year and more, when no ivory of consequence was arriving at Zanzibar on account of Mirambo’s blockade, the Yankees in the Connecticut ivory-cutting factories were starving for ivory tusks. The arrival of Tippoo, with tons and tons of ivory, and the news that he had arranged peace with Mirambo and that the trade route was again open, were hailed with shouts of joy that reverberated from the eastern coast of Africa to the inner shores of Long Island Sound.”

“People talk as if the ivory of Africa were inexhaustible,” an English explorer wrote in the 1870s. “Let me simply mention a fact. In my sojourn of fourteen months, during which I  passed over an immense area of the Great Lakes region, I never once saw a single elephant.” But for people a world apart, back in Connecticut, it was easy to believe otherwise.

“Although fifty thousand animals are annually slain to meet the demands throughout the world for ivory,” a newspaper reported in a profile of Comstock, Cheney & Co., “there appears to be little danger of decimation, owing to the fact that, in the wilds in the backcountry, hundreds of miles from civilization, elephants are as numerous as flies.”

Moore’s book Ivory—Scourge of Africa was a remarkably frank account of how his business had devastated the continent. But when he came to “the question of whether or not the killing for ivory must go on…until the elephant is exterminated throughout the whole continent of Africa,” he could only answer with another question: “Can we find a substitute for ivory that will give us equal grace, delight, and satisfaction?” Moore thought no such substitute existed, and that the killing would continue. Even today some pianists insist on ivory keyboards, saying sophisticated modern plastics do not meet their needs.

What ultimately saved the remaining elephants wasn’t conservationist thinking. On the contrary, it was the decline in demand early in the 20th century as people began to abandon the piano for the phonograph, movies and other modern amusements.

Reading about the old ivory trade in the Connecticut River Valley, the wealthy people in Asia now driving the demand for illegal ivory might well think: The Americans were even worse in their day. Now it’s our turn. But what if the last wild elephants vanish from Africa, as now seems possible? The children and grandchildren of the people who are making it happen will look back on them with dismay. That’s the real lesson of the Connecticut River Valley. Those precious and beautifully carved ivory knickknacks will survive not as symbols of status, but of shame.


Richard Conniff is a National Magazine Award winner for feature writing. His latest book is The Species Seekers: Heroes, Fools, and the Mad Pursuit of Life on Earth.

Originally published in the April 2012 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.