Elephant Slaughter, African Slavery And America's Pianos Two New England towns dominated the world's ivory market from 1840 to 1940 — transforming imported tusks from African elephants into piano keys and combs. Today's residents grapple with a dark past.
NPR logo

Elephant Slaughter, African Slavery And America's Pianos

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/338989248/341542638" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Elephant Slaughter, African Slavery And America's Pianos

Elephant Slaughter, African Slavery And America's Pianos

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/338989248/341542638" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


The demand for ivory is booming. Illegal trade of ivory from African elephants has tripled in the past 15 years. Most of it is sold in China and Vietnam. And the U.S. government is urging those countries to arrest the traffickers. But for the better part of a century, the United States was the world's biggest ivory consumer. Hundreds of thousands of elephants were killed and uncounted numbers of Africans were enslaved to carry tusks to ships bound for America. Most of that ivory actually went to a tiny town in Connecticut. NPR's Christopher Joyce visited that town, which is now dealing with this dark part of its past.


CHRISTOPHER JOYCE, BYLINE: Deep River takes its history seriously. Driving into town, I pass a fife and drum corps practicing for a performance on the village green. I pass centuries-old mills and newly painted Victorian mansions. A hundred and fifty years ago, people called this town the Queen of the Valley. The town was prosperous. But ivory made Deep River rich.

MARTA DANIELS: I have always thought of this road as the road of tears.

JOYCE: I'm driving with Marta Daniels. She's a writer by trade and historian by avocation. The road we're on connects a landing on the Connecticut River to the town.

DANIELS: Between 1840 and 1940 via this road was the greatest importer of ivory in the world.

JOYCE: Along this road came the wagons of Pratt, Read and Company. They loaded elephant tusks from ships and took them up to a huge brick factory. That factory, longer than a city block, is still here. It's now a condominium called Piano Works.


JOYCE: 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 here.

JEFF HOSTETLER: What happened is Phineas Pratt, a very good mechanic and inventor, developed an ivory lathe to cut the teeth in ivory combs. And of course all of Phineas' relatives bought one of Phineas' machines and went into the comb business.

JOYCE: And then into billiard balls, cutlery handles, shirt buttons - all manner of knick-knacks. But then came the piano. In the mid-1800s, a piano in the parlor became a symbol of middle-class cultivation. Pratt's amazing cutting lathes were turned to making ivory piano keys. Piano keys required extra labor though. So soon the business sprawled all over town.

HOSTETLER: Pianists liked white. 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.

JOYCE: Acres of bleaching houses sprang up - huge greenhouse with blocks of ivory instead of plants in them. People fertilized gardens with ivory dust. Kids swimming in local ponds came out coated in it. Soon a rival company, Comstock, Cheney and Company, emerged. They built a whole new town nearby called Ivoryton. The two towns dominated the piano key business for decades. Fortunes were made and spent on grand houses that still stand.


JOYCE: One of them is now headquarters of the historical society and home to a startling assortment of artifacts that made Deep River rich. Curator Rhonda Forristall shows me around.

RHONDA FORRISTALL: You've got needles. You've got crochet hooks, toothpicks, buttonhooks again.

JOYCE: Beads, necklaces.

FORRISTALL: Yeah, razors.


JOYCE: And of course pianos made with ivory keys, a practice that didn't end until the 1950s as cheaper plastic replaced ivory. In Deep River, these artifacts are a source of civic pride but one that's also tinged with shame especially as the world condemns the current slaughter of elephants to make trinkets. Marta Daniels, for one, says if Americans are going to condemn others for trading in ivory, they should at least know their own history.

DANIELS: We were the largest importer of tusks anywhere in the world. So we have a special responsibility. And we have a unique opportunity to say we are sorry that we have done this but we want in some way to help stop the slaughter now.

JOYCE: Citizens have formed the Deep River Tusk Force to publicize the ivory history here. They organized a conference with speakers from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to talk about the U.S. ivory trade. They speak in schools and they're lobbying for a law banning the import of existing ivory into the state. They raised money to buy an elephant statue that sits in front of town hall. Those efforts aren't likely to resonate in China and Vietnam. But Peter Howard, trustee of the historical society, says at least Deep River residents are now confronting the town's past.

PETER HOWARD: There's a lot of debt that's owed the elephant here and a lot of awareness. But it was kind of in the back of people's minds. And maybe we should be beginning to think about making people aware of what happened here.

JOYCE: And it happened long ago. Deep River's John Guy LaPlante says attitudes were different then.

JOHN GUY LAPLANTE: You know, we deplore what happened to the elephant. It was brutal. There's no doubt about it. But we have to put it in context. These men - these men, who ran this industry, were upstanding, moral, high-minded people who didn't think they were doing anything wrong.

JOYCE: But there was another ugly fact about this trade that many didn't know about or didn't want to know about - ivory slavery. Ivory traders needed ivory bearers. So they captured Africans and enslaved them to transport the tusks. Richard Conniff investigated the African end of the trade. He's a writer who bought a house in Deep River and then discovered its past. He found historical accounts from Africa and from Deep River's ivory barons. They tell of ships from Connecticut that sailed to Zanzibar, an island off the east coast of Africa. Americans arrived with cloth, gunpowder and weapons to trade. The ivory came from central Africa brought to Zanzibar by Arab slavers.

RICHARD CONNIFF: They would seize slave, seize ivory and then use the slaves to carry the ivory back to the cost. And the descriptions that missionaries gave of those caravans were particularly brutal - so slaves bound by a log basically around the neck to the person behind them and then carrying a tusk on one shoulder.

JOYCE: Often, only one in four slaves survived the journey, according to British explorer David Livingstone. One of the buyers in Zanzibar was Ernst Moore, who worked for Deep River's Pratt, Read and Company. Moore wrote a book called "Ivory: Scourge of Africa." He grew to hate the ivory trade and the slavery that maintained it. But Conniff says -

CONNIFF: He is the one who also said our lives were so crammed with our business and adventure that we were perfectly content to take what we had and make the best of it.

JOYCE: And Conniff says that's likely the attitude of people who are buying illegal ivory now.

CONNIFF: What they need to realize is what this town has discovered - that our involvement in that kind of thing is ultimately a source of shame and that the grandchildren of those people who are buying the ivory are going to look at them with the kind of horror with which we now regard the ivory trade that happened here.

JOYCE: Christopher Joyce, NPR News.

Copyright © 2014 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.