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  • Richard Conniff writes about behavior, in humans and other animals, on two, four, six, and eight legs, plus the occasional slither.

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A Story for China from a Small New England Town (Part 1)

Posted by Richard Conniff on March 12, 2012

While I am off the grid for the next few weeks, I’ll try to set up posts for a few of my stories,  Here’s one I wrote for the April issue of American History magazine, about the ivory trade, past and present:

Last summer on the island of Zanzibar, off the East Coast of Africa, authorities seized a stash of more than 1000 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 alarmingly common again, after a 20 year hiatus when poaching seemed to have come under control, and scientists estimate that 40,000 elephants are now 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 new-found prosperity.

But it reminds me of a time when Americans behaved in much the same fashion, not least in my old home town of Deep River, Connecticut.  I used to live there in a house that looked out across the broad green hills of the lower Connecticut River.  It was (and remains) an idyllic little New England town, with a white clapboard Congregational Church on the green, and a picturesque little landing down by the river.

The town grew up in the nineteenth century around Pratt, Read & Co., a maker of piano keyboards, at a time 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 of course 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–by way of Zanzibar, coincidentally.  An old photograph at the Deep River Historical Society showed a common sight in town then–a horse-drawn cart loaded with 32 tusks, laid down side by side like huge fingernail clippings, and said to be worth $9,000.

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 public craze for the piano, from about 1860 to 1930, their business 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 being killed.  About 50,000 elephants died each year then to supply the ivory trade.  At the risk of overstating the moral complications of what seemed like an innocent pastime, they died so young girls could display their musical talent, and families could gather around the piano to sing.

(to be continued)

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