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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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The Touch of Ivory (Part 3)

Posted by Richard Conniff on March 14, 2012

Two tusks, then worth $1500 in Deep River

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.”   When I lived there in the 1980s, the old factory was abandoned and no tusks had arrived there in 30 years.  But it was still possible to find people who had grown up like that and gone on to spend their careers working with elephant tusks in the local factories.  I remember one of them who 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 still frequently turned up at tag sales, and newcomers restoring old houses were sometimes astonished to discover that their doorknobs had been

made from elephant’s tusks.   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 for holding racks of cut ivory up to the whitening power of the sun.  At the height of the business, 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 the ivory white.  “No sun! No bleach day! No nothing!!” he lamented, during a 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

At the bleaching sheds

sunshine!”

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.

(to be continued)

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