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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 Badge of Gentility (Ivory part 4)

Posted by Richard Conniff on March 15, 2012

For the Victorian era, the piano “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 like television and the computer today, it drew people away from public entertainments and back into the home.  There was, however, nothing passive about it.  “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 saw 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 out open windows onto elm-lined streets thus 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 yet quite comprehend.  Such companies as Steinway, Chickering, Baldwin, and Aeolian (“Yoly-yoly” to immigrant workers back in the ivory factories) rose up to serve that need.

All of them 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 sixty or seventy 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 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.

(to be continued)

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