Catalog Cover For Pratt Co.

A copy of a catalog cover for Pratt Co. (The Deep River Historical Society / June 3, 2014)

In a field behind Deep River's historical society stands a small glass building shaped like a triangle. It looks like a greenhouse, but there is a U.S. patent for it filed by a local man named Ulysses Pratt. This "bleach house," as it was called, was designed not to grow plants but to expose to sunlight, for a period of 30 sunny days, ivory piano keys cut from the tusks of African elephants.

In Deep River and neighboring Ivoryton, a section of Essex, dozens of these bleach houses, some as long as a football field, stretched over south-facing slopes. Except for this small one, moved from several blocks away and restored to its 19th-century appearance, they are all gone. The enterprise they served, transforming ivory into piano keys, billiard balls and objects for Victorian ornament and domestic life, also is over.

In the language of historians, this glass house, which held rectangles of bleached ivory in pegged wooden racks, is an artifact.

It tells a story.

Yet nothing about this clean, modest little structure suggests that its story is steeped in the blood of a million black people.

George Washington was enjoying retirement on his farm in Virginia when Connecticut began cutting ivory. An Essex goldsmith invented a saw that could be powered by water or wind to cut the fine teeth of ivory combs. Suddenly, what had been laborious handwork was mechanized.

Two great companies rose from Phineas Pratt's small mill on the Falls River, and their evolution illuminates nearly every facet of the era's industry and commerce.

Connecticut's ivory businesses shaped elephants' teeth into the stuff and substance of 19th-century life, and brought constant innovation to the complex tasks of exporting, cutting and refining ivory. When their market expanded from baubles and combs to home entertainment - pianos and billiard balls - the ivory men kept pace. They had their era's complete and misplaced confidence in the renewability of natural resources, and the conviction that good things succeeded.

When the last remnants of Connecticut's ivory empire were sold at auction last May, there were two names on that last company: Pratt and Read.

In his portrait hanging in the Deep River Historical Society, George Read gazes mildly over his high collar at the viewer. A founder of Deep River and a deacon of his church, Read was an ardent abolitionist. He provided shelter to a black man who had fled slavery in South Carolina and settled in Deep River. The town's Winter Avenue is named for him.

Read and one of Phineas' sons dammed a section of the Deep River, built a water wheel and began cutting ivory. In 1863, midway through the Civil War, several businesses that had spun off Phineas Pratt's workshop coalesced into one - Pratt, Read & Company - which would spend the next 75 years neck-and-neck with America's other great ivory company just a short canter up the road.

When Samuel Merritt Comstock was born in Ivoryton in 1809 to a sea captain in the West Indies trade, the town was a crossroad with 12 houses and a different name. Comstock changed all that. He learned the ivory business in a family workshop and in the early 1860s, his solo business rapidly expanding but in need of capital, he sold a quarter-interest in his company to George A. Cheney, an ivory trader who had lived for 10 years in Zanzibar, an island off the east coast of Africa and a world trading center for ivory.

At first sight, Zanzibar was beautiful, "a gorgeous emerald laid on a velvet cloth of ocean blue," one ivory trader wrote. But the energetic New England merchants who sailed there found its blood-red flag floated above a major slave market with deep links to ivory.

Back in Connecticut, Comstock was turning West Centre Brook into an ivory-town, and one of America's first planned communities.

Donald Malcarne teaches the history and culture of the Connecticut River Valley at Wesleyan University, and is evangelical on the subject of Samuel Comstock, whom he ranks with Samuel Colt as a pioneering industrialist of the mid-19th century.

"He had a vision for the town," Malcarne says. This included not only stylish homesteads on Main Street for his executives, but houses for his middle managers, modest dwellings for the immigrant families who joined his workforce, and segregated dormitories for his young, unmarried workers. Comstock built churches (though no Catholic ones), places to shop and centers for recreation - the Wheel Club was a cycling club just for men.

Malcarne is also the town historian in Essex, and he lived this history before he taught it: "My father went to work in the ivory shop on a tiny salary," he says. And though he has produced most of the modern scholarship on Connecticut's ivory manufacturing, Malcarne isn't a company man.

He is haunted by questions about these ivory entrepreneurs who, through the industry they propelled, gave immigrants from Italy, Poland and northern Europe a foothold in America, even as they depended on the labor of hundreds of thousands of enslaved people in Africa.

On a recent gray morning, heavy rain lashing the field where a bleach house once stood, Malcarne peers mournfully through his windshield.