Some of us will remember the scene in the 1967 film The Graduate where Dustin Hoffman’s character is taken aside while pondering his future career after graduation. He was cryptically advised to consider “one word — plastics.” One hundred years earlier, he might have received similar advice: “Ivory.”
Traded for more than 1,000 years for its color, workability, durability, and abundance, ivory was at the center of a hugely profitable industry. Its value from the late 1700s through the 19th century grew exponentially, booming worldwide as increased societal wealth, conspicuous consumption, and cheap labor encouraged its use in artwork, combs, keyboards, jewelry, hand fans, billiard balls, teething rings, and many other whatnots.
Right here in Connecticut, the towns of Deep River and Ivoryton were national hubs of commercial ivory manufacturing. It’s likely no one involved in the early trade could have imagined its long-term impact, even though the collection of ivory tusks would devastate the elephant population from 26 million elephants in 1800 to fewer than 1 million by 1989. Although modern-day conservation efforts and trading bans have helped recovery in some areas, poaching, trophy hunting and other illegal uses of ivory remain an enormous concern. The Madison Historical Society’s examples of ivory artifacts not only put their beauty and their trade in context with their times but also serve to remind us that even once-abundant natural resources can be misused and depleted, even today.
Likely the most beautiful item in the society’s collection is a jewelry box made in China in 1850. The box has a hinged cover decorated with a dragon motif and a floral border. Donated by Constance Wilcox Pignatelli in 1981, it measures approximately 5- by 3- by 2-inches. The maker’s craftsmanship and patience resulted in a lovely and expensive piece of art — but cost an elephant dearly.
One very functional use of ivory was in navigational instruments. Our antique quadrant was used by Madison’s John Wilcox between 1800 and 1860 on his voyages to New York or up the Connecticut River. A forerunner to the sextant, a quadrant was used to determine the altitude of heavenly bodies for navigation. This one has a brass and ivory-fitted ebony frame. The maker's name and compass degrees are finely engraved into the ivory. Ivory’s ability to be easily engraved yet stay stable in various climates made its use in highly accurate instruments very common.
One of our earliest donations containing ivory was given by Mr. & Mrs. George Chittenden in 1921. Made by W. Geib in New York City in the late 1820s, our square fortepiano is made of mahogany and rosewood with brass fittings. It has an off-center keyboard of 73 keys, modulated with a single pedal supported on a lyre-shaped brace. We wonder if the ivory keys were manufactured in Connecticut.
Miniature portraits on ivory were popular in the mid-19th century. Madison’s Caroline Munger Washburn, who was a co-founder of the East River Reading Room, enjoyed some fame for her miniatures. Our collection includes one of her works, an image she made in 1841 of Catherine S. Scranton. It still has exquisite detail and vibrant colors. Water painting on ivory required special talent as the untreated material is a little greasy and does not hold paint well. Each artist developed a recipe for treating the ivory with chemicals, abrasion, and sunlight to prepare the surface to accept their uniquely processed water paint. Ivory manufacturers sliced each tusk so as to naturally form the shape of the portrait--sometimes square or round and sometimes oval, made by cutting the round tusk at a bias. They sold slices so thin as to be almost transparent, and it was common to mount the ivory over white paper or silver foil before painting. Buyers admired the natural luminescence ivory imparted especially to skin tones, so ivory miniatures were coveted by those who could afford them.
Presumably, back when the elephant herds were still wondrously numerous, the impact the expanding ivory trade was having on “the dark continent” went unrecognized. The maker of our set of tiny ivory dominoes in a finely made wooden box, with each tile about the size of a paper clip, could not have imagined these piddling pieces would ultimately add to the carnage.
We may admire the beauty of ivory — and the exquisite craftsmanship of the artisans who shaped it to meet the needs and desires of those who coveted it. But we must remember that this burgeoning trade led to the near-extinction of elephants in the 20th century and draw the correct parallels as we consider the impacts of the 21st century’s profligate use of plastics, so soon after The Graduate’s recommendation. History is said to repeat itself, and we can learn a lot from ivory’s story.