Posted in Elephants, Nature, Photography

Ivory, Part Four

Ivory was the plastic of the Victorian Age:

From the 1860s to the 1880s, an estimated 100,000 elephants per year were slaughtered for their ivory, a total of two million elephants in twenty years.  Their tusks were made into:

Fish hooks, spoons, arrowheads, buttons, bagpipe joints, fans, buckles, brush handles,

Victorian Ivory Crucifix
Victorian Ivory Crucifix

letter openers, rosary beads, bookends, tiny elephant statuettes, pistol grips,

bracelets, hairbrushes, fans, chess pieces, crucifixes, necklaces, perfume

bottles, furniture inlays, tankards, umbrella stands, champagne

buckets, vases, waste-paper baskets, chessboards, dice,

dominoes, rolling pins, rings, salt shakers, engraved

boxes, door knobs, shoehorns, paper clips,

broaches, pool cues, pens, guitar

pegs, cribbage boards,

butter knives, cuff

links,  tie


key chains, needles, flutes, hairpins, coins, salt cellars, reliquary panels, communion

boxes, hunting horns, cups, plumb bobs, knitting needles, fiddle pegs, thimbles,

whistles, stash bottles, opium pipes, book covers, napkin rings, spatulas,

foot-scrapers, snuff boxes, tiddlywinks, sword hilts, nit-picking

Ivory Tusk Cribbage Board
Ivory Tusk Cribbage Board

combs, cricket cages, riding whips, telegraph keypads,

teapot handles, backscratchers, chopsticks,

toothpicks, stools, toys, corkscrews,

cigarette holders . . . .

Victorian gentry wore perforated ivory cylinders around their necks, each cylinder baited with blood – flea traps.  Women with high Marie Antoinette wigs had long ivory sticks for scratching their scalps.  Renoir’s favorite formulation for black paint included burnt ivory, which was also used to tint gray hair.  Peter the Great spent long hours turning out ivory candlesticks and goblets on his lathe.  It was fashionable for gentry to have such hobbies.  Newton had his portrait painted in watercolor on an ivory medallion, another fashionable thing to do.

Ivory was used in making billiard balls and piano keys – fixtures of Victorian gentility.  Industrialized plants in Ivoryton, Connecticut produced 350,000 pianos; each and every key made of ivory.  Ivory shavings were boiled with water into jelly and hawked for medicinal purposes.  Ivory dust was sold as fertilizer.

Billiard balls required the use of small, straight female tusks, which could yield five or less rough-cut balls, with the central nerve channel in the precise middle of each ball.  They were highly valued because such balls rolled in true lines.  The density of each ball was matched with similar balls to produce a complete set.   A complete set of fifteen billiard balls required the tusks from three elephants.

Victorian Billiard Ball Showing Nerve Channel
Victorian Billiard Ball Showing Nerve Channel

Most billiard players were unaware that the click of one ball hitting another was the same sound elephants produce in the wild as they greet each other by gently tapping their tusks together.

Ivory billiard balls changed according to weather and the temperature of the room.  Queen Victoria kept her billiard table heated.  Shipping labels on sets of balls warned that they would split if used when cold.  Eventually, over time, ivory billiard balls developed an egg shape and needed to be replaced.  As a hedge against fluctuating supply (tusks) and demand (replacement sets) manufacturers stocked as many as twenty thousand balls in vaults with stable temperatures.

When cheaper resin replaced ivory for billiard balls and plastic replaced ivory piano keys, elephants were given a reprieve.

A hundred years later, that reprieve would end.

African Elephant photo by Cheryl Merrill
African Elephant
photo by Cheryl Merrill


Cheryl Merrill’s essays have been published in Fourth Genre, Pilgrimage, Brevity, Seems, South Loop Review, Ghoti, Alaska Quarterly Review, Adventum and Isotope. “Singing Like Yma Sumac” was selected for the Best of Brevity 2005 and Creative Nonfiction #27. It was also included in the anthology Short Takes: Model Essays for Composition, 10th Edition. Another essay, “Trunk,” was chosen for Special Mention in Pushcart 2008. She is currently working on a book about elephants: Larger than Life: Living in the Shadows of Elephants.

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