Ivory: Expensive Luxury

Americans have desired elephant ivory since the colonial era.

For thousands of years, people all over the world valued ivory objects made from elephant tusks. Americans were no exception. But in the new United States, only the wealthy few could afford products made of ivory. Hunting elephants, shipping tusks from Africa and Asia, and turning tusks into finished goods in Europe and the United States was an expensive enterprise. Elephants were killed to meet the demand for tusks in this period, but in low enough numbers to avoid the threat of extinction. 

“The Elephant is the largest, the strongest, the most sagacious, and the longest-lived of all the brute creation. The species is numerous, does not decrease, and is dispersed over all of the southern parts of Asia and Africa.” 
Middlesex Gazette of Connecticut, 1796

Folding fan and hair comb, around 1800

These ivory objects are associated with former First Ladies Abigail Adams and Louisa Catherine Adams. Fans were essential accessories to a well-off woman’s wardrobe. Elaborate combs, also made of ivory, secured and decorated hairstyles.

Adams-Clement Collection, gifts of Mary Louisa Adams Clement in memory of her mother, Louisa Catherine Adams Clement 

Flute, around 1800

Ivory was a choice material for parts on musical instruments because it was attractive, durable, and easy to shape. This flute made of ivory cost more than wooden versions.

Gift of Mrs. Thomas K. Boggs

Portrait of Sidney Mason, U.S. Consul in Puerto Rico, around 1830

Miniature portraits on ivory were luxuries from the late 1700s until the introduction of photography around 1840. Throughout this period, white skin symbolized power—and the surface qualities of ivory captured that shade without paint. 

Gift of Mrs. Julian James

What is elephant ivory?

We tend to use the term “ivory” to describe a precious material, often without considering that ivory is taken from animals. When we talk about “ivory,” we’re actually talking about teeth. In the case of elephants, we’re talking about a certain kind of teeth: tusks. Those are the long upper incisors of elephants that grow deep within their skulls.