Ivory Keys

I got to learn a little bit about pianos today. Until today, whenever I saw a piano looking like the one in the picture, I didn’t really think much of it. Most of the pianos that I’ve experienced have looked like this – yellowed, chipped, with the nearest halves of some keys missing. To me, it says, “seasoned, well loved, experienced, old.” But it never even occurred to me that it also means “genuine ivory.” I learned today that virtually every piano made prior to 1930 was made with real ivory keys. After that, concerns about elephant hunting were rising, and the Great Depression pushed folks toward seeking less expensive production – specifically, the refinement of plastics. Many plastic keys are very well designed and mimic ivory beautifully. But spotting true ivory from plastic turns out to be very easy: plastic is always made in one piece, while ivory is made in two. The seam is easily seen where the key begins to get narrow between the black keys. That’s why ivory keys break in halves, the rectangle nearest your body being the missing piece; it’s the only part that’s really used. Plastic won’t have a seam. And keys being made from ivory doesn’t mean that they’re worth anything; sometimes they are, but not usually. I just thought it was all interesting.

As a side note, Michael and I will likely slowly restore our piano from 1922. It won’t be with real ivory. It’s tough to get that these days.


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