Records documenting Pratt, Read and Company; its early competitor and later partner, Comstock, Cheney and Company; and a number of predecessor, subsidiary and related companies. Other topics include the late 19th century African ivory trade and Pratt, Read's production of troop-carrying gliders during World War II.
Scope and Contents:
Pratt, Read & Company, located in the Essex area of Connecticut, was once the world's largest producer of ivory products. Beginning with the manufacture of combs, collar buttons, and toothpicks, the company moved on to the production of piano and organ key veneers, and soon dominated the field. Eventually, it began to produce complete piano and organ keyboards and actions, becoming the major supplier to the American piano industry. The records in this collection document Pratt, Read & Company; its early competitor and later partner, Comstock, Cheney & Company; and a number of predecessor, subsidiary, and related companies. Other topics of interest dealt with in this collection include the late nineteenth century African ivory trade and Pratt, Read's production of troop carrying gliders during World War II.
The Collection is divided into six series.
Series 1: Predecessor and Miscellaneous Companies, 1839-1870s
Series 2: Comstock, Cheney and Company, 1863-1936
Series 3: Pratt, Read and Company, 1863-1988
Series 4: Gould Aeronautical Division, 1941-1977
Series 5: Subsidiary and Related Companies, 1859-1980
Series 6: Information on Related Companies, 1977-1992
Pratt, Read & Company is one of the oldest companies in the state of Connecticut. The firm traces its origins to 1798, when an Essex goldsmith and clockmaker named Phineas Pratt invented a circular saw to cut the teeth on ivory combs. In 1809, George Read and his brother in law, Phineas Pratt II, dammed the Deep River in the nearby town of Deep River and constructed a waterwheel to power ivory cutting machinery. Read left the partnership in 1816, and Phineas Pratt II joined with Alfred Worthington to manufacture ivory combs under the name of Pratt Worthington & Company. When Worthington died in 1830, two of Phineas Pratt II's sons, Ulysses and Alexis, took over the business, operating as U & A Pratt. The name was changed in 1844 to Pratt Spencer & Company, when a new partner was added, and changed again in 1850, to Pratt Brothers & Company. In 1856 the company erected a much larger factory in Deep River.
In the meantime, Julius Pratt, another of Phineas Pratt I's sons, had joined with Thomas Howard to set up an ivory comb factory in the town of Meriden. This firm was known as Howard, Pratt & Company. After Howard's death in 1822, it became Julius Pratt & Company. In 1854, the firm began to produce wooden piano keyboards, which then were fitted with keys of ivory. One half interest in this firm was owned by George Read.
When Read left his original partnership with Phineas Pratt II in 1816, he joined with Essex comb maker Ezra Williams to set up a new ivory working factory in Deep River. This new firm was known as Ezra Williams & Company. In 1829, Read became the senior partner and the company's name was changed to George Read & Company. This company later secured a very important contract to supply ivory keys for the first American manufacturer of pianos, Chickering & Sons of Boston.
In 1863, the firms of George Read & Company, Julius Pratt & Company, and Pratt Brothers & Company, were merged to form Pratt, Read & Company. The new company further enlarged its factory in Deep River in 1866. In 1871, the old Julius Pratt & Company factory in Meriden was closed and its operations moved to Deep River. Though this factory was destroyed by fire in 1881, a larger factory was quickly rebuilt and the company was back in business early in 1882.
With the election of George L. Cheney as president in 1892, Pratt, Read & Company began a period of continued expansion. In December of that year the company joined with another Connecticut piano component manufacturer, Comstock, Cheney & Company, to organize a midwestern manufacturing branch, under the name of the Piano & Organ Supply Company. This firm was to serve the territory west of Toledo, Ohio, operating in competition with its parent companies. In 1929 Pratt, Read and Comstock, Cheney combined to buy out the Piano & Organ Supply Company and it was dissolved.
In 1910 Pratt, Read & Company decided to begin the manufacture of piano actions. An independent manufacturer of piano actions, New York based Wasle & Company, and its subsidiary, the Wasle Unique Player Action Company, were acquired that same year. In 1914, Pratt, Read built a second factory solely for the production of player piano actions in Deep River. Wasle & Company was dissolved in 1919 and its production was continued under the Pratt, Read name. The company soon acquired two additional keyboard and action manufacturers: the Sylvester Tower Company of Cambridge, Mass., was purchased, dissolved, and all its equipment was moved to Deep River in 1924; and Strauch Bros. Company of New York was purchased in 1926. The Deep River player action plant operated until 1928, when business declined and production of player piano actions was discontinued in favor of manufacturing small motorboats. This line of business also soon declined and the project was abandoned by 1932.
COMSTOCK, CHENEY & COMPANY. Meanwhile, other manufacturers of ivory products had been at work in the Essex area. Chief among these was the firm of Comstock, Cheney & Company of Ivoryton. The dominant figure in this company was Samuel M. Comstock. He had learned the ivory cutting trade while working in his older brother's Saybrook area ivory cutting shop, known as Joseph A. Comstock & Company. By 1838, Samuel had left his brother's shop and joined with Edwin Griswold to set up Comstock & Griswold Company further west up the Falls River in Centerbrook. In 1848, the company moved its operations to a new factory in the Ivoryton area, where combs, toothpicks, and other ivory products were made. At the same time, the firm's name was changed to
S. M. Comstock & Company, reflecting Samuel's sole ownership.
In 1860, Samuel Comstock allied his firm with George A. Cheney to form Comstock, Cheney & Company. Cheney had invested in Comstock's firm and was one of the principals in the important New York based ivory importing firm of Arnold, Cheney & Company. The new firm began production of thin slices of ivory for mounting on wooden piano keys. It also had its own agents buying ivory in Africa, most of which went toward production of piano keys. The company was formally incorporated in 1872 and in 1873 it opened an even larger factory in Ivoryton.
1936 MERGER. On December 31, l936, Pratt, Read & Company of Deep River was consolidated and merged with Comstock, Cheney & Company of Ivoryton. The resulting corporation was titled Pratt, Read & Company, Inc. By l938, all manufacturing operations had been consolidated in Ivoryton and the Deep River factory closed. During World War II, both the Deep River factory and the Ivoryton factory were used to produce CG 4A "Waco" troop carrying gliders for the U.S. Army Air Forces, along with LNE 1 training gliders and the GLOMB experimental plane for the U.S. Navy. Production of piano keyboards and actions was sharply curtailed for the duration of the war, and was slow to resume afterward. In l946 the Deep River factory was sold.
From 1948 to l957, the Ivoryton factory was enlarged and modernized on a large scale. During the Korean War, the company contracted to make helicopter blades for the Kaman Corporation of Bloomfield, Conn., and this partnership lasted for fourteen years. In l958, Pratt, Read transferred all of its piano action manufacturing operations to a newly built plant in Central, S.C. This move was made primarily in order to modernize production facilities at a lower cost than would have been possible through continued renovation of the Ivoryton plant.
With the election of Peter H. Comstock (a great grandson of one of the founders of Comstock, Cheney & Company) as President in 1954, the firm began an ambitious plan of diversification. The Cornwall & Patterson Company of Bridgeport, Conn., manufacturer of piano hardware, was purchased in l957. In 1959, Pratt, Read joined with six British Commonwealth firms to acquire British Piano Actions, Ltd., of Wales. Keyboards, Inc., a Chicago based producer of keyboards for electronic organs, was acquired in 1960. The Tech Art Plastics Company of Morristown, N.J., a custom molder of plastics materials especially for the piano industry, was acquired in 1961.
The F. Kelly Company of Derby, Conn., which specialized in the production of small metal parts, was acquired in l964, and operated as a division of Cornwall & Patterson. In l966, Pratt, Read purchased the Allen Rogers Corporation of Laconia, N.H., which produced wooden furniture and piano components.
MERGER WITH VOCALINE COMPANY. In February l968, Pratt, Read & Company, Inc., was merged into the Vocaline Company of America, Inc., of Old Saybrook, Conn. Peter H. Comstock became chairman and chief executive officer of Vocaline Corporation, while remaining president of Pratt, Read. Vocaline was then organized into two major divisions the Vocaline Division and the Pratt, Read Division. The Pratt, Read Division concentrated on the production of piano keys and actions. It operated three subdivisions: the Ivoryton Division (keyboards, wooden and plastic moldings, and unfinished furniture); the Action Division (piano actions); and the Lund Division, formerly Keyboards, Inc., (electronic organ components). Both of the latter divisions operated out of the Central, S.C., plant. The Lund Division was known as the Electronics Division by 1970.
The Vocaline Division produced and sold electric motors, timing devices, and other small electromechanical mechanisms through its Electronics Section and its Bristol Motor and Timer Section. Another subsidiary of the Vocaline Division Altron, Inc., based in Westerly, R.I. produced wire coils. Through its Research and Development Center in Waldboro, Maine, Vocaline conducted antisubmarine warfare research for the U.S. Navy. By 1970, the Vocaline Division had been streamlined into four divisions: the Allen Rogers Corporation (small shaped wood products); Altron, Inc. (wire coils); the Bristol Division, later known as the Bristol Saybrook Company (electric motors and timers); and the Cornwall & Patterson Company (piano hardware and small tools). In addition, research for the Navy had been expanded and combined with other oceanographic research under the control of a subsidiary company, VAST, Inc., with operations in both Maine and the Caribbean.
PRATT READ CORPORATION. In October 1970, the Vocaline Corporation changed its name to the Pratt Read Corporation. This was done partly to increase identity with its oldest traditions and partly to reflect a shift away from the early emphasis on the Vocaline side of the corporation. The new corporation continued to refine its interests under the direction of Peter H. Comstock, who became company president in February 1970. The Tech Arts Plastic Company was sold off in May 1972, although it remained a source of supply for custom molded parts. In 1974 Pratt Read purchased the Atlas Plywood Company of Morrisville, Vt., in order to use its mill and kilns in the preparation of lumber for the Ivoryton factory, whose own facilities were overburdened. This company was operated as a subsidiary of Pratt Read.
By 1976, the Pratt Read Corporation was organized into five operating divisions. The Allen Rogers Corporation produced toys, golf tees, spools, knobs, and other turned and shaped wood products. Altron, Inc., produced bobbins and coils of copper wire. The Bristol Saybrook Company produced small electric motors and timers. The Cornwall & Patterson Company produced piano hardware parts, screwdriver blades, and other small hand tools. Pratt, Read & Company produced wooden components for pianos and other musical instruments. The company's ownership of VAST, Inc., was sold off in March 1976. Later that year, the company acquired Sight Line Corporation, a Freehold, N.J., manufacturer of golf clubs. This subsidiary, operated as the Sounder Sports Division, was sold in May 1979.
In October of 1979, James H. Tucker replaced Peter H. Comstock as president of Pratt Read; Comstock remained chairman of the board and chief executive officer. His nephew, Harwood B. Comstock, became the next president in October 1982. In June 1982, the Ivoryton factory was severely damaged by flooding after two dams burst upstream during a torrential rainstorm. Although the administrative offices were destroyed and the plant filled with several feet of mud and debris, the facility was back in production within two weeks. In August 1982, Pratt Read acquired the Sohmer Piano Company, a 111 year old Long Island based manufacturer of pianos, and in December 1982 Sohmer's production facilities were moved into the Ivoryton factory. By July 1983 Sohmer was producing about six upright pianos a day in its new location.
By the early 1980s, the American piano industry had entered a period of decline and even Peter Comstock's diversification efforts could not keep it out of trouble. A major blow came in 1984 with the loss of a large contract to manufacture keyboards for Mattel Electronics's Intellivision home video system. This was exacerbated by a slump in the piano industry in mid year. The increased import of Japanese and Korean pianos further undercut the American industry, resulting in slowdowns and profit losses for Pratt Read. Attempting to compete on the same basis with this foreign competition, Pratt Read joined with the Baldwin Piano and Organ Company in May 1985 to establish the Pratt Win Corporation. This joint venture resulted in the closing of Pratt Read's Central, S.C., piano action manufacturing plant and the transfer of its operations to a new Baldwin plant in Juarez, Mexico. Pratt Read sold its interest in Pratt Win to Baldwin in October 1986.
Piano sales continued to decline, however, and Pratt Read continued to suffer losses. In March 1986, the company was acquired by Crescent & Company, a corporation controlled by Harwood B. Comstock, president of Pratt, Read & Company. It became a wholly owned subsidiary of Crescent & Company, but retained the name Pratt Read Corporation. In April 1986, the company sold its Sohmer piano subsidiary together with the Ivoryton factory where it was housed; Sohmer & Company continued to produce upright pianos under independent ownership in Ivoryton until December 1988. In December 1986 the Bristol Saybrook Company was sold off. By 1990, the company had sold off all remaining assets except for a sawmill in Vermont and the Cornwall & Patterson Company in Bridgeport, Conn., where the remaining corporate staff relocated.
Deep River Historical Society, Inc. A History of Pratt Read & Co. 1973.
1899 Souvenir of Essex, Connecticut. Rpt., The Ivoryton Public Library, 1979.
Johnson, Curtiss S. "From Ivory Combs to Carnegie Hall and Today:The History of the Pratt Read Corporation." [Unpublished history in the collection.]
Moore, Ernst D. "History of Pratt, Read & Company." [Unpublished history in the Ernst D. Moore Collection, Archives Center Collection #321.]
Newspaper Clippings in the collection.
Pratt Read Corporation. Annual Reports.
Vocaline Corporation. Annual Report, 1970.
Materials in the Archives Center, National Museum of American History:
Records relating to Pratt, Read and to Comstock, Cheney can be found in a number of other collections, both within the Archives Center and in other repositories. The Wood & Brooks Company Records (Archives Center coll. #457) contain significant information on Pratt, Read's operations and an important record of production statistics gathered by George Wood while he was factory superintendent and taken with him when he set up a rival firm in Buffalo. While the Ernst Moore Collection (Archives Center coll. #321) primarily documents the purchase of ivory in Africa (much of which was ultimately used by Pratt, Read), it also includes a history of Pratt, Read written by Moore while he was employed by them. The Sohmer & Company Records (Archives Center coll. #349) document the piano manufacturing firm that Pratt Read acquired in 1982.
The Pratt Read Corporation also donated a number of objects to the National Museum of American History at the same time as their 1988 donation of archival records. Included were combs and letter openers and other examples of products made from ivory; piano components, such as gauge boards, key actions, and keys; and such diverse items as tools used in the factory, World War II employee I.D. badges, and a uniform from the company sponsored basketball team.
Donated by Pratt, Read Corporation in 1989. In addition to the papers donated by the company, several individuals donated Pratt, Read materials in their possession.
Collection open for research on site by appointment. Unprotected photographs must be handled with gloves.
Collection items available for reproduction, but the Archives Center makes no guarantees concerning copyright restrictions. Other intellectual property rights may apply. Archives Center cost-recovery and use fees may apply when requesting reproductions.