Atlantic History Mahogany
by
Jennifer Anderson
  • LAST REVIEWED: 08 June 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 June 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0241

Introduction

Mahogany, the common name for several related species of tropical hardwoods of the genus Swietenia (Meliaceae family), became a popular cabinetmaking wood in Europe and the North American colonies during the 18th century. Two main species of mahogany have been commercially harvested: Swietenia mahagoni (short-leafed West Indian mahogany), indigenous to the Northern Caribbean, including Florida, Jamaica, Cuba, Hispaniola, and the Bahamas; and the more prevalent Swietenia macrophylla (big-leafed Honduran mahogany), indigenous to Central and South America, ranging from the Yucatan to northern Brazil. Mahogany trees were sought after because their strong, dense wood was suitable for many applications; moreover, some specimens featured swirling grains and vivid hues—ranging from bright red to deep brown—that could be manipulated to achieve various aesthetic effects. In regions where mahogany was endemic, precontact indigenous populations traditionally used mahogany to make carved objects, such as ceremonial stools, and canoes, hollowed out of the trees’ massive trunks. With the advent of colonization, Europeans employed this versatile wood for many utilitarian purposes, including shipbuilding, construction, and architectural woodwork. By the early- to mid-18th century, mahogany gained its greatest prominence as a fine cabinetmaking wood favored by affluent buyers desirous of showy furniture. In response to growing consumer demand, mahogany imports to Europe and colonial North America rose steadily over the course of the 18th century, making this once rare material accessible even to midlevel furniture buyers. Consequently, many of the leading sources of commercially harvested mahogany were overharvested or depleted by the mid- to late 18th century, resulting in periodic shortages, escalating prices, and growing competition over remaining supplies. In the 19th century, alternative sources (and even alternative species) were sought after (and again heavily logged) in Cuba, Hispaniola, Mexico, and elsewhere in Central America and northern Brazil. Diminishing supplies ensured that mahogany retained its commercial value and its reputation as a high-status luxury commodity, an aura that it still evokes for many.

General Overviews

Only a handful of scholarly works, highlighted here, offer overviews of the complex history of mahogany production, trade, and consumption in the broader Atlantic region. Because mahogany production remained largely an unsustainable extractive industry, and the mahogany trade, at least initially, served a narrow market of cabinetmakers and their elite patrons, general histories of the Caribbean and Central America have largely overlooked its significance as an important ancillary to the emergence of plantation economies, especially those involving sugar production. Few recent scholarly works offer well-rounded overviews of the history of mahogany in the broader Atlantic context. Among the most cited books are Lamb 1966 and Mayhew and Newton 1998, which, although geared mainly geared toward ecologists and silviculturalists, include some background information on mahogany’s history as a fine cabinetmaking wood. More useful is Bowett 2012, an encyclopedic work, which includes a thirty-page overview of mahogany’s introduction and use as a fine cabinetmaking wood in England. Although currently available mainly in specialized decorative arts libraries and major research libraries, this reference work is an excellent resource and situates mahogany as part of the larger repertoire of woods available to British cabinetmakers. The monograph Anderson 2012 and the article Anderson 2004 provide a more expansive, transnational overview of the production, trade, and consumption of mahogany during the 18th and early 19th centuries as well as its growing cultural significance. The book expands on the role of slave labor in mahogany extraction, the development of the Atlantic mahogany trade, its environmental impact, and the popularization of mahogany among American and European merchants, cabinetmakers, and furniture buyers.

  • Anderson, Jennifer L. “Nature’s Currency: The Atlantic Mahogany Trade and the Commodification of Nature in the 18th Century.” Early American Studies 2.1 (Spring 2004): 47–80.

    DOI: 10.1353/eam.2007.0033E-mail Citation »

    This article provides a synopsis of the history of mahogany covered in greater depth in Anderson’s Mahogany (2012) with emphasis on the environmental impact of growing consumer demand for tropical hardwoods to make luxury furnishings in the 18th century. Readily accessible and reader friendly, it is recommended for classroom use.

  • Anderson, Jennifer L. Mahogany: The Costs of Luxury in Early America. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012.

    DOI: 10.4159/harvard.9780674067264E-mail Citation »

    Melding economic, environmental, social, and cultural perspectives, this book traces mahogany from its rain forest sources to international markets, emphasizing transnational interconnections among mahogany producers in the West Indies and Belize—including enslaved African woodcutters—and merchants, timber dealers, cabinetmakers, and furniture buyers in England and colonial North America. See also History of Mahogany Consumption.

  • Bowett, Adam. Woods in British Furniture Making 1400–1900: An Illustrated Historical Dictionary. London: Oblong Creative, 2012.

    E-mail Citation »

    Bowett, a leading scholar of British furniture, recently published this invaluable compendium of over four hundred woods—including mahogany—that were used in the fabrication of British furniture. His expertise in British cabinetmaking practices makes this an especially relevant work for those interested in how artisans utilized mahogany.

  • Lamb, Bruce F. Mahogany of Tropical America: Its Ecology and Management. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1966.

    E-mail Citation »

    Written by a forestry expert as a resource for other tropical forestry professionals, conservationists, and land use planners, this book serves as a basic primer about mahogany’s physical characteristics and includes a brief history of its production and trade. Its information on mahogany’s ecology, silviculture, and reforestation efforts is useful but somewhat dated.

  • Mayhew, J. E., and A. C. Newton. The Silviculture of Mahogany. Wallingford, UK: CABI, 1998.

    E-mail Citation »

    This oft-cited book provides a very useful introduction to history of mahogany, especially efforts to cultivate it. Also see Environmental History, Ecology, and Silviculture.

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