Review by Allan Breed
Mahogany: The Costs of Luxury in Early America

Jennifer L. Anderson. Mahogany: The Costs of Luxury in Early America. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2012. Xiii + 398 pp.; bw illus., map, index. $35.00.

In her acknowledgments, Jennifer L. Anderson states, “I conceived this work very much as a gathering of diverse perspectives and methodologies, which I hope may illuminate each other in some intriguing and thought-­provoking ways.” Mission accomplished. Anderson’s Mahogany: The Costs of Luxury in Early America is about mahogany in the same way that Mark Kurlansky’s Cod is about seafood. Her title subject is merely an entrée into an industry whose mission of extracting trees has a ripple effect far beyond the sound of the woodcutter’s ax. The associated information on colonial shipping, the pitfalls of buying logs sight unseen, the legal battles over what really constitutes “San Domingan” mahogany, the myth of technological decadence, the effect of veneers on social status, and why Jamaican and not Cuban was considered the best wood are some of the subjects associated with the vast business of the tropical hardwood trade covered in the book.

Despite this wide range of topics, Anderson resists the historian’s pitfall of straying too far from the subject. The reader will not forget that this is a history of the tree and its journey from tropical forest to table. No matter how much fascinating material she turned up in her research (her fifty-nine pages of notes attest to the amount and diversity of raw data she reviewed), she does not forget that the mahogany trade is her subject. The impediments to getting mahogany logs from the forest to the wharves of colonial America were numerous and subject to not only the whims of nature but also the problems of managing a labor force far from the control of the lumber merchants. Logs got irretrievably stuck in muddy trails, sunk in rivers, washed out to sea on their way to waiting boats, and lost at sea on the way to port. The trade was a seasonal one based on the annual swelling of the rivers to carry them out, and a dry season could strand a merchant’s inventory far from the coast. In a trade dependent largely on slave labor it was not unusual for the population of an entire lumber camp to flee into the jungle and take their chances in another colonial territory. One slaveholder stated in 1765 that no Bayman, “however well disposed he may consider his Negroes, can think of his property safe for a single night. It is but a Week ago, since a whole gang of about Twelve . . . deserted in a body to the Spaniards” (p. 169). In the Bay of Honduras there was a constant skirmish over boundaries and labor between the Spanish and English colonies, where society was made up of the colonial mahogany cutters and their enslaved labor force. Anderson paints a Wild West scenario in which the rule of law was marginal and sneaking across the colonial border and cutting on your neighbor’s land was often a cause for dispute. Tropical disease took a toll, and some made a good living augmenting the slave labor force with new workers from other colonies or Africa. Anderson’s well-documented chapter devoted solely to slave labor and the mahogany trade leaves no doubt that, as Charles Dickens would characterize it in referring to a mahogany table, “[its] retrospective mirror quality . . . [reveals] in the depth of its grain, through all its polish, the hue of the wretched slaves” (p. 296).

Apart from Anderson’s chronological tracking of the source of the best mahoganies from Jamaica to Honduras and Cuba, she pays considerable attention to it as an indicator of social position. As an expensive commodity beginning in the seventeenth century in the colonies, it served the same purpose as today’s Ferrari in a land of Fords. As the Industrial Revolution and steam power, to which she devotes an entire chapter, made the sawing and transport of mahogany easier and consequently cheaper, the ability of the middling classes to have mahogany furniture expanded dramatically. By 1830 in England, William Cobbet worried that this new consumption led to “inappropriate displays of indulgence and vanity” and that the “want of frugality in the middle and lower ranks,” especially among women, would lead them to be “full of admiration for the trappings of the rich and of desire to be able to imitate them” (p. 280). Ah, mahogany the great destroyer of class boundaries . . . Anderson then uses her historian’s ability to deduce the meaning of Cobbet’s comment, which is that he is troubled about this because the owning of mahogany still matters as an indicator of class. If everyone can have it, how will we tell who’s who?

Many interesting “diverse perspectives” make their way into Mahogany. Anderson discusses the word itself as used in society to refer to people of color. She finds an eighteenth-century reference to sitting “around the mahogany,” meaning to have dinner in a genteel setting. In recounting Jane Austen’s comparison of writing novels to ivory painting, Anderson uncharacteristically strays from the path as she describes painting “pale English faces” on a material of “dead elephants and slave labor” (pp. 295). I see her point, but I nearly had a big yawn in the process. More mahogany, please.

As Mahogany nears present times, I was prepared for some finger-pointing and hand-wringing about the state of the trade and the commercial destruction of the forests. This is undeniable, and as someone who has a daily and tangible relationship with this magical material, I was prepared to accept my part of the blame. And although by no means an excuse for current behavior, the realization that the resource is finite and does not exist solely for the creation of nice sideboards has been going on for quite some time. Anderson gives us this news in a nice “history repeats itself” sort of way.

In 1774 a Jamaican planter advised that trees should be left for “the beauty arising from them around the estate” (p. 231). Another paper published by the Royal Society in 1772 postulated that the air was purified by “the immense profusion of vegetables . . . inhaling and exhaling” (p. 231). Edward Long, another eighteenth-century thinker, noted that Indians and slaves were fond of living among trees and seemed to suffer no ill effects from doing so and that “congregations of trees are, in their growing state, far more friendly than inimical in the alterations which they produce on our atmosphere” (p. 232). Sound familiar?

Mahogany throughout follows the ongoing attempts of arborists over the centuries to cultivate commercially viable mahogany trees and their continuing failure to do so. This, as I see it, is Anderson’s morality play for us as consumers. Do we really know where the mahogany in the lumberyard (an early nineteenth-century innovation, where for the first time cabinetmakers could actually see the boards they were buying) is coming from? Much of it is poached and untraceable once it is out of the country of origin. The moral of the story is that you really can’t make these big and disappearing trees anymore. You are holding a publication filled with images of mahogany furniture and the chances are pretty good that you’ve been a consumer of the resource. After reading Anderson’s fascinating history of mahogany, my opinion as a cabinetmaker is that apart from stopping the harvesting altogether, we should at least be charged a lot more for it.

Allan Breed
Allan Breed, Inc., South Berwick, Maine

American Furniture 2013