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Mahogany: The Costs of Luxury in Early America

Jennifer L. Anderson
Copyright Date: 2012
Published by: Harvard University Press
Pages: 340
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  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    Colonial Americans were enamored with the rich colors and silky surface of mahogany. As this exotic wood became fashionable, demand for it set in motion a dark, hidden story of human and environmental exploitation. Anderson traces the path from source to sale, revealing how prosperity and desire shaped not just people’s lives but the natural world.

    eISBN: 978-0-674-06726-4
    Subjects: History, Economics

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-xi)
  4. [Illustrations]
    (pp. xii-xiv)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-17)

    In 1748, Pehr Kalm, a protégé of the famous Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus, embarked on a three-year tour of North America to identify valuable trees that might thrive in chilly Scandinavia. Travelling from the Eastern Seaboard to the Appalachian frontier, he was deeply impressed with the land’s vast forests as well as the prodigious quantities of high-quality timber its inhabitants consumed and exported. Yet after visiting the well-furnished homes of many people along the way, including such luminaries as Benjamin Franklin in Philadelphia and Cadwallader Colden in New York, he reported that colonial Americans exchanged their native timber for “true...

  6. CHAPTER ONE A New Species of Elegance
    (pp. 18-63)

    In 1698, Philadelphia merchant Jonathan Dickinson ordered a “Few fine woods for ye Joyners & Some Mahogany … in board or Plank for Chest of Drawers & Tables” from Jamaica. Having lived for many years on that island where he was born in 1663 and still owned two plantations, Dickinson was well-informed about its various tropical hardwoods and their uses. In Philadelphia, however, he initially found little interest in his imported timber. North American forests abounded with excellent furniture woods that were readily available, inexpensive, and already extensively utilized by local craftsmen. Why import wood from hundreds of miles away? He eventually...

  7. CHAPTER TWO The Gold Standard of Jamaican Mahogany
    (pp. 64-88)

    On an early november morning in 1756, a group of slaves—men, women, and children—wended their way up the craggy slope above their master’s estate in west-central Jamaica. Shrouded in mist, they clambered over slick limestone outcroppings, around deep ravines, and through brambly thickets. Their daunting task was to clear a mountain pasture from the impenetrable forest and, in the process, to fell mahogany and other valuable trees for their master’s benefit. On and off for three months, except for a three-day Christmas break when they received extra fish and cloth rations, they toiled under an overseer’s watchful eye,...

  8. CHAPTER THREE Supplying the Empire with Mahogany
    (pp. 89-124)

    Over the course of the eighteenth century, the British search for mahogany expanded throughout the circum-Caribbean, wherever the valuable trees were to be found. Restless settlers, itinerant woodcutters, sea captains, and West Indian merchants leapfrogged from island to island in the northern Antilles. Some made illicit logging forays to Spanish and French islands while others ventured to the British woodcutting enclaves in Spanish-claimed Central America. Particularly as Jamaica’s mahogany industry faltered beginning in the 1760s, vicious rivalries developed among those seeking to monopolize mahogany-rich forests in other locales. Clashing timber claims, unsustainable logging methods, incompatible modes of land use, and...

  9. CHAPTER FOUR The Bitters and the Sweets of Trade
    (pp. 125-155)

    In 1765, The West-India Merchant, Factor, and Supercargoes Daily Assistant reported that “Mahogany is a never-failing Merchandize … if good, and bought on adequate terms; nor is there any Fear of the British market being overstocked … [because] beautiful Household Furniture made thereof [is] growing more and more in Fashion amongst all sorts of People.” Yet, it cautioned novices to carefully ascertain “that the Wood is really Mahogany,” that “the Planks or Trees are sound,” and that it was all “sawed off square,” since any irregularities were measured “in Favor of the first Purchaser.” Although already well established, the mahogany...

  10. CHAPTER FIVE Slavery in the Rain Forest
    (pp. 156-183)

    In 1770, Oliver Ring Warner, the Rhode Island merchant, instructed Captain James Card to retrieve “a negro man of mine named Newport” from the Mosquito Shore. As his name suggests, this young African man, “of the Gold Coast Country Aged twenty five or there abouts,” was enslaved in New England before his master leased him out to William Cahoone as a woodcutter in the Bay of Honduras and then on the Mosquito Shore. When Cahoone died, Newport apparently continued to cut wood on his own until his master sought to retrieve him. When Newport got wind of Card’s mission, however,...

  11. CHAPTER SIX Redefining Mahogany in the Early Republic
    (pp. 184-209)

    In 1780, when Benjamin Franklin commissioned a mahogany object from a London artisan, he urged the man to “recollect, if you can, the species of mahogany of which you made my [previous] box, for you know there is a great deal of difference in woods that go under that name.” Failing that, he requested the “finest grained [mahogany] that you can meet with.” Franklin’s suspicions about what passed for mahogany were indicative of a growing problem in the last quarter of the eighteenth century as the size and quality of available mahogany from established sources became increasingly inconsistent and unpredictable....

  12. CHAPTER SEVEN Mastering Nature and the Challenge of Mahogany
    (pp. 210-249)

    Upon first encountering the massive mahoganies of the West Indies, Europeans, awed by their primeval appearance, speculated wildly about their possible age. Although no one was quite certain, it seemed self-evident that their lives must span hundreds if not thousands of years, far exceeding human memory or imagination. Attempting to cultivate such trees seemed ludicrous, sheer hubris in the face of God’s wondrous creation. In 1708, John Oldmixon, although worried that tropical deforestation posed a serious problem for the British Empire, concluded that “the time required for the growing of those hard Woods, in the room of such as are...

  13. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
  14. CHAPTER EIGHT Democratizing Mahogany and the Advent of Steam
    (pp. 250-292)

    During the 1820s and 1830s, Americans once again redefined their conceptions of mahogany as the advent of steam power transformed how it was produced, transported, manufactured, and consumed. On the production end, steam trains and steam-powered portable sawmills significantly expanded the geographical areas accessible for logging and increased the rate and number of trees felled. On the manufacturing end, steam-driven saws and furniture-making machinery increased outputs and lowered costs, allowing raw materials to be processed into finished objects faster, more precisely, and in greater volume than ever before. Many at the time hailed the advent of steam as the solution...

  15. CHAPTER NINE An Old Species of Elegance
    (pp. 293-316)

    The age of mahogany waned in the latter half of the nineteenth century as the Atlantic tropical timber industry faltered and global competition introduced such novelties as Indian rosewood, African ebony, Burmese teak, and Hawaiian koa (dubbed “the mahogany of the Pacific”). While increasingly just one among many consumer options, mahogany nonetheless still held powerful cultural connotations for many Americans. The meanings and values that they attached to it, however, shifted over time like a slow-moving kaleidoscope. Since the late eighteenth century, references to “mahogany” had multiplied in popular print sources—newspapers, periodicals, prescriptive literature, novels, and plays—helping to...

  16. Abbreviations
    (pp. 317-318)
  17. Notes
    (pp. 319-378)
  18. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 379-382)
  19. Index
    (pp. 383-398)