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A Short History of Mahogany

Wood from the mahogany tree has been a symbol of status and refinement for the last four hundred years. Its smoothe, polished surface epitomized the ideal of sophistication, which, especially in the 18th century, was an essential aspect of civility. Mahogany captured the interest of people throughout Europe, eventually spreading to Colonial America. First recorded in Europe in the late 16th century, mahogany was used as building material in King Philip II’s El Escorial Palace near Madrid, Spain. The exotic wood soon made its way to England, where it was reportedly used as material in the construction of Nottingham Castle in the late 17th century. Though this timing correlates with England’s capture of Jamaica from the Spanish in 1655, it wasn’t until the mid-18th century that mahogany had its Golden Age.

Once England had a foothold in Jamaica, mahogany imports began to increase with the primary function being its use as ballast in ships. Though mahogany was a desirable commodity, its value was still low in comparison to other woods. It was also more difficult to transport as it had to remain in its original state as logs in order to be used in furniture making. In the 18th century, a ton of mahogany was worth between £6 and £16, occasionally as high as £32, compared to raw silk which cost on average, £1,904, coffee £140, and sugar £20 to £30. Besides the difficulty in shipping, the process of harvesting mahogany and loading it on to ships was a dangerous practice as well. Once felled, the logs would be tied together to form a raft that could be floated through dangerous waters to the ship to be loaded into the cargo hold. From there, it was a long and often treacherous journey north to Europe.

Over the course of the 18th and 19th centuries, the cost of shipping decreased and the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763) increased the power and confidence of the British empire so that foreign competition was no longer a concern. Trade acts in North America and the West Indies that had previously been imposed were repealed to free up trade, introducing the Free Ports Act of 1766 which decreased prices on luxury good and opened many new ports, four in Jamaica alone. This increase in trade benefited the value of mahogany, as wood from Hispaniola and Cuba found its way to Britain for the first time and had all but replaced Jamaican wood on the market by the 1780s. The Mahogany Act of 1771 also expedited this influx of new mahogany, allowing mahogany and other furniture woods from foreign territories to enter into Britain duty free. This Act acknowledged the importance of mahogany to furniture-makers, but also its important role as ballast for ships, which kept trade in the West Indies viable.

Upon arrival in England, the mahogany wood was sorted by quality and used for a range of projects from ship-making to furniture-making. Though mahogany was also imported into Colonial America, it was often cheaper to commission furniture to be made in England than to pay the price of mahogany in one of the American colonies. In 1780, Benjamin Franklin commissioned a mahogany object from an artisan in London and wrote, “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”. This excerpt from Franklin’s letter denotes the issue that began to grow in the 18thcentury of the uncertainty and availability of mahogany as established sources of the exotic wood became inconsistent. This quote also shows the importance of determining which type of mahogany was being used for furniture-making as differences in size, color, and grain impacted the construction and appearance of the object.

Time & Location

English Furniture in The Age of Mahogany on June 23 at 11am

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