The Magic of Mahogany

mahBy Robert Reed

   Centuries ago, mahogany was considered almost magical. Elegant but expensive, it added an entirely new dimension to fine Colonial furniture and furniture made elsewhere.
   During what some consider the Age of Mahogany, amid the 18th and 19th centuries, the amazing wood cast its charm in America, as well as England, France, Italy and Spain. It was vital to the Federal Period and virtually dominated the Empire Period that followed.
   Besides grace and charm, it brought two major features to the craft of cabinetmaking. One was width. Sections of mahogany were of such tremendous size that only one or two sections were needed for tabletops and cabinet doors. The other was strength. It was strong enough to allow delicate decorative work, yet resist most damage and decay.
   Some historians credit Spanish explorers for their appreciation of the fine wood in trips to the West Indies. As early as the 16th century some Spanish Renaissance cabinet workers made use of mahogany.
   Around 1699, Jonathan Dickinson of Philadelphia was said to have imported some mahogany for furniture making. Other records in that city and in New York note the existence of inventories of the wood starting with the very early 1700s. It is said to have been in limited use in England as soon as 1715; however, Queen Elizabeth was said to have shown little interest in the wood when Sir Walter Raleigh made use of it for repairing his ships. One account notes that the wood was first accepted in England not as lumber but as a health-boosting medicinal substance somewhat similar to quinine.
   During the early 1720s, native woods like oak and walnut were still the most likely choice of cabinetmakers in America, but some cities such as New York and Philadelphia, and even the coastal town of Newport, Rhode Island, continued to increase their importation of mahogany. Within a few years tariff tax restrictions were eased somewhat on mahogany, and usage naturally incrcascd.
   Throughout most of the 18th century, the major sources of mahogany came from Cuba, Honduras and St. Domingo. Honduras, with its slightly heavier rainfalls, was said to have provided a lighter-colored, more finely textured type of wood. Because of the general region, much of the mahogany at the time was referred to as “Jamacia wood,” but still it grew in popularity. By the 1740s it was a frequent alternative to walnut, partly because of its beauty and partly because of its uncanny ability to resist rot and insects.
   The fact that mahogany was virtually worm-free may not seem important today, unless it is noted that comparatively little fine walnut furniture of that same period has survived because the wood was so highly susceptible to worm attack.
   The colors of mahogany too only served to make it more magical. While some types of the wood could be finished to a reddish-brown hug, a number of the better cabinetmakers preferred the lustrous “warm brown” tones that emitted from the lighter choices. In any event, the overall result of using the finely grained wood was ultimately a lovely deep and radiant patina.
   It was some of these qualities along with the variety of grain available in mahogany which lent itself to stunning veneers, which led the legendary Thomas Chippendale to extensive use of the wood. As Chippendale rose to fame, the tastes of the 18th century’s upper class had moved from heavy furniture to the more delicate and graceful styles that mahogany could provide. In both America and England, mahogany was an expensive import, but as Chippendale and others came to realize, the wealthy could well afford it.    “Beginning his career when his principal medium was still fresh, and delightful new styles were taking hold,” observes Nathaniel Harris, author of the fine book, Chippendale, “Chippendale became the first great figure of the Age of Mahogany.”
   During the 1750s in Colonial America, the wood was certainly in vogue among the well-to-do. Native timbers such as walnut, cherry and maple were used for less expensive work. But for rich colors and the precision of decorative carving, there was really no substitute for mahogany. However, for all the good news on the “home front,” there was bad news in the West Indies. By the late 1750s and early 1760s much of the gigantic mahogany trees had been depleted. Trunks which once grew from six to 12 feet in diameter and provided such grand widths for tables and other construction were rapidly dwindling.
   Possibly in view of these shortages, an advertisement ran in the Virginia Gazette in the fall of 1767 which offered “a quantity of good Jamaica mahogany, fit for tables and desks, which has been by me seven years.” The advertiser added he was willing to “work it up for any gentlemen pleased to employee me, for ready money, as I intend to leave off this business.”
   Yet more determined was this advertiser in a 1773 issue of the Maryland Gazette: “Gerald Hopkins hath for sale in Gay Street, Baltimore town, mahogany boards and planks, sawed to suit every branch of cabinet and chair work, and also mahogany logs: he still continued carrying on the cabinet business in its various branches as usual.”
   By the latter 18th century, craftsmen had perfected the method of cutting thin slices of mahogany so well that veneering became fairly commonplace and the solid, carved pieces were generally a thing of the past. The magical wood was used to fashion all manner of fine furniture, from beds and bookcases to wardrobes and washstands. It was probably more frequently used in chairs, desks and tables than anything else. However, it certainly became the wood of refined taste in bookcases, chests, sofas, mirrors and sideboards as well.
   Well into the dawn of the 19th century, many leading cabinetmakers in New York City held to the crafting of solid mahogany furniture despite the higher costs it would involve. In research prepared for the Chipstone Foundation, the 1996 document American Furniture uses a letter written in March of 1812 to a woman in Charleston, South Carolina, from her cousin in New York City to make that interesting contrast.
   “Enclosed are two drawings of furniture,” wrote Sarah Hunger. “Our neighbor Mr. Gelston has two communicating rooms furnished by Mr. Phyfe with considerable taste; but if mahogany is too expensive, I can find painted chairs and settees. A dozen chairs with two settees of the latest fashion will cost $144, the shape is quite plain and nothing like mahogany. In fact, there is a great difference in the appearance as there is the price; two Sofas and twelve chairs of Mahogany of the best taste will be $500.”
   For all of its charm and elegance, production of mahogany furniture had generally faded from view in America and Europe by the 1820s, ending finally the one and only Century of Mahogany.

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