Mahogany in the Seventeenth- and Eighteenth-Centuries

Mahogany has been called the furniture timber and was certainly the most important commercial timber of the eighteenth-century. Its massive trunks afforded hitherto unobtainable wide boards which soon found their way into English dining rooms as tables and sideboards – dining room furniture, at the time, often being referred to as “The Mahogany”.

Mahogany is a traditional name given to two large Central American trees, of the genus Swietenia[1], the first, Swietenia mahagoni, indigenous to the Antilles in the West Indies, known in the eighteenth-century as Cuban, Jamaican and Santo Domingo mahogany[2] (Jamaica providing the most prized timber). The second species is the closely related Swietenia macrophylla, known variously as Honduran mahogany and Bay Wood (from the Bays of Campeche and Honduras, whence it was exported).

Mahogany was known in the Spanish Americas in the mid sixteenth-century[3] and it was certainly employed in England for ship building and constructing wharves by the mid seventeenth-century[4], but its take-up as a furniture timber was slow[5]. The main reason it wasn’t immediately popular was its predecessor, European Walnut (Juglans regia), which had an understandably devout following.

England depended largely upon international trade for the majority of its furniture timber – deal (pine) from the Baltics, wainscot (oak) from Holland and walnut from Italy, Spain and predominantly, France – but the taxes on exotic newcomers like mahogany put it beyond the reach of most timber merchants and cabinetmakers. Extant examples of early eighteenth-century mahogany furniture, though few, are made from the most exquisite Jamaican timber which confirms the high regard for the timber and bears out the theory of high cost. However, the Naval Stores Act of 1721 reduced the tariffs on timbers from the Americas, making it then viable to import mahogany in quantitative amounts.

The duty relaxation was welcomed by English cabinetmakers on two levels: Firstly, they realised mahogany’s unique properties – its ability to hold finer detail than walnut and its higher comparative strength. Secondly, the timing of the arrival of mahogany couldn’t have been more opportune; the imported European Walnut that England had relied so heavily on since the latter part of the seventeenth-century was drying up. Brutal frosts during the winter of 1709 had devastated much of France’s walnut and the final blow came when France banned its exportation in 1720.

Strenuous efforts were made to increase domestic walnut production to meet the demand, but the market was already changing. ‘Red’ walnut (actually Black Walnut; Juglans nigra), with properties akin to both European Walnut and mahogany began to arrive from Virginia to address the vacuum created by the French ban, but even Virginia Walnut couldn’t mollify the demand for mahogany. Evelyn noted:

Formerly the English Walnut-tree was much, propagated for its wood ; but since the importation of Mahogany and the Virginia Walnut, it has considerably decreased in reputation“.[6]

In 1733, Sir Robert Walpole abolished all taxation of imported timber which act heralded the beginning of the age of mahogany: The price of mahogany rivalled that of imported European Walnut by a factor of between four and six[7].

Interestingly, Walpole’s own writing table and massive dining table (along with many other fine items of furniture and architectural woodwork at Houghton in Norfolk) were made of Cuban Mahogany[8].

In October 1739, Walpole reluctantly declared war on Spain (an obscure fracas named The War of Jenkins’ Ear) which endured until 1742. By this date, supplies of Jamaican mahogany were virtually exhausted and the conflict with Spain had predictable repercussions on the supply of mahogany from Spanish America. Domestic and Colonial supplies of mahogany diminished rapidly and what there was of it, fetched outrageous prices.

In the ensuing years, shipments of S. macrophylla were imported from British-held Honduras. Relations with Spain again improved in 1748 which saw the importation of the much sought after Cuban and Santo Domingo varieties of S. mahagoni. Further treaties with Spain in the last half of the eighteenth-century saw the English extracting enormous amounts of S. macrophylla out of Belize.[9]

England, by now, was obsessed with mahogany[10]; imports for 1720 totalled a meagre £42, but by 1753, the figure had risen to £6,430 and continued rising exponentially to £77,744 by the end of the century.

Mahogany had begun as a hard-won English preserve, but in the latter half of the eighteenth-century, French ébénistes also adopted it and by the end of the century, its reputation had spread across the whole of Europe.[11]

CITES currently protects all species of Swietenia.


[1] During his 1755-9 expedition to the West Indies, the Dutch scientist and botanist, Nikolaus von Jacquin, honoured fellow Lieden-born botanist, Baron Garaard Von Swieten by naming the Mahogany genus Swietenia.

[2] “On Wednesday.., will be.. exposed to Publick Sale.., the Cargo of the Galeon called the Tauro.., consisting of.. Cocoa, Brazelletto, Mohogony”. London Gazzette, 1703, No. 3891/3.

[3] “Here [in Jamaica] are.. the most curious and rich sorts of Woods, as Cedar, Mohogeney, Lignum-vita:, Ebony [etc.]”. Ogilby, America, 1671, p. 338.

[4] “However, there are many kinds of wood in the Western-Indies (besides the Acajou*) that breed no worms, and such is the White Wood of Jamaica, proper enough to build ships”.
Silva: or, A discourse of forest-trees, and the propagation of timber in His Majesty’s dominions, as it was delivered in The Royal society, on the 15th of October 1662, by John Evelyn, third edition, volume 1, York, 1801, p.149.
*Acajou was the French name for mahogany.

[5] One of the earliest confirmed uses of Mahogany in England is 1660: Percy MacQuoid, A History of English Furniture, 1988, p. 98.

[6] Evelyn, p.149.

[7] Clive Edwards, Eighteenth-century furniture, 1996, p. 78.

[8] Percy MacQuoid, A History of English Furniture, 1988, pp. 217-219.

[9] “Beginning in 1763, a series of treaties between Spain and Britain gave the English settlers rights to cut and export timber unmolested in the northern half of present-day Belize. By 1786, the Englishmen had been granted rights to cut timber as far south as the Sibun River”. “By that time, the settlers of Belize were already well involved in the mahogany trade; the exports of mahogany outnumbered those of logwood by ten to one”. (O. Nigel Bolland, Colonialism and Resistance in Belize, 1988).

“As part of the 1786 agreement, Britain evacuated all settlers from the Miskito Coast in present-day northeastern Honduras and eastern Nicaragua. Many of these English settlers relocated in Belize with their African slaves and immediately turned their attention to mahogany cutting”.
Michael Camille, The Effects of Timber Haulage Improvements on Mahogany Extraction in Belize: An Historical Geography.

[10] “The world of England has been, for some years past, running mad after mahogany furniture”. Museum Rusticum, 1763, (ed. 2) I. 179.

[11] E. D. Maldonado and R. S. Boone: Shaping and Planing Charactersitics of Plantation-grown Mahogany and Teak, 1968.

Advertisements

About Jack Plane

Formerly from the UK, Jack is a retired antiques dealer and self-taught woodworker, now living in Australia.
This entry was posted in Furniture Timbers and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Mahogany in the Seventeenth- and Eighteenth-Centuries

  1. walkerg says:

    Thanks for this detailed history of a much prized timber. You may enjoy looking at the website for Thompson Mahogany in Philadelphia. They have a number of old photos of 19th and early 20th century mahogany lumber business.

    George

    Like

  2. Pingback: The London Furniture Timber Trade | Pegs and 'Tails

  3. Pingback: Would The Real Mahogany Please Be Upstanding | Pegs and 'Tails

  4. Ron Holmberg says:

    Very interesting article. I was researching Jamaican Mahogany because a guy on ebay is selling his grandfathers stash, cut in the 1920s 51 planks of this AMAZING wood, all 2″ thick and upto 20 ” wide…..7ft long for 39,000 dollars. appraised at 89,000 so it got me wondering. I thught Cuban Mahogany was the king of mahoganies, aparently they are one and the same. I agree with Cities… but i also love wood.. :(

    Like

  5. Pingback: Taxing Times | Pegs and 'Tails

  6. Pingback: Turrell at Houghton 2015 | Sue Shepherd

  7. Pingback: Cross-Grained Mouldings | Pegs and 'Tails

  8. Pingback: A George II Walnut Serpentine Chest – Part One | Pegs and 'Tails

I welcome your comments

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s