- Mahogany: The Costs of Luxury in Early America by Jennifer L. Anderson
In Mahogany: The Costs of Luxury in Early America, Jennifer L. Anderson offers a nuanced reading of a tropical commodity with a difference. Unlike sugar, tobacco, chocolate, or other commodities that have received book-length scholarly study, mahogany is notable for “its limited availability, its durability, and its increasing scarcity,” all of which make its history in the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Atlantic world of goods unique (7). While sugar cane and tobacco plants were domesticated and cultivated by enslaved laborers on plantations, mahogany remained a product cut in the wild, a “nonrenewable resource” in a world of tropical luxury goods propelling the engine of Atlantic commerce (8). Mahogany also had staying power, in contrast to the ephemeral pleasures of smoking tobacco or drinking tea. Blessed with a fine grain and densely packed [End Page 509] growth rings, the wood of Swietenia trees was turned into ships, tabletops, and paneling that withstood bad weather and changing fashions for more than two centuries.
The same cannot be said of the mahogany forests that once dominated the northern Caribbean and Central and South America. By either clear-cutting whole forests or culling successive waves of available trees, mahogany cutters created shortages by the mid-eighteenth century, wide deforestation by the nineteenth, and near extinction today. The nine chapters of Mahogany trace this history of endurance and loss, combining social, economic, cultural, and ecological histories of the tree, its wood, and its meanings.
Anderson uses the history of mahogany to illuminate the complexity of themes familiar to readers interested in Atlantic commerce, including luxury and emulation, commodity chains, and the relationship between production and consumption of tropical goods. The Anglo-American “Age of Mahogany,” encompassing roughly the eighteenth century and first half of the nineteenth, was launched by a series of mutually reinforcing developments. First was the competition among European powers for land and riches in the Americas, which yielded mahogany as a by-product, either sent as ballast for valuable dyewoods or shipped out by aspiring sugar planters clearing land. These planters successfully lobbied for the 1721 Naval Stores Act, which removed customs duties on military stores, including tropical hardwoods. At the same time, the rising income and consumer orientation associated with the “consumer revolution” of the eighteenth century encouraged the public in Britain and its colonies to buy new goods in order to enact social rituals of belonging. Mahogany furniture enhanced the enjoyment and social display of drinking Indian tea sweetened with Barbadian sugar from Chinese porcelain cups. Merchants and cabinetmakers therefore added mahogany to their diverse stocks. Finally, the aesthetic sensibility of eighteenth-century Britons was a perfect fit for the hardwood. “Silky smooth,” endlessly polished mahogany was a “sensory delight” in an age when beauty and smoothness were closely aligned (50).
By the late eighteenth century, mahogany had edged out other woods as the height of elegance, a featured prop in wealthy families’ portraits that was enumerated with great specificity in elite wills. At that very moment, however, two trends threatened the stable meaning of mahogany as status [End Page 510] symbol. First, enterprising woodworkers were making it more widely available at lower price points for less exalted customers. Second, stocks of the highly regarded “Jamaica wood” were being depleted by sugar planters seeking a financial hedge against boom-bust plantation agriculture, forcing woodcutters to discover new sources and consumers to reconsider their understandings of “quality” mahogany. By the mid-nineteenth century, colonial independence movements, steam power, and an industrializing labor force in Britain and the United States profoundly changed the products sold under the name of “mahogany.”
Attention to complexity, local variation, and multiple causation serves Anderson well in this study. Unlike earlier commodity studies that tended to reinforce imperial boundaries, Anderson is attentive to interconnections in the larger global world. While the book focuses on Anglo-American and British mahogany, Anderson picks up the threads of other colonial and postcolonial societies’ encounters with the wood. This approach allows for fruitful...