Red Gold: 18th Century Mahogany

We’re all familiar with 18th-century Mahogany, but most of us don’t know where it came from and how it entered the English Antique furniture market. This article will enlighten you about its rich history.

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A superb highly figured mahogany extending dining table circa 1800

In the 18th century, Mahogany was the most sought-after commercial timber throughout Europe and England. The very finest timbers from Cuba and Honduras were literally as valuable as gold and spared for the finest English Antique Furniture. The straight-grained, highly figured reddish-brown hardwood was imported as massive trunks that produced the widest boards. And once these mahogany megaliths entered the vocabulary of the English cabinet maker, in the form of monumental sideboards and vast extending dining tables – the rest was history.

Mahogany is a common name given to Swietenia Mahagoni of Cuba and Swietenia Macrophylla of Honduras. This genus of the mahogany tree is found mainly in the Central American region and can grow to astonishing sizes, as this photograph shows with eight men standing arms stretched across its width in Cayo, Belize. This indigenous wood was discovered after the Spanish conquest of West-Indies in 1535, but it wasn’t for almost two centuries that it reached the English Antique Furniture makers.

8 men stand across the width of a Mahogany Tree in Cayo, Belize

The strong, fine-grained, void-free wood seemed ideal for boat repair and an excellent product for exports to the rest of Europe. That’s when the Mahogany came to Europe and was widely used across the English shipping industry for constructing wharves and building ships.

However, this timber of choice didn’t get recognition as furniture timber until the first half of the 18th century. During the reign of George I, ‘red walnut’ and mahogany began to replace the traditional walnut and indigenous woods of Northern Europe. The form of furniture did not notably change until the considerable strength of mahogany was fully exploited by craftsmen such as Thomas Chippendale.

Thomas Chippendale Mahogany Tripod Table circa 1755

The European powers fought to secure access to the timber. In 1762 Havana was captured by the English, who began felling Cuban mahogany to supply England’s elite. This Cuban period though, was short-lived as the Spanish regained control of Havana and the rest of the island by 1764. Following this, England’s loggers had to divert Mahogany acquisition to Honduras and Belize.

The West Indies and Central America, showing the natural distribution of Swietenia species. Adam Bowett

The 18th-century Mahogany trade by that time had expanded too exponentially to be left unregulated. The Treaty of Paris was signed in 1763 between the Spanish and the British Governments. Article 17 of the treaty gave British traders hindrance-free access to Mahogany in Belize. The Mahogany Act of 1777 further abolished duties and taxes on Mahogany, which led to widespread usage.

Even though Mahogany had been available in England for a long time, it couldn’t immediately conquer the popularity of Walnut in the English Antique furniture market. Walnut was imported from France as veneer and furniture making timber, but by the Great Frost of 1709 and in part caused by contemporary political realignments, its supply had dramatically decreased.

Two early 18th-century kneehole desks demonstrating the transition from Walnut to Mahogany.

That’s when cabinetmakers began looking for alternatives for furniture making. Mahogany was stronger and could take finer details better than traditional French Walnut. Once cabinetmakers realised its strength, it didn’t take long before Mahogany started dominating the 18th Century furniture industry in England.

By then, a greater number of the country’s elite were ready to purchase the latest fashion for mahogany which allowed a level of opulence never previously seen. Mahogany was the ideal solution and the backbone of England’s finest furniture production throughout the 18th century.

The story of mahogany is not the story of brown furniture – you will have to look elsewhere for that!