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Mahogany: The Costs of Luxury in Early America Hardcover – August 20, 2012

4.6 out of 5 stars 10 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews


Anderson's evocative and stunning Mahogany reminds us of both the deep ties between humans and trees and the sharp consequences of allowing our passion for beauty to trump nature's capacity to sustain a species. (Peter C. Mancall, author of Fatal Journey: The Final Expedition of Henry Hudson)

'When you drink the water, think of the well-digger,' is folk wisdom around the world. Anderson wisely adds, when you see elegant mahogany furniture, think of the hard-handed African slave hacking away, under deadly working conditions, at a tall hardwood tree in a hot, dense Caribbean rainforest. Like Sidney Mintz's classic study of sugar, Sweetness and Power, this book makes us see the familiar in new and disturbing ways. (Marcus Rediker, author of The Slave Ship: A Human History)

Anderson has crafted a rich blend of the cultural history of mahogany, the social history of logging, the economic history of the mahogany timber trade, the environmental history of Caribbean forests, and the history of the natural history of mahogany. The result is an elegant essay in Atlantic history. (J.R. McNeill, author of Mosquito Empires: Ecology and War in the Greater Caribbean, 1620-1914)

This superb study of a vital early American commodity focuses on its production, distribution, and consumption from the age of sail to the era of steam. Mahogany's sumptuousness came at a severe price, somewhat offset by enhanced knowledge of its properties and opportunities in its harvesting. With its highly nuanced and sophisticated argument, this book deserves a wide readership. (Philip Morgan, author of Slave Counterpoint: Black Culture in the Eighteenth-Century Chesapeake and Lowcountry)

From the 1720s to the mid-19th century, mahogany was the preeminent medium for conspicuous consumption on both sides of the Atlantic...However, as Anderson's superb [book] makes abundantly clear, the polished luster of these immaculate objects came from exploitative labor practices, ecological devastation, and phenomenal business failures, all of which attested to the commodity's natural and human cost...Anderson's is a remarkable contribution to Atlantic history that...will be much enjoyed by anyone interested in the history of trade in colonial America and the Caribbean. (Brian Odom Library Journal 2012-09-15)

[A] fascinating book about the most coveted wood in early America and, indeed, the 18th-century British Empire...This enlightening...study does for mahogany what others long ago did for sugar and tobacco, chocolate and coffee, rubber and bananas...From an impressive number of archival sources [Anderson] has assembled a vibrant collective portrait of colonial grandees--Benjamin and William Franklin, among them--declaring their social dominance through hard-won mahogany possessions. (Kirk Davis Swinehart Wall Street Journal 2012-10-19)

Anderson details the history of the search for, trade in, and use of mahogany. Though the title directs readers to early America, for Anderson, America is in reality the Atlantic world. Most of the author's time is spent among the islands of the Caribbean or near the Bay of Honduras in Belize, where mahogany was harvested. Anderson paints a picture of the Atlantic world in which travel and trade were the norm and families lived and worked up and down the coasts of North and Central America as well as on numerous Caribbean islands. (S. A. Jacobe Choice 2013-03-01)

About the Author

Jennifer L. Anderson is Associate Professor of History at the State University of New York at Stony Brook.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 424 pages
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press; Sew edition (September 17, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674048717
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674048713
  • Product Dimensions: 5.8 x 1.5 x 8.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.3 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (10 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #163,443 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
Mahogany: The Costs of Luxury in Early America by Jennifer L. Anderson is a fascinating, intricately researched and detailed chronicle covering the early history of the adaptation of mahogany into a product that has been used and prized by the human race. This is a surprising exposition on how this wood played a vital and vibrant part in world history as well as in the lives of people.

For a book that seemingly is concerned with a narrow subject, this work covers an enormous amount of ground. The history of European colonization, as it relates to mahogany, and of the multiple regions where these trees grow and were harvested is covered in great depth. These regions include a multitude of countries spread out among most of the Caribbean and parts of Central America. Details of the mahogany trade as well as the achievements of cabinetmakers that fashioned this wood into all kinds of products are brought to light. The natural science, botanical discoveries and advancements relating to mahogany and its native regions are detailed. Finally the sociological and psychological aspects relating to people's image and acquisition of mahogany products are explored.

By devoting lots of words to the history of individuals, Anderson infuses character and sheds significant light into the pages of this work. These histories are not presented in textbook fashion; instead this book is filled with the stories of real people whose lives were impacted and in turn impacted the human-mahogany connection. Personal narratives of individuals such as cabinetmakers, merchants, ship captains, seamen, plantation owners, average people who resided in the regions, and, most notably, slaves are very well told in this book.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Looking at a piece of antique mahogany furniture, who could possibly conceive of the economic, social, and environmental story behind it? Yet, mahogany has a compelling history of international maritime trade, slavery, exploitation, and greed.

Author Jennifer L. Anderson tells us, in her meticulously researched book, about the people, places, and events that shaped the mahogany trade. Each facet of the trade is inexorably linked throughout history - and each facet comes with a cost.

In early America, luxurious mahogany furniture was seen as a symbol of status and wealth. The wood was difficult to harvest, exquisitely crafted, and expensive to buy. Beyond the immediate gratification of owning such furniture, few recognized the real cost for this prized wood. The high demand for mahogany led to deforestation, the extinction of some types of mahogany trees, and the near extinction of others.

Sadly, despite the devastating impact that mahogany logging had in early America, the logging of mahogany continues today. Here is a recent account by Greenpeace:

"From the forest's edge, mahogany prospectors fly high above the rainforest canopy searching for single mahogany trees easily identified from the air by their distinctive canopy. Unlike most temperate and boreal tree species, tropical mahogany trees typically grow, not in clustered groves, but in relative isolation from one another. When a tree is spotted, its location is catalogued by handheld global positioning systems. When enough trees are mapped, illegal roads, sometimes stretching many miles, are punched from the forest's edge in a straight line, through national parks, through indigenous reserves, through private lands, straight to the tree in question.
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Format: Hardcover
This is an excellent and expansive study of the history of mahogany. Little escapes the broad net of the author’s coverage which ranges across the societies that consumed the finished furniture, the cabinet makers that created them, the merchants that supplied the wood, the sea captains that transported it, the landowners on whose property the trees were found, and the freemen and (mostly) slaves whose back-breaking work it was to log the trees and wrestle them from the logging site to the merchant ships. All of these facets of the mahogany trade were intertwined in the geopolitical struggles of the two great empires, England and Spain, on whose contested lands the mahogany trees grew. Yet another aspect that the author weaves into the book is an exemplary tale of the thoughtless destruction of a non-renewable resource.

The book is beautifully written and left me with a deepened understanding of life in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries at least as it was lived by the high societies for whom mahogany was a status symbol and by those who either chose to make a livelihood from it or on whom the labor of mahogany extraction was imposed by the inhumanity of slavery.

From start to finish it is an engrossing and informative book.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Excellent book on the history of this 'luxury' wood. Full of interesting facts and pictures. You'll love it.
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Format: Hardcover
So, the whole history-of-a-commodity thing has apparently taken off. Seems like I've seen books about Salt, and Cod, and The True History of Chocolate. Which leaves me wondering if we'll someday see books about Spam and Slinkies.

Anyway, this book, Mahogany, resembles an ethnographic history in that nowhere does the author specify a thesis. Nor does she appear to be building a case. Instead, she simply expands on her correct assertion that the complete story of mahogany must consider not only artifacts like magnificent furniture, it also must take into account mahogany trees, their growth patterns and habitats (like Jamaica, the Bahamas, the Cayman Islands, Cuba, and modern-day Belize and Honduras), the political and economic conditions that led to the production and sale of expensive items, and their actual cost in human labor and lives.

Anderson explains that the history of this flora, compared to coffee, sugar, or tobacco, is different because of mahogany's limited availability, its durability and increasing scarcity over time. Throughout her book, she gives special attention to what mahogany meant, how it impacted the lives of wide varieties of people living in various places. And she names some of those people. Thus we read about, and sometimes see in illustrations and color plates, people like Philadelphia cabinet-maker Benjamin Randolph; Philadelphia aristocrats John and Elizabeth Cadwalader, who owned and delighted in many fine pieces of mahogany; Rhode Island merchant Aaron Lopez; freight shipper James Card; his brother, Jonathan Card, who supervised slaves finding and felling mahogany in what is now Belize; and Maria Perez, a woman of Spanish and Indian descent who was captured, enslaved, bore children, and was eventually manumitted.
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