When you glance at a piece of furniture for the very first time, one of the things you notice is the color. If that color has a red cast to it the initial impression is that it is made of mahogany, the Red King, good ol’ Swietenia mahogani or perhaps its lesser cousin Swietenia macrophylla.
If you had lived in the latter part of the 18th century in England or Europe you most likely would be correct but a lot of water has gone under that bridge and not all that is red is mahogany in the 21st century.
Mahogany: A Love Story
The introduction of mahogany into the Old World in the early 1700s brought the first new wood color in hundreds of years and for almost two centuries mahogany was the dominant player in the rosey realm. Even though mahogany itself is not THAT red, it was the most red thing around and its reddish tones were frequently enhanced to highlight the depth and variety of hues in the wood itself.
In the early 19th century Napoleon’s craftsmen developed a new process for his “Empire” furniture using a chemical called potassium dichromate to produce a reaction with the tannin in the wood. This reaction produced stark highlights and contrasts of color unseen until that time and the process accounts for the outstanding color and clarity of much of the furniture produced in the 1800s, including French Empire, Regency, some late Federal and American Empire. Unfortunately for modern restorers, potassium dichromate is unavailable today because of its possible use in the manufacture of illegal drugs.
In 1856 an English chemist, William H. Perkin, made a mistake while trying to produce quinine from coal tar. Instead he produced the first aniline dye, mauve. Aniline itself is a colorless, highly toxic liquid produced from chlorobenzene and is used in making explosives and rocket fuel as well as fabric dyes and wood colors. This accidental discovery led to the eventual demise of mahogany as the primary structural wood in classic furniture and relegated it to an almost purely decorative role in the 20th century.
The introduction of aniline dye to the commercial furniture market meant that expensive, imported mahogany did not have to be used in all applications because the penetrating dyes could be used to color less expensive domestic hardwoods such as birch and maple. These very dense, tight grained woods normally will not accept enough of an oil based wiping stain to achieve the depth of color needed to simulate mahogany but the highly penetrating, usually water-based aniline dyes solved that problem very nicely. In fact, if you have tried to strip and refinish a piece from this period with the water based dye, you know that it strips to “hot pink” and in order to get an even color, your choice is “what color dark red mahogany do you like?”
Sears, Roebuck & Co. took great pains to promote its use of “non-mahogany” in its 1902 catalog. On page 785, in describing a five-piece parlour set, its “$17.90 SWELL SUITE,” the text points out “The frames are substantially made of the best selected birch with a fine mahogany finish. … It gives the same general effect as genuine mahogany and is very much less expensive … and you have the same strength as you would have in genuine mahogany furniture.” Elsewhere the catalog describes the finish as “simulated mahogany” or “imitation mahogany.” Thus the cat was out of the bag in a big way.
Furniture manufacturers, from the turn of the century to today, have used the same mindset in most production. During the great “Colonial Revival” production period from circa 1920 to 1960, most of the medium and lower quality furniture lines, and even some high-end items, were made using something other than mahogany for the bulk of construction. Usually legs, feet, frames, finials, crowns and virtually all structural members were made of a close grained hardwood that could be stained or dyed for the overall look.
The most functional furniture price guide is filled with completely new listings covering all types of American and European furniture from the 17th century through the late 20th century.
The most popular woods for simulating mahogany were (are) poplar, gum, birch, beech, sycamore and the ever popular euphemistic “selected hardwoods.” In the book “American Manufactured Furniture,” Schiffer, 1988, the Empire Case Goods Company of Jamestown, N.Y., in its 1927 literature describing its bedroom suites, says “Five ply tops and fronts. Face veneer of Butt Walnut. All solid parts such as frames, rails, and posts are made of Gumwood.” For an overview of this period with its myriad designs and creative use of solids and exotic veneers check out Robert and Harriet Swedberg’s book, “Furniture of the Depression Era” (Collector Books, 1987, Updated, 1996).
In the 20th century true mahogany, primarily because of its expense but also because of its increasing scarcity due to rain forest depletion, has been relegated to veneering applications except in very rare circumstances. The best way to tell if a piece is made of mahogany is to compare the grain pattern of a known mahogany section such as a drawer front with the grain pattern on a side. See if the case structural members look like the drawer. In other words, look at the wood, not the color. Don’t confuse “mahogany finish” with “mahogany construction.”
There are, of course, other woods that have a natural red cast other than mahogany but they generally are easily recognized and are valued for what they are rather than as a substitute for mahogany. Some of these are rosewood in all its variations, some cuts of cherry, some cuts of Western aromatic cedar, redwood and kingwood. I am sure there are others.
His book “How To Be a Furniture Detective” is available for $18.95 plus $3 S&H. Also available is Fred and Gail Taylor’s DVD, “Identification of Older & Antique Furniture,” ($17 + $3 S&H) and a bound compilation of the first 60 columns of “Common Sense Antiques by Fred Taylor” ($25 + $3 S&H). For more information call 800-387-6377, fax 352-563-2916 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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