When you think of “period” antique furniture, what first comes to mind? Chippendale? Sheraton? Hepplewhite? Phyfe? Of course. These are all direct word associations with the phrase “period.” And with much justification since these are some of the all time great names in furniture history but another word belongs right up there with them – Mahogany. With some notable exceptions, it seems that the most remarkable pieces attributed to these remarkable men were all made of the Red King. Why?
Wood is generally separated into two categories, softwood and hardwood. Wood that comes from conifers, cone bearing evergreens, is deemed to be softwood in wood working circles. Everything else is deemed to be a hardwood, regardless of its density and includes such wide variations as maple, cherry and oak, truly hard woods, down to poplar and basswood, known for their soft composition and easy carving characteristics. Mahogany falls somewhere in between, not as hard as maple but stronger than basswood and shares the distinction with Brazilian rosewood of being a tropical rain forest product.
American mahoganies were the first ones recognized by the Old World and were used by the Spanish as early as the 16th century in Renaissance cabinet work. That wood came from the West Indies, Cuba and Florida and belongs to the genus Swietenia mahogani of the family Meliaceae. It is a reddish-brown wood with medium hardness but great strength and a beautiful variety of grain patterns. This was the original mahogany of commerce and was considered superior to its close kin the large leaf mahogany tree of Honduras, the Swietenia macrophylla, which is softer and lighter but attains larger size and is more commercially available today.
Thus it was S. mahogani that appeared in England in the 1720s and while it had been in use in the colonies previously, it was the modification of the oppressive tariff on mahogany imports in 1721 that opened the floodgates and allowed the 18th century to be known as the “Age of Mahogany.” To English cabinet makers it was like pennies from heaven! They had toiled for centuries using the same old difficult-to-work-with oak and walnut that seemed to be the fate of all European furniture. All of a sudden here was a new, readily available wood that was easily worked, successfully carved, had an excellent strength to mass ratio and was beautiful to boot, bringing some natural brilliant color to wood work. This was also the time of the new style, Queen Anne, which was lighter, easier to live with, more graceful and much more feminine than previous styles and mahogany and Queen Anne were a natural fit.
For the next few decades furniture making in England was split pretty much 50/50 between traditional walnut and radical mahogany until the walnut blight in France in the 1740s eliminated major new stocks of walnut and the great Georgian mahogany period began in earnest. Thomas Chippendale solidified the place of mahogany with the publication of his book, The Gentleman and Cabinet-Maker’s Director, in 1754. It was the first book published in Europe dealing solely with furniture and was an instant mega-hit for the time. Coincidentally most of the items featured were rendered in mahogany which allowed the sumptuous carvings and rococo scrolls of his designs.
The architects of the Federal period, Hepplewhite, Phyfe and Sheraton continued the mahogany trend in the New World after the Revolution followed closely by Napoleon’s designers of Empire, England’s Regency, and America’s Empire. Mahogany was pretty much the wood of choice into early Victorian stylings until walnut once again gained supremacy in the second half of the 19th century, especially in North America.
By this time commercial realities and consumer demand required the recognition of other strains of mahogany, particularly the Khaya of Africa. The Khaya is lighter and softer than the West Indian species but it has some unusual and desirable grain patterns resulting in what is now known as “African ribbon stripe,” a very distinctive pattern common in American manufactured furniture of the early 20th century. It also can be cut to produce a very desirable variety of veneer with prominent crossfires called “fiddleback” mahogany, used extensively in North American furniture of the 1940s and ‘50s.
Natural mahogany is a light reddish tan and darkens with age to a deep reddish brown but it never naturally achieves the dark red-black appearance so often ascribed to it by turn of the century cabinet makers. This was the result of enthusiastic staining and regular resurfacing in later years. Since mahogany is a relatively open grained wood, it requires a paste wood filler as part of the finish process to produce the smooth, glass-like surface commonly associated with older mahogany furniture as opposed to the door-skin texture of newer, poorly finished “reproductions” and the work of second rate refinishers. Beware of an “antique” with a textured mahogany finish.
Since verbal descriptions of wood, with its complicated grain patterns, colors, textures, etc., are seldom adequate, you should visit wood supply houses, cabinet shops, finish shops and antique shops and learn to identify woods in their natural and finished states. Not only will you broaden your horizons but you may meet some interesting people.
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 email@example.com.
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