Jennifer L. Anderson

Mahogany

The Cost of Luxury in Early America

Harvard University Press 2012

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The cultural and material history of what is fashionable or “trendy” can be particularly revealing about the time period under study. The most recent...

The cultural and material history of what is fashionable or “trendy” can be particularly revealing about the time period under study. The most recent work that underscores this point is Jennifer Anderson‘s Mahogany: The Cost of Luxury in Early America (Harvard University Press, 2012).  Anderson traces the popularity of mahogany wood in the mid eighteenth century from its use in England–a matter of necessity due to wood shortages–to its elective use in the American colonies among elite classes as a measure of cultural and social refinement. Unlike ephemeral goods like sugar and tobacco (which were purchased by elites but consumed and discarded shortly thereafter) mahogany was something solid, something lasting, something passed down to subsequent generations. Social engagements revolved around mahogany.

Elites coveted the intricate and ornate furnishings, which because of mahogany’s incredible density, could only be crafted with mahogany. Even the middling classes would indulge in purchasing a mahogany piece, if the financial possibility presented itself. To be sure, this book offers much more than a dissection of the social and cultural worlds of Early America. Anderson tells the darker, often hidden story, of human and environmental exploitation. Following mahogany from the slave hands that felled the trees in the West Indies to the polished products decorating the posh estates of the wealthiest colonists offers a unique insight into a dynamic range of historical characters. By doing so, Professor Anderson deftly blends the social story with the environmental history and the history of capitalism.

Jennifer L. Anderson is Associate Professor of History at State University of New York, Stony Brook. Her current research focuses on reinterpreting the human and environmental history of Long Island within the broader Atlantic context.

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