New York Times Design column featured Jennifer L. Anderson’s new book Mahogany: The Cost of Luxury in Early America:
In a recent interview Ms. Anderson emphasized that she did not want readers to begin recoiling in horror from mahogany antiques, despite the material’s origins in cruelty. Her goal, she said, was to reveal the human dramas and real estate battles behind the objects.This book grew out of Anderson’s doctoral thesis, which won the Society of American Historians’ 2007 Allan Nevins Prize for best written dissertation. Anderson is now a professor at S.U.N.Y.–Stony Brook.
She researched the subject at former mahogany plantations, piecing together how whites and blacks had coexisted and sometimes formed blended families. The Rhode Island-born merchant Jonathan Card ended up on an island in Belize, secretly married to Dorothy Taylor, his former housekeeper, who was black. His brother James joined him in the mahogany trade, supplying carpenters in Newport, R.I., whose work sells for millions of dollars today.
Slave rebellions and unrest sometimes delayed timber harvests. The business eventually failed, and James Card’s paltry estate after his death included two mahogany tables. “Such were the vagaries of frontier life,” Ms. Anderson writes.
George Washington decided to grow his own grove of this desirable crop, and had 48 seeds planted at Mount Vernon. When the saplings shriveled away, Ms. Anderson writes, “Washington did a lot of hand-wringing and blamed his horticultural losses on his slaves’ failure to water enough.”