I have several old editions, large format, which document the history of English furniture by wood. One set, in four volumes, was published in 1906 by Percy Macquoid, and includes lavish illustrations of important examples of each type and period: The Age of Oak, The Age of Walnut, The Age of Mahogany, and the Age of Satinwood.
When I started out collecting antiques, I instinctively followed this method of analysis, instead of the historical terms for the periods. After all, as a young man, it is more difficult to think of Queen Anne and Chippendale, when trying to decide between a walnut chair and a mahogany chair, then to just look at the wood and pick the best example.
As I began my teaching career in Decorative Arts, of course I studied the historical periods and used them to discuss the different styles. Always, in my mind, there was a clear evolution from domestic woods to imported woods, over time, culminating in the exotic selection of imported woods used in marquetry surfaces, which I found fascinating to look at.
As a collector, my budget determined what I could acquire. During the 1970's I made a lot of money buying American Oak and refinishing it for the local market. It was everywhere. Oak is durable and plentiful. There are different styles and many different forms, from Golden Oak to Mission Oak and from dining room sets to bedroom sets. Quarter sawn or flat sawn, carved, turned and veneered.
At one point, I had a 6' diameter round oak table in my dining room with a dozen chairs around. Many parties were enjoyed around that table, and it survived in good form. It is now taken apart and stored in the back room of my shop, just because I couldn't get rid of it.
At some point, in the 80's, I started to buy walnut furniture. That meant that, instead of furnishings from the 1880's to 1900, I was bringing home Victorian Renaissance furniture from the Civil War era. Soon the oak was gone and the dark walnut was everywhere, accented by white marble tops and black teardrop pulls.
After that, I enjoyed a brief period of rosewood furniture, but it was scarce and expensive and I couldn't furnish the entire house with it.
That is when I discovered mahogany. Amazing Cuban mahogany. The true royal wood. Huge solid slabs of wood, highly figured and rich in color, with a finish that you can fall into. The perfect wood for furniture, whether veneered, turned or deeply carved. Overnight the walnut and rosewood was out and the place was filled with mahogany. Still is. Can't get enough of it. Even my 10' tall canopy bed.
See if you can find a book, published in 1926, edited by William Farquhar Payson, called "Mahogany, Antique and Modern." It is the best and most complete book I have seen on the history of this wood.
As late as 1926, lumber dealers in the East Coast still were able to buy and sell enormous quantities of this wood, as seen in this illustration from the book:
Yes, that is a man standing there next to the pile of logs. The caption says: "The supply of this mahogany is rather scarce, and the logs are obtainable now in comparatively small sizes only." I suppose you can complain when you only get 20 foot logs that are nearly 3 feet in diameter. Just imagine the size of the logs that were used a century earlier!
Within 10 years from the publication of this book, the supply was gone, for all practical economic purposes, and the furniture industry began a coordinated effort to justify using African species of the wood. I have a book published by the Mahogany Association, Inc., which actively promotes African woods as equal to Cuban in all aspects. It includes a map of the regions where mahogany grows and states: "The map below indicates the only natural habitats of Mahogany trees. Woods alleged to be Mahogany but coming from other than the regions indicated, are not mahogany. Woods purporting to be some kind of Mahogany but not from the regions listed above, should not be accepted as Mahogany."
Remember these words when you visit your local lumber yard and try to buy mahogany today.
One of the reasons it matters, what type of mahogany you have to work with, is that Cuban mahogany is much more dense and has a much greater strength than Honduras or African woods. Most of the Cuban trees were ancient inhabitants of the tropical forest, some as old as 400 years when they were cut down by European invaders and their slaves, some 200 years ago. That means that the wood in my Empire table started growing some 600 years ago. I would be surprised to know that any "mahogany" being sold these days was more than 50 years old!
As an example, last week a client brought in a Hepplewhite shield back chair from his dining room set which was nicely carved and well designed. He had the idea that it was from 1800, but, as soon as I saw it, I complimented him on the quality of his "reproduction." He was a little surprised and more than a little disappointed to learn that, but I patiently pointed out the various features that clearly indicated it was a reproduction.
Most of all, I said that, if it were made of Cuban mahogany, it probably would have not broken. By making a true shield back design in Honduras mahogany, it was inevitable that it would break. The wood does not have the strength to support the normal use that a chair sustains.
Not only was it badly broken, but it had been repaired with a combination of super glue, "the strongest glue on planet Earth," and putty. None of that worked. Repairing a shield back chair is one of the most challenging repairs, as the design violates all the normal strength elements of wood. Add to that problem the difficulty of removing synthetic glues and putty and it becomes an interesting project.
It is hard to see, from the photo above, but I used elastic bands, tape, wood clamps, bar clamps, "C" clamps, and my imagination to reconstruct the chair back. First I cleaned off all the broken surfaces, using a toothing plane and small chisels. Then I went through the sequence of assembly, without glue, so that I clearly understood where to start. Then I cut and attached blocks of pine where I needed to put the clamps (see my post on Vector Clamping). Then I warmed up the room and glue and started to put it together. Of course I used Old Brown Glue.
This project took 2 hours of preparation and nearly 30 minutes of actual assembly.
By the way, in 1976 I was quoted a price in Paris for Cuban mahogany elements of antique furniture at $6000 for a cubic meter. That is one of the reasons I started buying the stuff. When everything else fails, I can still break up all my furniture and sell it for scrap!