This cabinet appears to be made of mahogany, but the only mahogany is the veneer on the drawer fronts. The case frame, door frame and all other structural parts are made of red gum stained to look like mahogany. (LiveAuciotneers.com/Montrose Auction photo)
When you glance at a piece of furniture for the very first time, one of the first things you notice is the color of the wood. And if that color has a red cast to it, the initial impression is that it is made of mahogany . . . the Red King . . . good ole Swietenia mahogany, 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, in the 20th century (now the 21st), not all that is red is mahogany.
The introduction of mahogany into the Old World in the early 1700s brought the first new wood color in hundreds of years, and for most of the next 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, 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?”
These very common “mahogany” dining chairs are made entirely of gum.
The skirt, pedestal and legs to this “mahogany” dining table are made of red gum stained to look like mahogany.
This Windsor rocker from the early 20th century is made of birch with a mahogany finish—the simulated mahogany mentioned in the 1902 Sears catalog.
Sears, Roebuck & Co. took great pains to promote its use of “non-mahogany” in its 1902 catalogue. On page 785, in describing a five-piece parlor 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 catalogue describes the finish as “. . . simulated mahogany . . .” or “. . . imitation mahogany . . .” Thus the cat was out of the bag in a big way.
This lyre base table has mahogany veneer on the top. The rest of the table is a secondary wood.
Furniture manufactures, from the turn of the century to today, have used the same mindset in most production. During the great “Colonial Revival” production period from 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 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,” by Don Fredgant, Schiffer—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 prices, 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 are generally 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.
Fred Taylor is a antique furniture Worthologist who specializes in American furniture from the Late Classicism period (1830-1850).
Send your comments, questions and pictures to me at PO Box 215, Crystal River, FL 34423 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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