The Story of Mahogany

David C. Lucas, PMH Staff
Published on
December 3, 2023
November 9, 2023
Black and white photo of mahogany tree trunk branches against sky
Swietenia Macrophylla Honduras, Wikimedia Commons

The story of mahogany resonates greatly within Philipse Manor Hall State Historic Site. The 18th century railings on our grand stairways are crafted of the wood. In one of our displays is an example of an exquisite 18th century mahogany Chippendale-style chair with Chinese silk upholstery. The Manor Hall’s five heavy Dutch doors may even be mahogany.

1730s-50s swirling mahogany stair rail at Philipse Manor Hall State Historic Site. Photograph by David Lucas, PMH staff.
1680s-1700s mahogany stair railing, Philipse Manor Hall State Historic Site, photograph by David Lucas, PMH staff.
Chinese-influenced mahogany side chair on display at Philipse Manor Hall State Historic Site, from the collection of Clermont State Historic Site, photo by David Lucas, PMH staff.

Mahogany is the popular term for the Swietenia variety of three tree species (San Domingo, Cuban, and Honduras.) The tree is native to South America, and related to similar woods from Africa and Asia. The word "mahogany" comes from the Nigerian oganwo, and probably entered the English language after the British captured Jamaica from Spain, in 1655. The Spanish name, caoba, is probably an adaptation of the word used by indigenous Arawak peoples of the Caribbean and northern South America. In the mid-1700s, the botanical classification of the Caribbean variety was solidified as Swietenia mahogani.1

Mature mahogany trees can attain heights of a hundred feet, with trunks that are branchless for up to sixty. They can be several feet in diameter and are thus perfect for furniture and architectural use. In the pre-Columbian Americas, mahogany trees were most likely used to make dug-out canoes.2 Spanish explorers noted mahogany’s value, and imported it for shipbuilding, timber framing, and roof supports in buildings. Though solid, it is buoyant, and resistant to rot.

Sepia photograph of large tree trunk with three men and one boy in 19th century clothes leaning on it.
"A Giant Mahogany" in Mexico, c. 1890s. DeGolyer Library, Southern Methodist University.

The wood has a straight, even grain, and is relatively free of interior voids. It has a reddish/brown hue that darkens over time. It is durable and takes beautifully to carving. In England, the “golden age of mahogany” in furniture-making spanned a century, from the 1720s to the 1820s, and the wood was employed in the styles of Chippendale, Sheraton, Hepplewhite, and Duncan Phyfe pieces.3

According to The New York Times, “The Mahogany for 18th-century furniture was harvested under appalling conditions across the Caribbean. Slaves branded with owners’ monograms lived in thatched huts and scouted for trees. They had to drag and roll felled mahogany trunks to riverfronts and then float the logs, which were chained together, to ships waiting in bays full of sharks and coral reefs.”4

Large numbers of enslaved people were employed in the culling of mahogany trees. They utilized woodworking tools and machetes that might have, in drastic circumstances, been the instruments of their freedom, instead of the implements of drudgery. Unrest and rebellions amongst the enslaved sometimes curtailed the harvesting of the valuable wood.5

By the 1730s in Jamaica, coastal stands of mahogany were already disappearing, and it was necessary to move in and up, to mountainous areas where the trees grew. There were certain advantages to the colonial harvest of the wood. Felling the trees opened land up for grasslands and plantations. And, according to Dr. Desha A. Osborne, at the University of Edinburgh, “Plantation owners and enslavers in the West Indies were relieved to get rid of their mahogany, not only because of the extra profit from sales but also due to the additional benefit of removing a source of natural shelter for enslaved people looking to escape.Eventually, mahogany production would shift to Central American areas such as Honduras and Belize.6

Mahogany requires a hot, moist environment to thrive. George Washington tried to cultivate it at his Mount Vernon plantation. He planted 48 seeds and watched the saplings shrivel and die. Rather than blame his own lack of acumen, he decided that his enslaved workers had not watered them enough.7 The valuable goods crafted from the wood made it a target for thieves and looters. Caribbean slaves took mahogany chairs and chests with them when they decided to manumit themselves. In 19th century Philadelphia, the furniture was a status symbol to Black residents. In an article about a white mob attacking black homes, a newspaper described a sad heap of “bedsteads and mahogany banisters, cut up into small particles, as for kindling wood.”8

Mahogany could be deemed a veritable product of human misery. Charles Dickens wrote that it reflected “in the depth of its grain, through all its polish, the hue of the wretched slaves.”9

Mahogany in Yonkers

Sometime around 1649, Dutch lawyer and entrepreneur Adriaen Van der Donck built two mills on the Nepperhan River – a saw mill and gristmill - and renamed it the Saw Mill River (Saegkill). Nearly twenty years after Van Der Donck’s death, Frederick Philipse acquired Van der Donck’s properties and set out to repair the existing mills and put them back into service.

The Saw Mill River flows from a small pond north of present-day Chappaqua, NY, running nearly 24 miles southwest to meet the Hudson River at present-day Yonkers. Over the course of that relatively short distance, the river drops almost 500 feet. The natural falls made it ideal for water-powered mills.  

Following the American Revolution, the Philipses departed from New York, and New York State confiscated their properties. After a succession of owners, in 1813 the land around Philipse Manor Hall was acquired by Lemuel Wells, and several water-powered factories were built along the course of the Saw Mill River.10 Soon Yonkers became a trusted source for mahogany wood and veneers.

Edwin Bunnel's advertisement, "A Stump," as published in the Morning Courier and Enquirer, November 29, 1831.

In November of 1831, a man named Edwin Bunnel posted a challenge in the form of an ad in New York’s Morning Courier and Enquirer: “A STUMP11—Whereas much boasting has been made by the advocates of the several Mahogany Saw Mills throughout the United States, the subscriber therefore challenges any sawyer in the United States to saw for the bet of $50 to $100, the most veniers [sic] to the inch and of the best workmanship, to be inspected by judges. The pieces shall be of one log, and from 16 to 24 inches wide, or from 2 to 4 inches wide. If the challenge shall not be taken up in six months from this date, the Yonkers Mahogany Saw Mills, owned by Miller & Wells, stands superior. Dated at Yonkers, Westchester county, State of New York, November --, 1831.”12

Mahogany mills were part of the nineteenth century industrial landscape of Yonkers. At one point, dams and ponds for waterpower were located in six spots along the Saw Mill. In 1835, Gordon’s Gazetteer of the State of New York lists “one grist mill making corn meal for export, two saw mills, sawing pine, four saw mills sawing mahogany, and one hat manufactory making one hundred hat bodies per day.”13 After the Civil War, the mills would begin to wane in usage, and the mill ponds would gradually disappear.

1847 map of Yonkers by surveyor Thomas C. Cornell, as reprinted in the Yonkers Herald, January 2, 1892.

On an 1847 map of Yonkers, John Copcutt’s mahogany mill appears just south of Philipse Manor Hall, on the byway that would become Dock Street. Copcutt was born in Oxfordshire, England in 1805, and moved to New York City when he was twelve. As an adult, he followed in his father’s footsteps, and became an important dealer and importer of mahogany.

In 1824, they made a trip to Manhattan to purchase wood to bring by sloop for milling in Yonkers. In 1845, he purchased land at the lower (or “first water power,) pond of the Saw Mill River, and built a factory and stores. In 1854, he bought woodlands and would build his stone mansion on Nepperhan Avenue. Today the house still stands as the rectory of St. Casimir’s Catholic Church. He would continue to buy property and build cottages to rent to his mill workers in the neighborhood. Copcutt was known for his extraordinary skill at selecting wood; it was said that he could “see right through a log.”14

Mahogany: One African American’s Perspective

Black carpenters—both free and enslaved—learned to craft fine furnishings in mahogany. One of the best known is Thomas Day, a free man of color who owned a thriving manufactory in the small town of Milton, North Carolina during the first half of the 1800s. Day was born to mixed-race parents and learned woodworking from his father in southern Virginia. Eventually, he would open his own business. In 1848, he bought the Union Tavern in Milton, NC, and made it his workshop, where it still stands today. Day produced sofas, dressers, bookcases, tables, chairs, fireplace mantels, decorative scrollwork, and moldings.15

Thomas Day's Union Tavern shop building, as photographed in 1933. Library of Congress.

Day’s work was distinctive, combining straight lines with exuberant scrolled shapes. Wealthy White planters were his primary clients, and his would become the largest cabinetmaking business in a state still known for furniture.

Game table attributed to Thomas Day, circa 1850. The table combines mahogany and mahogany veneer with cherry and a secondary conifer wood. The table is in the collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art (The MET).

Day accumulated wealth from his very successful business; he owned real estate and farmland and was a shareholder in the Bank of Milton. At a time when Black and White churchgoers were strictly segregated, he was welcome to sit with Whites in Milton Presbyterian church, in the pews he himself had designed.16 Day became so successful that he had White apprentices, and hired White journeymen, as well as free people of color.17

Advertisement for Thomas Day published in the Milton Gazette and Roanoke Advertiser, March 1, 1827. Courtesy the North Carolina Office of Archives and History.

Day’s work is highly sought after as a vernacular American furniture style. Major exhibitions featuring his work have been shown at the Renwick Gallery at the Smithsonian Institution, and at the North Carolina Museum of History.

There is an odd aside to Day’s story. He was one of a relatively small number of successful Black people who enslaved other Blacks—forty people listed in the 1850 census. Carolyn Boone, his great-great-great-granddaughter, asserts that it was a way to protect families and keep households together. He was known to covertly support abolitionist activities in the North, despite the danger of his White clients finding out.18

The 1850s, however, also brought troubles. At the end of his life, Day was in financial difficulties, and he died in 1861 at the age of 59. His son continued to operate his Union Tavern workshop, but competition from other cabinet and furniture makers, mostly White, was too great. The shop closed for good in 1871.19

The late 19th century meant changes for Yonkers, too. By the end of the 19th century, mills were shifting to steam power, and mill ponds along the Saw Mill were filled in. In Yonkers, the Saw Mill River itself was forced underground in the early 20th century. And in 1926, construction on the Saw Mill River Parkway began. Ironically, mahogany furniture began to come back into style with the Colonial and Federal revival movements of the 1920s and ‘30s.

Mahogany Today

Mahogany is now an endangered species, due to illegal logging and rampant overharvesting. The Convention on Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) placed controls on its importation in 2022. It has become commercially extinct in El Salvador, Costa Rica, and parts of South America like Brazil. It can be grown on plantations, but is slow to mature, making it difficult to produce large boards. Many of today’s plantations are in Fiji, where the CITES restrictions do not apply.

These days, one hears that “brown furniture” has lost much of its popularity and value. However, trends in home furnishings tend to be cyclical. Mahogany furniture came back into vogue in the 1920s, the ‘40s, and the ‘70s, as part of Colonial revivals during those time periods, though revival furniture was often constructed of mahogany veneer over lesser woods. In an eclectic home, however, a mahogany piece can fit nicely into any modern room. Both true antique and Colonial revival mahogany furniture is being revived in some circles, notably with the “grandmillennial” style. In an era where mahogany is endangered, choosing historic pieces is not only more sustainable, it also helps preserve the style for future generations.

If you’d like to learn more about Thomas Day, and the museum, go to:

If you would like to see Philipse Manor Hall’s mahogany features for yourself, please visit us!

Further Reading

A History of English Furniture: The Age of Mahogany by Percy MacQuid (1905)

New Perspectives on Thomas Day by Preservation Greensboro (2022)

Author Bio

David C. Lucas is an interpreter at Philipse Manor Hall, giving public tours, working the front desk, and contributing to the website and social media. In his previous career, he spent years at Macy’s in Manhattan as a Graphic Designer and Art Director. Subsequently, he taught Design for several semesters at New York City University of Technology and worked at Rye Playland. He occasionally serves as a docent at the Hudson River Museum, and is the Trail Maintainer for the German Hollow Trail of the Catskill Forest.


[1] Plane, Jack. “Mahogany in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries,” from Peg and Tails, February 21, 2010.

[2] Edwards, Clinton R., “Aboriginal Watercraft on the Pacific Coast of South America.” Ibero-Americana 47(1965).

[3] Revels, Craig Stephen, “Timber, trade, and transformation: a historical geography of mahogany in Honduras,” Louisiana State University and Agricultural and Mechanical College, 2002, p. 11.

[4] Kahn, Eve M., “Beyond the Luster of Mahogany,” New York Times, Aug 23, 2012

[5] Kahn, Eve M., “Beyond the Luster of Mahogany,” New York Times, Aug 23, 2012

[6] Osborne, Dr. Desha A., “Facing Our Difficult History of Mahogany,” National Trust of Scotland, Oct 6, 2021.

[7] Kahn, Eve M., “Beyond the Luster of Mahogany,” New York Times, Aug 23, 2012

[8] Kahn, Eve M., “Beyond the Luster of Mahogany,” New York Times, Aug 23, 2012

[9] Dickens, Charles. The Lazy Tour of Two Idle Apprentices, New York: J. Lovell Company (1884), p. 241.

[10] “Old Mills Along Saw Mill River,” Scarsdale Inquirer, Aug 15, 1930.

[11] “A STUMP” is likely to be a pun, referencing a cut down tree as well as a problem that is difficult to find an answer to.

[12] “A Stump,” Morning Courier and Enquirer, Nov 29, 1831.

[13] As quoted in “Old Mills Along Saw Mill River,” Scarsdale Inquirer, Aug 15, 1930.

[14] Allison, Charles E., A History of Yonkers. New York: Wilbur B. Ketchum, (1896), p. 413.

[15] Wasser, Fred. “Thomas Day, a Master Craftsman with Complications,” NPR All Things Considered, July 29, 2010

[16] Gomez, Kelly, “Thomas Day: Master Craftsman and Free Man of Color,” The Forgotten South, Nov 8, 2022.

[17] Marshall, Patricia Phillips and Jo Ramsay Leimenstoll. Thomas Day: Master Craftsman and Free Man of Color, Chapel Hill: Published in association with the North Carolina Museum of History by the University of North Carolina Press (2010).

[18] Wasser, Fred. “Thomas Day, a Master Craftsman with Complications,” NPR All Things Considered, July 29, 2010

[19] Prown, Jonathan. “The Furniture of Thomas Day: A Reevaluation,” Winterthur Portfolio (Winter, 1998), p. 218.