Jennifer L. Anderson’s book Mahogany: The Costs of Luxury in Early America focuses on the rise and fall of mahogany as a luxury commodity in North America from the mid-eighteenth century to the mid-nineteenth century, a period that came to be called the “Age of Mahogany.”In establishing the framework of her book, Anderson states the history of mahogany can only be understood by assessing the interaction between the nature from which mahogany came and the humans responsible for its eventual commoditization. With this in mind, Anderson argues that the history of the production of mahogany is one of creative and destructive transformation, and that this production came at a high price.
Anderson introduces mahogany as a one in a long list of Caribbean commodities, but claims that certain characteristics of mahogany made it distinctive from the history of other luxury goods that emerged in the West Indies. First, mahogany was durable and scarce. This meant that unlike consumable goods such as sugar and coffee, this resource could endure several generations of use and, if destroyed, could not easily be replaced. Additionally, mahogany had already derived significant value as a war material in both Spain and Britain. Navies from these two nations realized that mahogany did not rot and was shatterproof, and they had been using it on ships long before the wood became an aristocratic consumer demand. Additionally, in this section Anderson demonstrates the effects that mahogany had on international relations. The English and Spanish often sent privateers to steal the mahogany each was sending back to Europe.
These claims about the initial popularity of mahogany are used to establish the foundation of Anderson’s first chapter, one of the most important in her book. While exploring the roots of mahogany’s value, Anderson also uses this chapter to argue that mahogany’s transition into a luxury good hinged upon four factors: increased access to tropical commodities, decreased prices for mahogany, active engagement of merchants, cabinetmakers, and buyers in promoting mahogany, and an alignment of mahogany’s qualities with refinement. Collectively, these factors made mahogany more available for use by European cabinetmakers and increased demand for the wood throughout Europe. Through her recounting the early stories of the changing perception of mahogany as a war material into a luxury commodity, Anderson effectively provides a platform upon which she can illustrate mahogany’s entrance into the American economy.
According to Anderson, by the time mahogany had reached the American colonies, it was demanded out of “sheer desire.” This was because mahogany reflected many of the qualities of “refinement” and gentility that were desired among aristocrats in the late eighteenth century. The unique grain of mahogany, as well as the reflection the wood had after polishing, quickly made mahogany a luxury good of the upper class. Portraits of wealthy families during this period often showcased pieces of mahogany furniture among family members, demonstrating the importance the good had in denoting affluence. Anderson’s thorough use of eighteenth century art and other rich primary source evidence – including housing inventories – only strengthens her claims. As access to mahogany increased, many more middle class families purchased mahogany. This led the upper classes to buy multiple mahogany furnishings in an attempt to make a distinction from the middle class. At the dawn of the American Revolution, mahogany had become a definitive marker of colonial class status.
Following the exponential rise in demand for mahogany from the American colonies, the British Empire sought to establish a permanent mahogany works in the West Indies. This section of Anderson’s monograph is arguably her strongest it marks a definitive turning point at which the commercial boom for mahogany first met its imminent demise. After exhausting their original mahogany supply in Jamaica, the British tried to establish centers in the Bahamas, the Cayman Islands, and the “Ceded Islands” after the Seven Years War. Unlike Jamaica, however, these islands did not contain a large population of mahogany trees. Thus, the takeover of these lands resulted only in the displacement of the native populations of the islands and the unsuccessful creation of any permanent mahogany centers.
After nearly depleting the entire Caribbean mahogany population, the British made one final push at establishing a mahogany center in Belize at the Bay of Honduras, a Spanish owned region. Following several negotiations and disputes, the British took control of the Bay of Honduras mahogany site in 1798. However, even with the acquisition of this mahogany rich region, the British failed regulate mahogany production. By the turn of the nineteenth century, mahogany was quickly being depleted in Belize. At this point, Anderson recognizes that the market for mahogany had submitted itself entirely to the demands of the British mercantilist system. Slave labor became increasingly crucial to the success of mahogany logging, and as a result mahogany became part of trading for slaves from Africa. As Anderson notes, the “relentless search for mahogany exemplified the imperial drive to find, expropriate, and control people, space, and nature.”
The second half of Anderson’s work emphasizes the production of mahogany amidst capitalism and technological innovation. The themes presented in this part of the book parallel several themes that are also introduced in Andrew C. Isenberg’s The Destruction of the Bison. In his book, Isenberg argues that the near extinction of the bison was caused by an amalgamation of economic, cultural, and ecological factors. This is seen in his first chapter, as Isenberg credits the introduction of horses, livestock, and cattle into the Great Plains as critical factors leading to the displacement of the bison.Similarly, the felling of trees and establishment of sugar plantations in Jamaica destroyed the natural environment of mahogany because the cane fields drained the soil of essential nutrients.Additionally, Isenberg and Anderson agree that dependence on a single resource was extremely dangerous, though in different respects. Isenberg argues that the plummeting bison population of the nineteenth century made the survival of nomad groups in the Great Plains uncertain. Likewise, in Mahogany Anderson recounts the story of the Card brothers, who depended on the successful harvest and sale of mahogany for sustaining their livelihoods. Both men achieved minor success and epic failure, illustrating the high risk one faced when investing everything in the market of mahogany. Collectively, these stories represented parallel strands in the history of exploiting both bison and mahogany for individual gain.
Apart from their similar themes of ecological effects and risk in exploiting natural resources like mahogany and bison, Anderson and Isenberg also shared the compelling theme that Isenberg coins “the futility of riches and the fragility of nature.” In a chapter titled “Mastering Nature and the Challenge of Mahogany,” Anderson states that the inability of “enlightened” men to recreate or replicate mahogany indicated “the limits of man’s ability to master nature.” Mahogany, like the bison, had been so depleted that no amount of money, research, or effort could restore these resources to their previous presence in the Caribbean and North America, respectively. The destruction of both mahogany and the bison was a result of failed regulation because of a focus on economic competition. This competition, promoted by the capitalist economy present in North America, could be seen among the hide-hunters described by Isenberg, as well as in the failed mahogany dealer conglomerates formed among cabinetmakers in the Early American Republic.  Economic competition advocated the advancement of the individual at any means necessary, and this came at the cost of the near extinction of both bison and mahogany. In this way, Anderson argues that the inability to restore mahogany defied the Enlightenment belief that humans could master nature, and that oftentimes humans failed to realize the threats imposed on natural resources by capitalism. This continued through the industrial revolution.
While their stories emerge from very different beginnings, Anderson and Isenberg both write historical narratives that demonstrate the costs of exploiting natural resources to near extinction. Since their near disappearance in the late nineteenth century, both mahogany and bison have made modest returns to their native landscapes. With that being said, both mahogany and bison have taken new roles in their respective revivals. Conservation efforts in the United States have redefined mahogany as “ornamentals rather than as future timber.” Bison, on the other hand, have returned to become a part of the economy, but not of the environment. These histories of the production of mahogany and the destruction of bison provide a clear image of the often short-term beneficial and long-term detrimental effects of “unsustainable exploitation” of natural resources. Through their effective writing, both Anderson and Isenberg lead readers to consider how the American landscape, economy, and culture have been shaped from human interactions with the environment.
 Jennifer L. Anderson, Mahogany: The Costs of Luxury in Early America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012), 17.
 Anderson, Mahogany, 4, 17.
 Anderson, Mahogany, 7, 21.
 Anderson, Mahogany, 24.
 Anderson, Mahogany, 19.
 Anderson, Mahogany, 32.
 Anderson, Mahogany, 50-63.
 Anderson, Mahogany, 91.
 Anderson, Mahogany, 96-98, 113, 123.
 Anderson, Mahogany, 125.
 Anderson, Mahogany, 124.
 Andrew C. Isenberg, The Destruction of the Bison (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 1.
 Isenberg, Destruction of the Bison, 30.
 Anderson, Mahogany, 64.
 Isenberg, Destruction of the Bison, 121.
 Anderson, Mahogany, 154-155.
 Isenberg, Destruction of the Bison, 122.
 Anderson, Mahogany, 213.
 Isenberg, Destruction of the Bison, 163; Anderson, Mahogany, 205.
 Anderson, Mahogany, 249.
 Anderson, Mahogany, 314.
 Isenberg, Destruction of the Bison, 192.
 Isenberg, Destruction of the Bison, 198.