England, c. 1765
Gift of Mrs. Francis White in 1973
Despite Revolutionary ideals, many American citizens continued to look to England for style and material goods in the years leading up to the war, as seen in this “Pie Crust” Tilt-Top table, currently in our exhibition gallery. Produced and carved in England with exotic wood, this piece was likely imported to America in the back and forth of the tobacco trade. This elaborate table was used for intimate meals; it could be tilted down and placed against the wall when not in use. When fully set for tea service, this piece held items from around the world — Chinese export porcelain, butter and milk from North America, spices from India, linen from Ireland, and prized mahogany harvested in South America. Mahogany had a certain glow and reflective quality, and when carved it took on a satin smooth finish, as opposed rougher wood like pine. Wealthy Marylanders not only possessed mahogany as furniture, but also incorporated this wood into their homes. In 1807 Belgian- born Rosalie Stier Calvert (1778-1821) wrote in a letter to her father that in her home, Riversdale plantation,, “four doors of the drawing room and dining room are made of mahogany and are all very beautiful.”
Furniture with exotic woods like this solid mahogany table were a luxury that came at the high cost of enslaved lives. Harvesting caused severe hardship for enslaved workers, conflict, and the depletion of natural resources in the Caribbean and South America. Branded by their enslavers, and tasked with monotonous, arduous physical labor in the sweltering insect-infested forests, the lives of these enslaved mahogany workers was incredibly harrowing. Often the enslaved of North America plantations were threatened with exportation to the Caribbean and South America for misbehavior. Mahogany merchants justified their investment in the wood, arguing that sugar and coffee required taxing labor but offered no long term benefits; however, mahogany they was worth the price and labor and stood the test of time. As appreciators of the decorative arts, we should look at the whole history of the object—from the forest to the tea table to the period museum room. For African American history month we want to honor the legacy of slavery connected to these items not only for the way they were harvested, but also the enslaved who would have daily cleaned and served on these reflective mahogany surfaces.
By Rachel Lovett, Curator