Issue 15 T.O.C. – Gerald W.R. Ward – “The Red & the Black: Snakewood & Early American Furniture”

This post is part of a blog series revealing the table of contents of upcoming Issue Fifteen. As is our custom, we’ll be discussing one article per weekday in order to give you a taste of what is to come. 

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Gerald W.R. Ward –  “The Red & the Black: Snakewood & Early American Furniture”

Snakewood is a fascinating species of wood with an even more fascinating history in early furniture making. Its legendary beauty, with banding and striking colors closely resembling the patterns of snakeskin as well as an ability to take an almost mirror polish, made it highly sought in England for veneers and furniture as early as the 1600s. But it only grows in the thick forests of South America and some remote portions of the West Indies. So how did it make its way to the cabinet shops of Boston and London?

Caiman crocodilus and an Anilius scytale (1701–1705) by Maria Sibylla Merian

For Issue Fifteen, curator, furniture scholar, and author Gerald W.R. Ward traces out the use and trade of snakewood in the Americas and England in the 17th century – and this practice was even more intriguing than you’d imagine. From the cutting and extraction of these trees in dense tropical forests and along forbidding rivers to their long journeys north and east, the effort constituted what Ward wryly notes to be “quite a story for a few small pieces of wood.” We are given insights into the trade routes that existed at the time, and the advanced state of commerce throughout the world that had already been established. 

Chest of Drawers with Doors (1650–70), Mabel Brady Garvan Collection

Ward notes that the importance of the city of Boston as a commercial hub in the 1600s cannot be overstated. As one man observed in 1676, “It is the great care of the [Boston] merchants to keep their ships in constant employ which makes them trye all ports to force a trade, whereby they abound with all sorts of commodities, and Boston may be esteemed the mart town of the West Indies.” As early as the 1650s, Bostonians had access to Venetian drinking glasses, European ceramics, and snakewood from Suriname. And although the rush for this particular wood was short-lived, it influenced New England furniture decoration for centuries.

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