Danish West Indies 4-Poster Mahogany Beds
It is said that God could easily have made a more beautiful bed–but He didn’t…. In all the world, there is no bed more stately than the antique four-poster mahogany beds of the United States Virgin Islands, the former Danish West Indies. Certainly, there are beds more grand, more intricately detailed, more fancy and ostentatious. But in terms of sheer magnificence, that ever-delicate balance between form and function, and understated elegance, the beds of the Virgin Islands are beyond compare. To enter a room in which one is situated is to be drawn, almost instinctively, onto it. Wherever placed in the room, the bed becomes the center of the room—the navel of the space. And it is upon those great beds that families are conceived, born, and die, generation after generation.
In 1493, as Christopher Columbus on his second journey to the New World approached the Caribbean archipelago at its center-point, it is said that he remarked that the islands—some big, some mere rocks jutting out the sea—reminded him of the legend of St. Ursula and her 11,000 virgins who are said to have been massacred by the Huns near present-day Cologne as she, accompanied by her virginal retinue, undertook a self-declared pan-European pilgrimage prior to her marriage to the pagan governor Conan Meriadoc of Armorica. In honor of St. Ursula and her many virgins, Columbus named the idyllic islands “Las Islas Virgenes” (“The Virgin Islands”).
Almost immediately after the Spanish conquest, the Virgin Islands—especially St. Croix because of its strategic location within the Caribbean archipelago and its relatively flat, arable land—would become the object of desire for a long list of European interlopers and colonizers, from the English and Dutch, to the Knights of Malta and the French, and motley crews of pirates in between. But it was the Danes, towards the end of the 1600s and the first decades of the 1700s, that embarked upon comprehensive, sustained efforts at colonizing the Virgin Islands, namely St. Thomas, St. John, and St. Croix.
Apart from pre-Columbian Amerindian furnishings, very little of which has survived, much of the furniture-making heritage of the Virgin Islands occurs during the Danish era (1671-1917). By the 18th century, as a result of profits made from the slave trade and the sugar industry, Caribbean plantations had become infamous for their immense wealth, so much so that the adage “as wealthy as a Barbados planter” would become a part of the vernacular, and St. Croix would come to be dubbed “The Garden of the West Indies.” Mansions reflecting and celebrating that wealth were built and had to be furnished and decorated—typically with European luxury items. In the beginning, European planters would import European-made furniture constructed from European woods. But it soon became apparent that the local species of termites had a special appetite for European woods, in many cases leaving the intricately carved, gold-leaf Rococo furniture of the late 18th century so structurally compromised that it would collapse upon being touched.
Beginning in the early 1700s, plantation owners would ship termite-resistant Caribbean hardwoods back to Europe, the wood then used to make furniture that would in turn be shipped back to the islands for use in the plantation mansions and urban dwellings. There are accounts of exquisite mahogany and rosewood being shipped to Europe to be made into furniture that would then be decorated with gold-leaf to suit the tastes of the day, concealing, unfortunately, the beautiful grain of the tropical hardwoods in the process.
Reimert Haagensen’s Description of the Island of St. Croix in America in the West Indies, written in the 1750s and published in Denmark in 1758 states: “The information will have to suffice on this matter for I must say something about the many rare trees that are found in such quantities there. These have all kinds of names, such as Mahogany and others of equal value. From these are made the best furniture to be had, namely writing desks, cabinets with mirrors and chests of drawers. These would, however, are sold to outsiders since there is no one on the island who can do this work. Indeed, there are samples sent home to Copenhagen.”
By the early 1800s, however, the furniture-making trade was well-established in the islands, Afro-Caribbean craftsmen emerging as major participants. In the 1820s, Lieutenant Brady, in his Observations upon the State of Negro Slavery in the Island of Santa Cruz, published in 1829, writes: “I visited nearly all of the negro houses at [Estate Manning’s Bay] and was agreeably surprised at the number of articles of household use, and of social comfort, which I met. In most of them there was a bedstead, straw bed, pillow and blankets, several chairs, a table, sleeping bench, and chest. In some there were drinking glasses, and other decent table ware, and in one a pair of decanters.” Brady then goes on to write several lines later that, “Few of these articles would have been found in a negro yard thirty years ago….”
The History of Mahogany
Swietenia mahogani is native to Cuba, Hispañola (Domican Republic and Haiti), and Jamaica in Greater Antilles, as well as the Florida Keys and the Bahamas. The tree is believed to have been introduced to the Lesser Antilles and Central America during the colonial era, between the 15th and 19th centuries.
Popularly known as mahogany, West Indian mahogany, Cuban mahogany, and Spanish mahogany (the Spanish word for mahogany being “caoba”), it has for over 300 years been regarded as the world’s finest, most versatile, and luxurious furniture wood.
An upright-growing tree, able to attain heights of 150 feet under favorable conditions, mahogany is highly prized for its dense, tight-grained, reddish-brown wood, which is conducive to a high polish.
Mahogany was first introduced to the European market five centuries ago by the Spanish, the major colonizers of the Greater Antilles, but it was the English, who in the very late 17th century, made the wood a household name. One of the earliest mentions of mahogany in English newspapers occurs in the London Gazette of February 22nd to 25th, 1702. The first reference to mahogany in the statistics of imports filed at the Public Record Office is dated Christmas 1699 – Christmas 1700: “Jamaica. Wood Mohogony….” And it is generally regarded that between 1720 and 1725, the English began using mahogany in the furniture-making trade. The Daily Journal of May 26, 1724 reports what is undoubtedly the first recorded use of mahogany in the construction of doors: “His Magesty’s Ship, the Mermaid, which is coming from Jamaica, hath on Board from thence 600 Planks of the famous Mahoginy or Redwood, which grows in no Part of the World but the West-Indies, which Wood is to be employed, in making all the inner Doors in the new Admiralty-Office, now building at Whitehall; and to be used in Tables and other Purposes for the said Office.”
By 1774 Swietenia mahogani had become scarce in most parts of its natural range, and it was virtually extinct in Cuba by the end of the 19th century. Closely related to West Indian mahogany is Swietenia macrophylla, also known as Honduras mahogany or South American mahogany. Besides sporting a bigger leaf (hence its botanical name), the South American variety is less dense, less beautifully patterned (therefore less valuable as a decorative veneer wood), and less expensive. And unlike the West Indian varieties, which are enhanced by age (the Cuban variety becoming honey-brown when exposed to sunlight and the Hispañolan, which becomes darker with exposure), Swietenia macrophylla is known to bleach if confronted by sunlight over extended periods.
The reputation of mahogany, as unsurpassed for beauty and versatility in the furniture-making trade, has led to its commercial extinction in many regions of the world. Several countries, however, have come to the rescue of the species by enacting laws regulating its harvest, use, and export.
The Emergence of Mahogany as the Primary Furniture-making Wood in the Danish West Indies
By the 1790s and into the first decades of the 1800s, with the clean, simple lines of Empire furniture becoming all the rage and oftentimes replacing the ornately carved Rococo furniture of 50 years earlier, exotic tropical woods, especially mahogany, became prized since the simple line of Empire furniture lent itself to the beautiful grain and rich color of mahogany. And it was the convergence of simplicity of line and richness of wood that laid the foundation for what would become the Virgin Islands’ greatest contribution to the decorative arts: the four-poster mahogany bed.
When Africans were enslaved and forcibly shipped to the Caribbean to labor on plantations, they brought with them their culture, professions, talents, and skills. Highborn and lowborn and skilled and unskilled alike were equalized as manual laborers. The only outlets for artistic expression were in the performing and useful arts. Who otherwise might have been or become a painter or sculptor or poet in a free society oftentimes found him/herself—during the little free time allowed the enslaved—gravitating towards performance arts such as music or dance, or towards the crafts such as cooking, jewelry-making, or furniture-making.
Wood-working and carving, still a strong tradition in Haiti, had long been a part of West African tradition before the emergence of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade in the 15th century. So, in the early 1800s, when European plantation owners realized that it was more practical to have furniture made in the islands by local craftsmen than shipping Caribbean hardwoods all the way to Europe to be made into furniture, that furniture then having to be shipped all the way back to the Caribbean, plantation owners began utilizing the traditional and European-trained skills of free and enslaved cabinet-makers to produce furniture for local use. What is today stylistically categorized as “Colonial furniture” is the result of a merging of European and African aesthetics.
Afro-Caribbean Influences and Traditions
By the 1830s, during the Late Empire period, African and European aesthetics had converged, giving birth to the 4-poster mahogany bed (and also the elegant, caned Caribbean rocking chairs), arguably the region’s most distinctive and celebrated contribution to the decorative arts.
The necessity of mosquito nets led to the preference for beds with tall, massive, elegantly tapered, lathe-turned, hand-carved posts, surmounted by a “tester,” a framed canopy that, in the finest homes, would typically be dressed with hand-embroidered linen skirting. And the big, upright-growing, abundantly branched mahogany trees provided the necessary lumber for the crafting of the beautiful posts from which the nets could be suspended. Footboards with open spindle-work, a design feature that triumphantly distinguishes the beds of the Virgin Islands from all other beds of the Caribbean, allow the tropical breezes to flow, unimpeded, onto the beds, thereby cooling their occupants. The footboards also impart a certain “finish” and “balance” to Virgin Islands beds that is unmatched in other Caribbean beds. Each headboard was more impressive than the next, craftsmen oftentimes having signature motifs, many of which were Afro-centric. Mattresses were high off the ground—as high as the typical windowsill, necessitating bed-stairs but also allowing for breezes penetrating jalousie windows to bring uninterrupted comfort on warm, tropical nights. The high-set beds were also infamous for wreaking havoc on the bones of careless sleepers!
The Ubiquity of the Bed
By the late 1800s, owning a mahogany bedstead had evolved as a rite of passage into adulthood for the average Virgin Islander. Most of the beds were made between 1830 and 1940—until the coming of ready-made American furniture. Modest families had “the family bed,” while more well-to-do families had a bed for each child, children typically carrying along their bedsteads when establishing their own homesteads. So much a part of the culture were the beds that a new bed would be given a “bedstead party” in order to celebrate its one-year anniversary: The bed would be dismantled and reassembled outside the home in a public space of the community so that it could be blessed by clergy and praised by neighbors. (At the end of the party, the bed would again be disassembled and then reassembled in the home.)
Virgin Islands four-poster mahogany beds are so esteemed that they are oftentimes bequeathed in last wills and testaments. It is not uncommon, for example, for a testator to dispose of real estate and cash then the bed: “And the mahogany bed upon which I slept should go to….” It is also not uncommon for a mahogany bed to be at the center of family discord and discontent: “Mama had always said that her bed should go to me….” And one of the most highly regarded gifts from a godparent to a godchild is a four-poster mahogany bed. So coveted are the beds that some are said to be haunted by their former owners, making for many a restless night for unapproved subsequent occupants. And many of the islands’ present-day prominent families—the families that produce the lawyers, doctors, university professors, clergymen, and, of course, artists, for example—descend from cabinet-makers who were able to command, on account of the cultural admiration for fine mahogany furniture, a respectable income in the decades following Emancipation in 1848, thereby acquiring private property and availing their offspring to higher education.
Though not as obligatory or ubiquitous as they once were, Virgin Islands four-poster mahogany beds are every bit as revered, locally and abroad. And on the rare occasion when they are offered at international auctions, they are known to command enviable prices.
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