Materials used in Early American decorative arts were part of the commercial web of the Atlantic World—a term broadly used to explain the interconnection and exchange of people, raw materials, and goods between regions bordering the Atlantic Ocean (the Americas, Europe, and Africa) from the fifteenth to the nineteenth centuries.
Examples in the White House Collection can help us better understand enslaved labor in the Atlantic World, used for centuries to produce popular commodities and consumer goods such as sugar, mahogany, coffee, tobacco, ivory, and cotton.
By the mid-seventeenth century, the French, Dutch, Portuguese, English, and Spanish had colonized areas in the Americas to create plantations for cash crops. These were typically grown and harvested by enslaved laborers brought to the region from Africa via the Transatlantic Slave Trade.
Enslaved people worked in demanding and oftentimes dangerous conditions without pay to fell mahogany, harvest sugar cane, grow tobacco, and more. As demand for luxury spices, furnishings, and materials increased in Western Europe and North America, so did the use of enslaved labor. Many objects made from these materials have been preserved and are now in the collections of museums and historic sites around the world, including the White House.
Mahogany furniture can be found throughout America’s most famous historic homes. Europeans originally used the wood for shipbuilding and other construction projects, but as time wore on, the aesthetic beauty of mahogany led to its use in luxury goods and decorative arts.
Mahogany was primarily harvested by enslaved workers on the Caribbean islands of Hispaniola (Haiti and the Dominican Republic), Cuba, and Jamaica, as well as Honduras.
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Tambour Desk and Bookcase, ca. 1795-1808
Attributed to Thomas (1771-1848) and John Seymour (ca. 1738-1818)
Mahogany, mahogany and curly maple veneers/pine; glass; reverse-painted glass, ivory, brass
This desk and bookcase set, made by John and Thomas Seymour of Boston, is made of mahogany. There are several mahogany pieces made by the Seymours in the White House Collection; the use of exotic wood was common in their work. Because mahogany was a scarce resource, it was expensive. As a result, mahogany came to represent status, wealth, and civility in early America.
While the exact source of this mahogany is unknown, this set is an example of how raw materials harvested largely by enslaved labor abroad came into the homes of affluent Americans. Even those who did not own enslaved laborers themselves benefitted from slavery in indirect ways.White House Historical Association
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Linen Press, ca. 1790-1800
Mahogany and mahogany veneer/ pine and tulip poplar; maple banding; lightwood and stained inlays
This mahogany linen press, made ca. 1790-1800, belonged to the family of Annapolis politician and slave owner, William Paca. Linen presses served as storage for textiles. In a household with enslaved laborers, like the Pacas, enslaved servants may have interacted with this cabinet after doing the laundry, setting a table, or preparing a room for visitors.White House Historical Association
Enslaved people felled trees, hauled logs, and prepared the wood for transport. Demand for mahogany tables, chairs, dressers, desks, and more, furthered the Transatlantic Slave Trade and contributed to rapid deforestation in the region. This popularity extended from Western Europe into British North America.
The Caribbean islands of Jamaica, Saint-Domingue (Haiti), Cuba, and Barbados provided ideal growing conditions for sugarcane and promised a lucrative return on investment. Sugar plantations were especially dangerous for enslaved laborers. Countless individuals died from tropical diseases, unsanitary living conditions, and sugar mill injuries.
Sugar was not only a culinary preference; it also came to represent social status, taste, and worldliness. Thanks to increased sugar production, it was no longer exclusive to the elite—average consumers could buy it at the market and add it to their morning tea or coffee, providing a taste of refinement each day. As a result, sugar bowls, spoons, and dishes appeared on Early American dining tables with greater frequency as part of a larger trend that connected many Americans to the Transatlantic Slave Trade.
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Sugar Bowl, 1795
As a result of increased sugar production, sugar bowls became popular pieces of tableware. This porcelain bowl belonged to First Lady Martha Washington. It is symbolic, decorated with her initials, the fifteen U.S. states at the time, and other patriotic imagery. The Washingtons likely used this china service at the President’s House in Philadelphia and may have displayed it in public spaces alongside other fine tableware, exhibiting their wealth, worldliness, and patriotism to guests dining at their home. It is also important to remember that these sugary dishes were prepared and served by enslaved workers including the Washingtons’ talented cook, Hercules.Bruce White for White House Historical Association
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Sugar or Sweetmeat Spoon, ca. 1809-1819
This spoon, used at the White House during Martin Van Buren’s presidency, was made for sugar. The creation of cutlery and tableware specifically for sugar is a testament to its popularity in America, made possible by enslaved laborers in the Atlantic World. Meanwhile, four enslaved people are recorded as living in Van Buren’s White House; they may have assisted with the president’s busy schedule of entertaining by polishing silver like this, serving guests at meals, or preparing sugared beverages or food in the kitchen.White House Collection/White House Historical Association
Enslaved individuals on sugar plantations labored year-round, working in the fields during the planting and harvesting seasons and later in mills, boiling houses, and distilleries to create rum, molasses, and refined sugar for sale abroad, including Europe and its colonies. The images below depict enslaved workers harvesting and planting sugar cane in Antigua.