Art and Literature's Contribution to an Historical Perspective of Billiards

 

If you ask most individuals, "what is the origin of basketball?" the majority of those replying would come up with an answer close to reality. They would likely say it started with Dr. James Naismith in 1891 when he created a winter sport game for the YMCA in Springfield Massachusetts using two peach baskets and a soccer ball. This is an accurate answer since the sport has a short history and is well documented.

The origin of baseball is less certain. Many would say it was invented by Abner Doubleday in Cooperstown, N.Y. in 1839. Actually its origin is more likely to be from an 18th century game called rounders. Others point to games played in Russia and Germany as being the games that evolved into baseball. The confusion, I believe, is the result of baseball being an older game than basketball. Baseball was created at a time when there was less documented history via the written word.

The origin of billiards is far less certain than basketball or baseball because the game has evolved over four or five hundred years. Billiards came from a time when word of mouth was more prevalent than the written word. Art may be more useful in documenting the medieval history of billiards rather than scholarly writings that were censored by the churches of the 15th and 16th centuries.

Many historians believe billiards evolved from lawn games, similar to croquet, that were moved indoors in winter by the nobility of medieval times. The indoor game was played on a table that may or may not have had rails. It appears that many artists have been enchanted by the indoor game that was to become billiards. These artists put to canvas their perspective of billiard's place in gentile society. Because a picture is said to be worth a thousand words, take a look at a few art works in the picture gallery below. In a silent way these works of art lead one down the evolutionary path of the game. Follow how through time billiards will move from lawn billiards to a table game. The early table games appear to be closer to the modern game of crochet that to billiards as we know it today. Many of the early tables had holes or pockets. Later tables had no pockets so clearly the gentile at some time had created new games of billiards which require no pockets. Note the use of a hooked stick (mace) that is being used rather than leather, small millimeter, tipped cue to move the balls around the table. In pictorial splendor you can see how the cue has evolved through time.

 

  • 1 Billiard Art from the Past 1480.jpg
  • 2 A Game of Billiards by Adriaen van de Venne Circa 1620 to 1626 rev. jpg.jpg
  • 3 The Billiard Table 1674.jpg
  • 4 Billiards 1694.jpg
  • 5 Billiards, From School of Recreation 1710.jpg
  • 6 game of billiards chardin 1720.jpg
  • 7 Rober Dighton 1775.jpg
  • 8 The Sons of Louis XIV Playing Billiards.jpg
  • 9 Hannah Humphrey 1787 1.jpg
  • 9a Currier and Ives 1874.jpg
  • 10 1880 billiard Ladies JMBB.jpg

 

Historical review in the twentieth century no longer relies on art to chronicle the past. Instead history is documented in printed text. I find it fascinating that at a time when the interest in billiards if far less than in the heyday of the 1920's, there are historians still compelled to invest much of their time to writing on a subject with dwindling readership. Being a person that has always been interested in "how things came to be", I for one am grateful that these individuals persevered in documenting their interest in billiards for us to read, understand and enjoy. If you are interested in the history of billiards I would like to recommend a number of books that you should have in your library.

A must have for every billiard historian is a copy of William Hendricks' History of Billiards published in 1974. Mr. Hendricks, an intercollegiate billiard champion and scholar, documents and discusses early opinions and facts regarding the evolution of billiards up to modern times. In the 1960's there was no internet. One must pause for a moment to appreciate the time and labor invested on Mr. Hendricks part to communicate via snail mail with others around the world as he pulled together the background for his published work. Times and dates of events in billiard history that are covered in the manuscript can be found no were else. Unfortunately, this 54 page manuscript is out of print. You may find a copy of this publication on eBay or Amazon.com if you are lucky. I am hopeful that before most copies are lost, Mr. Hendricks or his relatives will allow this 54 page softbound manuscript to be published on the Chicago Billiard Museums web site, for all to read. "The Chicago Billiard Museum is dedicated to the promotion of billiards and pool in the future by preserving and sharing it's illustrations of the past". Mr. Hendricks' work is certainly worthy of being preserved and yet unfortunately I doubt there is enough interest to pay for the cost of reprinting this fine work.

I was fortunate to find a copy of Mr. Hendricks work on amazon.com. What was particularly interesting was a flyer I found inside the manuscript when I received my copy. The flyer along with my copy of the manuscript had been originally sent to the "President, Billiard Congress of America" and was post marked St. Louis, Mo. 1979. Four years after being published, Mr. Hendricks was still trying to get the word out regarding his work. I wonder if Mr. Hendricks ever sold all copies of the first printing. I discussed in another section of this web site, "Is it billiards or pool?" I find it interesting that it isn't until the last two pages of Mr. Hendricks manuscript that he uses the term pool. He uses the term pool in reference to the game being played in the U.S. in the 1920's. This is an almost certain reference to the 20th century American slang term for billiards.

 

1 History of Billiards by William Hendricks

 

2 Billiard Congress of America

 

3 Billiard Congress of America 2-001

 

On pages IV and V of Mr. Hendricks' manuscript there is a chronology of the history of billiards that puts the likely origin and evolution of the game in prospective:

"A BRIEF CHRONOLOGY OF THE HISTORY OF BILLIARDS"   

"This chronology of important events belonging to the history of the game of billiards is based, of course, on documented facts, on research, sometimes on educated conjecture. The events span a period beginning in the Middle Ages and extending through the year 1900, by which time billiards may be said to have assumed most of its modern characteristics. Of necessity the dates sometimes can place an event only approximately, and by reference to the earliest (or latest) documentation. The earliest documented existence of a billiard table, for instance, was in 1470. But it is entirely likely that a few tables existed even earlier. Of necessity only the more important events are listed here. A chronology can begin to give shape to a historical picture but should be used only as a supplement to the material from which it is taken in William Hendricks' History of Billiards."

 

William Hendricks; William Hendrick's History of Billiards, A compleat Historie Of Billiard Evolution; Published by William Hendricks, Roxana, IL 1974, pages Iv & v

 

1164    The word bille already being used to refer to certain medieval ball games.

1350    Probably the earliest documented billiard game, played on a field in France.

Approximately the period of the "figure striking at a ball with a crooked stick" in the Gloucester Cathedral window and of Joseph Strutt's illustration of ground billiards.

1460    Approximately the period of a game of ground billiards played by shepherds and depicted in a French tapestry.

1470    The first known billiard table, purchased by Louis XI of France.

1480    A noble family in France purchases "two games of billiards, complete with billiard table."

1514    "A large table for the game of billiard covered in green cloth" is listed on the inventory of the possessions of a French duchess.

1578    Billiard tables are licensed in Holland by the Lombards.

1586    Mary, Queen of Scots, is deprived of her billiard table at Fotheringay Castle.

1588    The duke of Norfolk and the Earl of Leicester own billiard tables in England.

1591    Edmund Spenser described billiards as a thriftless game.

1605    King James I of England orders a table to be made by "Henry Waller, our joyner" – probably the first known builder of an English billiard table.

1609    Shakespeare's reference to billiards in "Antony and Cleopatra".

1610    The billardiers paulmiers receive from the French Crown the sole rights to administer public billiard rooms.

1611    Billiards described in Randle Cotgrave's Distionairie of the French and English Tongues.

1616    Ben Johnson remards on the smoothness of the billiard ball in his play "The Devil Is an Ass."

1656    Cromwell enjoins the justices of Herford County to suppress alehouse keepers who allow customers to "playe at Billiard Table" on Sunday.

1665    The first known book containing instructions for billiards, La Maison de Jeux Academiques, published in Paris.

1666    Billiards available to the public at fifty-seven licensed locations in Paris.

1674    The first known English work containis instructions for billiards, Charles Cotton's The Compleat Gamester, published.

It is permissible to use the small end of the mace if the ball lied too close to the rail – this is the first step in the evolution of the cue.

1679    Billiards played with the "small end of the billiard stick, for the most part of the game" at the Portuguese ambassador's estate in London.

1682    Parisian courtiers seated on couches of green velvet with gold fringes see Louis play billiards under "twenty-six crystal chandeliers" on one of his two tables.

1684    Howlett's School of Recreation published, containing England's second published set of instructions for billiards in ten years.

1690    Billiards may still be played "on specially prepared ground in the garden" according to Furetiere's dictionary.

1709    William Byrd II of colonial Virginia plays billiards with Mrs. Byrd on his plantation.

1717    Louis XV plays billiards at age seven in France.

1723    Late-night billiards playing restricted by the French in the five year old city of New Orleans.

1734    First recorded mention n print of the billiard cue ("the stick") appears in Seymour's updated Complete Gamester; and in the same work a new variety ("French billiards") is added to the existing modes of English play.

1763    The young Scotsman James Boswell plays billiards in London.

1765    A billiard room is constructed by the French in the one year old city of St. Louis in the present day state of Missouri.

1773    The important Covent Garden Magazine treatise on billiards appears in two installments.

The work "cue" first appears in an English treatise on billiards; the word "trailing" is first defined and the technique described; the carambole game, using a third ball, first appears in English rule books to become the precursor of modern billiards.

"In England the mace is the prevailing instrument with few foreigners excel with" and the arch and king are "now wholly laid aside." (The Covent Garden Magazine)

1775    John Dew's treatise on billiard appears in Hoyle's Games Improved.

1779    Dew describes how the mace may be used as a mechanical bridge by the cue player.

1790    The invention of the Jeffrey, a cue bevelled at the tip to allow for striking the ball below the center.

1792    Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette play billiards on the eve of their imprisonment.

1797    The "white winning game" played with two white balls is the "game commonly played" in England.

1799    John Thurston goes into business as a billiard table and general cabinet maker in London.

1800    Cues and maces being sold in equal numbers in England.

1801    An anonymous work, Game of Billiards, published in London by T. Hurst is the first English work devoted completely to billiards.

1803    Billiard table making has become "generally a branch by itself" of the furniture industry, according to Sheraton.

1805    Wooden billiard balls still in use in France according to Academie Universelle des Jeux; the book is also one of the few to mention "trailing" outside o f England.

1807    E. White's A practical Trestise on the Game of Billiards published, probably the most comprehensive work on the game yet printed in any language.

The effects of vertical spin on a ball first described in print, by White. White is the first used of the terms "object ball" and "cue ball."

1814    John Thurston's furniture company devotes itself wholly to the billiards industry.

1818    Thurston's first sales notation of "a cue tipped with leather."

1819    A game called "pool" begins to appear in English rulebooks.

1820    This early in the century, Phelan said, Americans used the mace almost exclusively. In England the cue has clearly superseded the mace.

1823    John Carr becoming famed as the "father of the side stroke."

1825    British champion John Carr defaults a billiard match to Edwin Kentfield, who becomes the new national champion.

1826    John Thurston is experimenting with his new invention – slate bed for billiard tables.

1827    Mingaud's Noble Jeu de Billiard published in Paris.

1828    Opponents of President John Quincy Adams in this presidential campaign year had Adams' presidential billiards in mind when they charged that he kept "gaming tables" in the White House.

1830    Mingaud demonstrates the marvels of "English" in London; Thurston published Mingaud's book in an English translation.

1833    A billiard table hauled by mule train to Brent's Fort, on the Santa Fe Trail in Colorado.

1834    Thurston introduces the Imperial Petrosian Billiard Table with its slate bed.

1835    Thurston's new invention, India rubber cushions, replaces the old cloth-stuffed cushions.

1838    Queen Victoria has a new Thurston table installed at Windsor Castle.

1845    Thurston patents has improved vulcanized rubber cushions.

John Brunswick, a Swiss immigrant, begins making billiard tables in the United States.

1849    Edwin Kentfield loses the English billiard championship, through default, to John Roberts of Liverpool.

1850    The English work Bohn's New Handbook of Games published in Philadelphia, containing a treatise on billiards. A.E. Schmidt enters the billiard field.

Michael Phelan's Billiards without a Master, the first American book on billiards, is published.

The game of four-ball carom billiards is the most popular in America.

The erect address with the cue is still favored, and the striking motion still involves the entire arm.

"Indeed the mace is now scarely used except by ladies" (Bohn).

1855    Napoleon III sends an ornate nine-foot billiard table to Russia as a gift for the coronation of Tsar Alexander II.

The Phelan and Collender company formed; it would be for a number of years the largest and most important billiard manufacturer in the country.

1856    The first of Phelan's patents granted for his redesigning of the American billiard table.

Phelan inaugurates The Billiard Cue, a small monthly magazine.

1859    The first American championship billiard match played, between Phelan and John Seereiter in Detroit, with Phelan winning.

1860    The first intercollegiate billiards match played, between Harvard and Yale in Worcester, Massachusetts.

1863    The proper address with the cues is to confine the striking motion to the lower arm--almost modern.

The mace "still much used by ladies and children in their attempts to learn the rudiments of the game" (Phelan).

1864    The first official state billiard championship played, in Connecticut.

Charles Dickens has a Thurston table delivered in time for Christmas.

1868    John Wesley Wyatt invents celluloid, a synthetic substitute for ivory billiard balls.

1870    William Cook beats john Roberts in the first official championship in English billiards.

1875    Snooker invented by British officers garrisoned in India.

1876    Mark Twain and Bret Harte write a new play, working in the billiard room on the third floor of Twain's house in Hartford, Connecticut.

1878    First official American Pocket Billiards tournament.

1879    The Brunswick-Balke-Collender Company formed by the merger.

1891    By this time mace-play is formally dead. "All strokes must be played with the point of the cue" (B.A.C.C.).

1896    Major Broadfoot's thick book Billiards published in the Badminton Library sports series.

The address with the cue now recognized as correct is the modern low-over-the table stance, with the pendulum swing of the forearm.

1909    Maces still for sale, possible for the last time anywhere, according to Brunswick-Balke-Collender advertisements in the United States.

William Hendricks; William Hendrick's History of Billiards, A compleat Historie Of Billiard Evolution; Published by William Hendricks, Roxana, IL 1974, pages Iv & v

 

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A recent literary work covering the history of billiards as well as the equipment of the game is The Billiard Encyclopedia, An Illustrated History of the Sport, written by Victor Stein and Paul Rubino, now in its third edition. This is a "must have" for any billiard/cue enthusiast. This book is massive having a total of 629 pages. I can only imagine the time and money invested to publish the book. The fact that it is the third edition of The Billiard Encyclopedia says something about the ongoing interest in billiards around the world. You can get this book from several sources on the internet. For example: Blatt Billiard.

4 Billaird Encycloped


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Another scholarly work that is worth having in you library is The Complete Book of Billiards, by Mike Shamos, copyright 1993. I am not certain it should be considered an historical document covering the game of billiards. I would instead put it in the category of the published "Wikipedia of billiards". Mr. Shamos, a scholar, has created a dictionary of billiard terms used throughout time. Mr. Shamos certainly invested much time on this project.

5 Shamos


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If you have an interest in snooker, a proper British billiard game invented in 1885, find a copy of The Story of Billiards and Snooker by Clive Everton, copyright 1979. My copy came to me via Amazon.com from a book conservator in England. The book is quite musty. I am not certain whether this odor is from the constant rain in England these past 30 years or the fact that the book was never read. I find it fascinating that the author had such a passion for the game of snooker that he would take the time to put together this documentary of the great snooker players of the past century.


6 The Story of Billiards & Snooker by Clive Everton, Cassell Ltd.


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This next book is a must read for the pool player that likes to wager on the game in smoke filled bars. The book is Billiards, by John Grissim, copyright 1941. The caption under the title reads "Hustlers & Heroes, Legends & Lies and The Search for Higher Truth on the Green Felt". This book is a good read if you are interested in the pool players that have been immortalized but came from the seedier side of the game. In the earlier part of the 1900's Brunswick-Balke-Collender was on a crusade to promote billiards as a wholesome game for the family. In 1941 along comes John Grissim to glamorize the games that were played in smoke filled rooms where hustlers plied their skills at scamming the uninformed player of lessor skill. I doubt that Brunswick-Balke-Collender ever promoted this book.

 

7 Billiards by John Grissim, St. Martin's press 1979


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Finally, Pool & Billiard Collectables, copyright © 2003 by Mark and Connie Stellinga is a must have coffee table book for anyone who has an interest in collecting antique billiard items. This book offers a glimpse at billiards past history through Marks personal collection of many of the finer billiard cues and collectables going back several hundred years.

I have three copies of Mark's book.  The one below was purchased first and I use it frequently as a reference book.  It is tabbed and has a lot of writing in the margins.  I purchased a second as a coffee table book for my billiard room and I received a third copy as a gift.   Since re-giffting is not a good thing, I will save it for when this book goes out of print.  At that time the value of the book will likely increase faster than an investment in the stock market.

8 Pool and Billiard by Mark Stellinga


The collection of billiard items in Mark's book is quite an impressive display of one couple's 30 plus year pursuit of the very best in historical billiard cues, tables, advertising, etc. The Stellinga's are to be commended for their hard work in putting together a high quality book to document their billiard collectables that others including myself can only wish we had found. This book can be found on eBay as well as other web sites. I am certain anyone who collects antique billiard items know the Stellinga's personally or at least knows of Mark and Connie Stellinga. What most do not know is that Mark's talents are quite diverse and go far beyond billiards. He is an accomplished, published poet. His Victorian furniture restoration projects are museum quality. If that is not enough, his vintage car restoration projects are of concourse quality.

I expect Pool & Billiard Collectables is referenced more often than any other book by computer savvy people who wish to provide some provenance to a billiard item that they are selling on eBay or other on-line auctions.

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