Billiard Cues Through Time

If you are keenly interested in the detailed history of the billiard cue, you must read sections on this subject in The Billiard Encyclopedia by Stein and Rubino and The History of Billiards by William Hendricks noted in the Art and Literature section of this web site. These reference books cover the evolution of the cue in great detail. What follows is a brief and less than complete recap.

The earliest cue was called a “mace”. It was a long one piece stick with a curved blunt end. The small end of the mace was held at shoulder height in two fingers with the larger blunt end resting on the table in preparation to contact the ball. With a stroking action, the mace would push or strike the cue ball in the direction of the object ball. The pushing of the ball was called trailing because the mace could remain in contact with the cue for some distance.

 

1 Sketch of Mace


It is clear to see how a stick used for lawn billiards evolved into a mace for table billiards in the two art works below.

2 Ground Billiards 1480


3 Billiard Art from the Past 1480 (2)


In later times, the mace was made with a separate head. The one antique mace pictured below has an aiming line and a leather face while the other does not.

4 early mace

 

Below is an example of how the mace, with the leather face, might be used to strike or trail the ball.

 

5 mace with aiming line

 

 If the mace were laid on its side the curve portion of the mace could be used to direct the cue ball along the table toward the object ball with the mace remaining in contact with the ball (trailing) for some distance.

 

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It appears from reported history, the use of a mace to strike or trail a cue ball was predominately an English adaptation of a billiard game. The mace was seen in billiards in the 18th and 19th centuries. Take a look at a number of the "works of art" in the Art and Literature section of this web site to see how people held and used a mace in early table billiard games. The mace had a smaller tapered end which in most cases was used to hold the cue. On occasion however; if the balls were in a congested area or if the cue ball was up against a rail, the mace would be reversed and the player would use the small end of the mace to strike the ball. This smaller end of the mace was called the tail or if in France it was referred to as the "queue" meaning "tail". In the English language translation "queue" became "cue". Using a tapered stick ("Bilart" in French) and striking the ball with the smaller end ("queue" or "cue") evolved to the point where this tapered instrument was referred to as "billiard cue" and the ball being struck with the smaller end of the stick as the "cue" ball. (How things came to be has always been of interest to me.)

Not surprisingly, as the English settled in America they brought their billiard game and equipment, including the mace, with them. While the mace was present in the United States, playing billiards by striking the cue ball with the small end of a cue stick most certainly dominated the sport in the 1800's in this country. I find it interesting that the mace was still offered in catalogs until the early 20th century. Pictured below is a mace in an 1880 National Billiard Mfg. Catalog.

 

7 Mace 1880 National Catalog


I also found a mace offered in the1893 National Catalog for 60 cents and in the 1904 Brunswick Catalog for 50 cents. If as Hendricks' indicates in his book, the use of a mace was formally dead by 1891, one has to wonder why the mace was still being sold in 1904. Was the mace at this time used in a striking motion as distinct from trailing where the stick remained in contact with the cue for an extended period of time?

As mentioned earlier, the use of a mace and the act of trailing were not readily accepted outside of England. Many European players in the 19th century used the long tapered stick, i.e. billiard cue somewhat similar to the cues of modern times. The large end of the cue was flat on at least one side and tapered so that when the cue was held near shoulder height with the small end, it could slide along the table with an abrupt, center strike of the cue ball with the larger blunt end. Many cues shown in the Brunswick catalogs in the 1920's and 1930's still had one flat side on the butt, usually where the weight stamp is found. I believe this flat side of the cue is what remains from a time when the billiard cue could still be used to strike the cue ball with either end. How late in our countries billiard history was the cue allowed to be used in this manner? With no official rules on which end of the cue was to be used to strike the ball, I suspect play evolved out of necessity because the small end of the cue provided more control of the direction of the cue ball as it tracked toward the object ball.


8 Brunswick Cue-002


The problem with the early tapered billiard cue stick was when the cue ball was struck with the smaller end of the cue stick, the strike was very harsh. Further, as previously mentioned, there was little control of the direction of the cue ball unless it was hit on dead center. In the early 1800's a Frenchman by the name of Mingaud discovered that by adding a leather tip to the small end of the cue, he could soften the harshness of the strike and add significant control when directing the ball around the table. Equally important to the use of the smaller leather tipped end of a cue was the application of chalk to the leather, which is attributed to the British. The chalk provided a friction surface on the slick hard leather that would allow the player to put a measured amount of spin on the cue ball and thus improving directional capabilities when shooting the cue ball at an object ball. Below is a set of my early one piece Brunswick cue sticks without splices and large 18mm leather tips. Notice that the butts are four sided and tapered so one could strike the ball with the butt or the leather tipped end.


9 early cue


10 early cues with leather tips


These large tipped cues, shown above, still fell short when it came to control of the ball even when using chalk. Making the leather tip smaller with a more rounded shape added greater control of the cue ball's intended direction but created a problem of cue breakage if the billiard cue were used aggressively. This initiated the invention of the ferrule, between the wooden cue and the leather tip, which allowed for a much stronger, smaller cue tip that would not break. There is no indication in the billiard history books, that I have read, as to who should get credit for the introduction of the ferrule. I think the improved playability created by a small diameter tipped cue with a ferrule is of equal importance to the advancement of billiard play as Mingaud's leather tip.


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Modern cue construction including two piece cues, inlays and exotic woods are covered only briefly in the cue manufacturing section of this site. I would recommend the reader find a copy of the Billiard Encyclopedia if you have an interest in these subjects. Authors, Stein and Rubino, do a masterful job covering modern as well as antique cues

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