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American Boxed Games and Their Makers, 1822-1992
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Behind the Eight Ball
by Bob Brooke

 

During the reign of Queen Elizabeth I of England, the game of billiards had moved indoors to a wooden table with green cloth to simulate grass and a simple border around the edges. The term "billiard" came from the French for either the word "billart," one of the wooden sticks, or "bille," a ball. Since the early 19th century, it has been known as the "Noble Game of Billiards," but in fact all sorts of people played the game from its beginning. In 1600, Shakespeare mentioned it in his play "Antony and Cleopatra."

When players brought the game indoors, they shoved the balls rather than struck them with wooden sticks called maces. The cue stick didn’t appear until the late 17th century. When the ball lay near a rail, the mace didn’t work because of its large head. Players then would turn the mace around and use the end of its handle to strike the ball. The handle was called a "queue" meaning "tail" from which came the word "cue." For a long time, the rules dictated that only men could use the cue. Women had to use only the mace because people felt they were more likely to rip the cloth with the sharper cue.

At some point, a player used chalk to increase friction between the billiard ball and the cue stick. Performance improved dramatically, There are four distinct shapes in various colors---. e: square, round, triangular and wafer. The square variety is by far the most common. The earliest chalk was white, but the majority today is green or aqua to match the felt on the tables.

Early cues typically varied in length between 54 and 57 inches for pool, and between 60 inches and longer for billiards. The finer cues were normally four times more expensive than the common "house cue," reaching as high as $13 for a tournament-trophy quality model. Around the turn of the 18th century, the leather cue tip appeared. This allowed a player to apply side-spin, topspin, or even backspin to the ball. All billiard/pool cues used to be one single shaft until the two-piece cue arrived in 1829.



Billiard/pool tables originally had flat walls for rails. Their only function was to keep the balls from falling off the table. Players originally called them "banks" because they resembled the banks of a river. They soon discovered that the balls could bounce off the rails and began deliberately aiming at them, and thus the "bank shot" was born. This is where the billiard ball is hit toward the rail with the intention for it to rebound as part of the shot.

Wood made up the bed of a billiard table until around 1835, when slate became popular due to its durability for play and the fact that it wouldn't warp over time. As for the size of billiard tables, a two-to-one ratio of length to width became standard in the 18th century. Before then, there were no fixed table dimensions. By 1850, the billiard table had essentially evolved into its current form.



The game of billiards has had many variants. Players referred to a table without pockets as a "billiard table," while those with pockets were called "pocket billiard" tables. The term "carom table" was used in the early days of the sport to denote a billiard table without pockets. To carom meant to strike two balls at the same time with the white cue ball.

The sizes of billiard balls ranged from one inch for children's tables, to 2˝ inches in pocket billiard balls, to as large as 2 3/4 inches in the carom variety. The most common material used was clay. And although manufacturers tried many other concoctions, they eventually settled on some type of composition resembling clay. Celluloid balls first appeared in the late 1800s and proved to be the best substitute for ivory available at the time. While the makers of clay balls
claimed that the celluloid balls occasionally exploded upon contact, this wasn’t true. What they did do was shatter during cold weather when left overnight in poorly heated pool rooms.

Although clay, ivory, and numbered balls were available for over 150 years, the basic appearance of early billiard cues stood unchanged for much longer than that. Of the more than 150 independent billiard table manufacturers from the early to late 19th century, only a handful were in business for more than a few years. Many combined forces to improve sales and often bought out competitors.

The Origin of the Pool Hall
The words `pool hall' conjure up a very different image than `billiard parlor,' but both places provide today's collectors and pool-playing enthusiasts with plenty of options. Many an 18th and 19th century ballroom shared its beautiful parquet floor with a stunning, highly carved and/or inlaid, exotic masterpiece known as the billiard table. The fabulous homes proudly displayed their ostentatious billiard tables, along with many equally impressive accoutrements of the game.

By the 19th century, ballrooms of the wealthy featured highly carved and/or inlaid, exotic billiard tables. But it wasn't just the well-to-do who played. For more than a century, even small towns had a pool hall. Businessmen and politicians transacted many deals around pool tables. Gambling also occurred, which is where the term “pool hall” originated. The most common place in town for placing bets or taking chances on a “pool” was the billiard parlor, and these smoky establishments soon became known as “pool halls."



And though the term "pool room" now means a place where people play pool, it had a very different meaning in the 19th century. Back then a pool room was a betting parlor for horse racing. Owners installed pool tables so patrons could pass the time between races.



Unfortunately, "pool halls" began to get a bad name and this reputation slowly dimmed the lights on the honorable game of billiards. Hundreds of them began to falter and close across the country in the 1930s and 1940s. Many politicians were advocating the closure of billiard rooms in an attempt to "clean up their communities" as part of their campaign platforms, all the while playing billiards in the homes of their upper-class constituents.

Billiard Terms
It’s good for players and collectors to have a working understanding of some basic billiard terms. First, a “billiard” table was one without pockets while “pocket billiard” tables had none. Players also used the term "carom table" in the early days of the sport to denote a billiard table without pockets. Snooker is similar to pocket billiards but is typically played on a somewhat larger table with considerably smaller pocket openings and smaller balls. It’s a much harder game, often enjoyed by more skilled players. Then to confuse things even more, the term “pool” has come to be a generic term for all of these games.



Nearly every major billiard table manufacturer published a set of rules in an attempt to universalize the way the game was to be played professionally. Serious players ordinarily opted for the largest table their home's billiard room would accommodate. In the early 1800s, the two typical table sizes used for the majority of sanctioned tournament play were a 5 x 5 feet. In these early years, players considered a 9-foot table an embarrassment, and those who owned a 7 or 8-foot table were wise to keep it to themselves.



Tournament prizes ranged from hundreds to even thousands of dollars. There were spectacular keepsakes such as magnificent and monstrous sterling-silver trophies and beautiful silver or gold watches with intricate billiard scenes engraved on them. Even the incredible and exotic billiard tables specially created for the national and international competitions were awarded to the proud victors. The national and world champions became the celebrities of their time.

In the U.S. the dominant American billiard game until the 1870's was American Four-Ball Billiards, usually played on a large (11 or 12-foot), four-pocket table with four billiard balls - two of them white and two red. This was a direct extension of English Billiards. Points were scored by pocketing balls, scratching the cue ball, or by making caroms on two or three balls. With many balls, there were many different ways of scoring and it was possible to make up to 13 pints on a single shot. American Four-Ball produced two offspring, both of which surpassed it in popularity by the 1870's. One of the games, known as "straight rail,” used simple caroms played with three balls on a pocketless table. The other popular game was American Fifteen-Ball Pool, the predecessor of modern pocket billiards.

While the memorabilia from this field is amazingly diverse, finding early items isn't easy. It takes persistence, great patience and sometimes deep pockets to put together a collection.


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