Billiard balls.


In 1627 ivory was already considered better than clay, wood and all other materials (*). It came from the tusks of elephants

From Company catalogue 1889.

but its excessive consumption put the existence of these animals in danger. The search for ivory substitutes led to the discovery of the first plastic 'Celluloid' in the 1860s and the making of its improved products 'Bonzonile' in 1893 and 'Crystalate' around 1900 (**). The success of these plastics based on nitrocellulose and camphor, declined with the creation of 'Bakelite' and then of its derivatives 'Vitalite' and 'Aramith'. These phenol and formaldehyde-based plastics, called 'phenolic resins', eventually prevailed and the use of ivory ceased around 1960 except for the 'Artistic billiards' game.

Here are some balls and/or documents of the collection illustrating the above history:


- A set of two balls with the characteristic aspect of ivory and one dyed red.

Each of the three balls has two opposite dots (bigger for one of them), a diameter of 61 mm and weight of 206 g.

- Many other balls can be seen in [1].

- Lid of a box of balls (ca 1900)

provided with an interesting inner label


produced by the French firm Hénin Aîné, which had begun to manufacture balls in 1830 [2].

- Price list in FF (French franc) sets of 3 ivory balls of various qualities. Excerpt from a French catalogue dating from 1912 which also mentions a price of 24 FF for a set of 'Crystalate' composition balls 57 to 65 mm in diameter.


Below, one of the first composition balls dating from 1868 [i].

The plaque reads: “Billiard Ball. Made in 1868 of Cellulose Nitrate, Celluloid. The Year John Wesley Hyatt Discovered This First Plastics Resin”.

Because of its lower density than ivory, celluloid was replaced inside the ball by a denser material.


- A set of three balls, two of them without opposite dots.

- A humorous advertisement in The Game of Billiards and How to Play It by John Roderts, C. Arthur Pearson Ltd., London, 1913, announces that 'Bonzoline is Better than Ivory' in a drawing where two elephants play billiards.

Note that more than a million balls are used daily.


'Crystalate' and 'Bonzoline' balls have similar compositions.

Small billiard balls, 52 mm in diameter, British made.


- an excerpt from a British advertisement dating from around 1900

- a French advert of 1912.

Note that these composition balls are about seven times cheaper than the best ivory balls 62 mm in diameter (see prices given above).

According to all the advertisements shown above, composition balls have qualities (elasticity, density and sonority) similar to those of ivory balls but do not have their defects (lack of homogeneity, sensitivity to temperature and humidity, deformation and cracking with age, price, difficult maintenance). The professional players were initially convinced of the superiority of the ivory but they changed their minds later.


First thermosetting plastic made from phenol and formaldehyde in 1907 by the Belgian-born American Leo Baekeland (1868-1944).


Two brown balls and a red one. Other balls can be seen in [1].

Bakelite is still used currently in the manufacture of 'Aramith' balls.


Eburnean composition balls [3] with which several records were broken (see below the excerpt from the French newspaper 'Le Billard Sportif' No. 143 of 1938).

They were created in 1936 by Edouard Fornells (1887-1942), who was awarded a Gold Medal by the Section of Plastics of the International Exhibition of Arts and Techniques of Paris in 1937. This manufacturer then produced the 'FOR-MATCH' balls, which were officially adopted by the F.F.A.B. in 1938 (see below the excerpt from the French newspaper 'Le Billard Sportif' No.143 of 1938).

F.F.A.B. (French Federation of Billard Amateurs) became F.F.B. (French Federation of Billiards) in 1956.


Doctor Max Koebner worked for RASCHIG GmbH in Germany, when around 1937, to escape from the persecution of the Jewish, he decided to emigrate to England where he produced the 'Vitalite' ball (**).

Small balls, 52 mm in diameter, rare, made and used in England during the 1940s and the 1950s.

Note that in the 1930s the firm RASCHIG already manufactured phenolic resin billiard balls using a resin casting process (**). Below is an undated logo.


Balls among the oldest (1960s)

and the newest (2018),

with different colours and big points, made by Saluc S.A. This firm, founded in Belgium in 1923, began to show interest in balls in the 1950s and has now dominated the world market for decades. According to advertisements, some of the main qualities of the 'Aramith' balls are their perfect sphericity and balance as well as their strength and rolling without friction.

Below, some notes about balls of unknown composition.

1) French advertisement (1901) of 'Compostion Française' billiard balls.

2) Etablissements Mauclair-Dacier, Paris, sold 'Les sans rivales' composition balls around 1900.

3) German advert from before 1908, of billiard balls 'Elforit', previously called 'Crystalline' (= 'Crystalate' ?).

4) Excerpt from the Katalog über Billard Zubehör of the above firm (ca 1929), containing 'Elforite' and other composition balls: 'Perfecto', 'Recordit' and 'Imitation'.

The manufacturing technique of the last balls is similar to the one used for celluloid.

5) Some Brunswick Billiard Supply Catalog (U.S.A.) show that the early 1900s 'Compo-Ivory' and 'Empire' billiard balls were followed by 'Ivorylene' ones.


(*) See 'The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Billiards' by SHAMOS Michaël, 1993.
(**) For furher details, see
STEIN V. and RUBINO P., The Billiard Encyclopedia. An Illustrated History of the Sport. Balkline Press Inc., New York, United States, 2008 3rd edition, pp. 236 - 247.

[1] STELLINGA Mark & Connie, Pool & Billiard Collectibles, Ed. Schiffer, Pennsylvenia, U.S.A., 2003, 288 p.
[2] HENIN Aîné, Grande Fabrique de Billes de Billards, Paris, France, ca. 1889, 35 p.
[3] HEURTEBISE André, 3 billes aux reflets tricolores. Ed. Féd. Française, Thionville, France, 1984, page 24.


The National Museum of American History. Washington. CH*334572. © Smithsonian Institution.