History of billiards and its tables.

The current French billiards results from the transposition on a table of a ground billiard game shown below in a 1480 woodcut [i] (based on the Saint-Lô Tapestry).

The first known table was commissioned by Louis XI (1423-1483), King of France, to carpenter Henri de Vigne in

O 1469. It was made of wood and twice as long as it is wide. Its stone bed was covered with cloth and its cushions were composed of hemp [1- 3]. Also
part of this order: an arch, a pin, balls and maces [2]. This type of playing equipment did not change for at least 225 years, as can be seen in 'A Game of billiards' [ii], painted around

O 1620-1626 by Adriaen van de Venne (the player is Frederick Henry of Nassau, Prince of Orange (1584-1647))

and in the print of 'Third Apartment' [iii] engraved in
O 1694 by Antoine Trouvain (1656-1705) (the player is the King of France Louis XIV (1638-1715)).

The goal of the game was to knock down the pin. From the 1500s, tables started to be equipped with pockets to trap an opponent's ball. Notice that the first known printed billiard rules (5 pages of [4]) date from 1654 only.

The drawing 'Ladies and gentlemen playing billiards' from
O 1756 [iv], by Johan Esaias Nilson (1721-1788)

shows that at that time, the pin (probably replaced by a ball) and the arch disappeared, and that ladies were still using a mace while men were already using a cue. Note that the pockets, clearly visible on the drawing, began to disappear around 1850 to give way to the French free game [1].

Note that the above tables are stable thanks to the stretchers.

O 1700 to late 1800s. According to 'The Billiard Encyclopedia. An Illustrated History of the Sport.' [5] the tables built at the time become masterworks of sculpture, inlays, marquetry and the French style creativity influenced the table design all over the world.

O 1816. Creation of one of the most beautiful and original tables of the billiard history by P. Charles Chéreau, billiard table manufacturer, King’s patented, who founded his firm in 1806.This table is provided, under its bed shelf, with an organ which plays different sounds depending on the pockets into which the balls fall. It is unique and was shown at the Louvre Exhibition in 1827 [5]. Chereau’s firm was specialized in supplying high society and royalty with extremely elaborate tables. Its last successor was Georges Caro’s Manufacture in Paris.

Below, a nice fourteen-leg table, which is in the Billiard Room or King’s Room of the Real Casita del Labrador, Aranjuez in Spain.


It is lavishly decorated with palms and gilded bronze motifs. It dates from the 18th century in [3]. Note that according to jdiezarnal.com/casadellabrador.html, it would have been built during the "época fernandina" under the reign of Fernando VII in Spain from 1814 to 1833.

O 1857. Creation of 'Billards Toulet' in Lille, France, producer of the table used during the memorable game between Vignaux and Slosson in1880 (see Section 2 A), as well as the next three

..

respectively of the Louis XIV, Louis XV and Napoléon III styles. The latter, dating from 1880, is rare as it can be converted into a dining table, an invention byToulet. Indeed it is equipped with a device, actioned by a removable crank, for reducing its height and a table top can be fixed to it. Note that 'Billards Toulet' is still operating.


Billiards as it is practised today developed mainly in the

O 1800s as a result of:

A) the invention of the leather cue tip, allowing to apply side spin (= English) to the cue ball, and the use of chalk, to prevent a miscue (early 1800s).

B) the appearance of firms dealing only with billiards (tables, cues and balls) (from 1816).

For more details on points a and b above, see section 'Collection 1. Q'.

C) the construction of table beds made of slate from Italy (1830s) on which the quality of the ball rolling is better than on wood, marble or metal. The slate porosity reduces the natural humidity of the billiard cloth slowing down the balls.

D) the replacement of the natural rubber of the table cushions by vulcanized rubber which is more stable and resistant (1845).

E) the use of table diamonds as aiming referenties (around 1850).

F) the production of synthetic balls that starts in 1868 (for details, see section 'Collection 3').

G) the use of electricity to light and heat table beds (early 1900s).

H) a constant development of billiard cloth, especially the one made by Belgian firm Iwan Simonis founded in 1680.


In addition to these improvements to the tables, their pockets were removed in France around 1850, and later in other countries. So, there could be higher runs, to the great pleasure of the growing number of players. This led to the opening of several new cafés, as well as very large halls, notably in Paris, Vienna, Amsterdam and New York. The French three-ball game on a pocketless table became one of the most popular billiard games in the world.

Several old billiard tables of various countries are shown in Section 5. Old ROOMS of this site.

For more details, see Sections 2. BOOKS a and b. of this site and

STEIN V. and RUBINO P., The Billiard Encyclopedia. An Illustrated History of the Sport. Balkline Press Inc., New York, U.S.A., 2008, 629p.
HENDRICKS William, William Hendricks' History of Billiards. Ed. Hendricks, Roxana, U.S.A., 1974, 54p.
LABLEE Richard, Le billard: histoire et règles du jeu. Ed. Hatier, France, 1992, 117p.
JUFFERMANS Cas, Beter biljarten. Ed. Francis Productions, Rotterdam, Netherlands, 2007, 176p.
SHAMOS Michaël, Le billard et le billard américain. Ed. Minerva, Paris, France, 1992, 128p.


Below, three billiard table models described in early 1900s French catalogues.

O 1910 (ca.). 'COMPAGNIE BRUNSWICK FRANÇAISE 'Album illustré du billard', Paris, France. 40 p.

 

...



"Empire" billiard table. Made of mahogany, with gilded bronze decorations.




Billiard table, LouisXVI, convertible into a dining table, with its various accessories.




Oval billiard table, quite successful in France and other countries in 1908.

Bellow a similar elongated octogonal billiard table [v] shown in a book of the same period [6].


Note that a hexagonal billiard table is shown in section 5. A. Old paintings.

O 1920 (ca.). 'Billards Brunswick', 24 p.





"Herald" model six-leg table. Light brown oak and other types of wood. Marquetry.

The French Brunswick Company was co-manager for Europe of BRUNSWICK - BALKE - COLLENDER – CO (= B.B.C. Co). until the 1930s. This important American manufactory started in 1845 under the name of J. M. Brunswick and bore other names during its evolution, with, for example, the one in the advertisement below [i], probably dating from 1850-1860.

It is interesting as it shows that at the time, billiards in the United States was played with four balls on a table with pockets and markers on the cushions and that the mace was still used (see also the drawing in Phelan's book published in 1857 shown in Section 2. BOOKS B of this site).

B.B.C. Co manufactured
In the 1870s, 'The Monarch', famous table provided with a cast iron frame, sometimes gilded, as can be seen in the next picture.


Below is a reproduction of the 1928 catalogue of the B.B.C. Co, Chicago, USA, 131 p.

which shows the huge B.B.C. Co factory (located in Muskegon, Michigan, USA)



and tables with pockets such as The Monroe



or without pockets like The Regal


allowing to play billard français- , balkline- , or 3-cushion- games (for more details see Section 2. BOOKS A and B of this site). Note that according to the book 'LE BILLARD ET LE BILLARD AMERICAIN' by Mike Shamos, the three-ball carom style of billiards was the most popular in both the United States and Europe from 1873 onwards.

O 1925. HÉNIN AÎNÉ catalogue, 'Un billard parfait', Paris, France, 24 p .




"SIRIUS" billiard-table (left) and converted into a lower dining table (right).

Below, see the mechanism operated by the crank to quickly change the mode of this billiard table, called convertible billiard table.

 

"Louis XV" six-leg table, with marquetry.

Note that billiard tables are sometimes patterned after the period furniture.

For further models, see:

a) Website "Aux billards anciens", which contains a.o. E. Briotet and Blanchet’s catalogues, who both succeeded Chereau, and Toulet’s one.

b) Books [6] and [7].

 

BELGIUM.

Here are a few names of billiard table manufacturers featured in an advertisement, a catalogue or another item of the collection.

O 1830. G. ERREMUS & FILS.


O 1893.
Henry WILDEN, billiard table manufacturer and professor, greatly appreciated at the time.

......



O 1893. Maurice VAN de KERCKHOVE (= VDK). His partnership with Henry WILDEN in 1896 was dissolved in 1899.

O 1925 (ca). VDK.



The above catalogue shows:

a) the VDK electric factory manufacturing billiard tables.

b) several billiard tables including the "RECORD" model (Art Deco) below

fitted with the VDK electric heating system patented in 1925.

c) the evolution of the billiard table heating over time.

O 1938.

VDK advertisement.

O 1950 (ca).

A VAN DE KERKCHOVE table, with adjustable legs, and
a HOREMANS table (right.)

......

Both manufacturers, billiard champions and brothers-in-law (see Section G.a), were also associates, see below.

O 1960 (ca).




O 1906. Louis VAN LAERE, merging with John THURSTON in 1986. The latter is also well-known and long-lasting (see below).



This advertisement, dating from 1932, shows the inside mechanism of a six-leg billiard table, provided with new devices and their functions.

Below,

a similar table, with a different shape of the legs,


Van Laere storefront,

and one of its plaques.


No doubt most senior billiard players have played on one of the tables sold by the last three manufacturers above.

GERMANY.

The 'Handbuch der Billardspielkunst.' manual, 1908, by Gottfried KERKAU [8],

......

Ficus Ginseng Bonsai.


includes a list of firms in the 1800s, when billiards particularly developed (see above 'O 1800 as a result of').

Here are some of them, with the years when they were founded and advertisements.


F. Fürtsweger Sohn, 1838.
Erste Deutsche Billardfabrik. Mainz.

The first German billiard table manufacturer, Mainz.



J. B. Dorfelder, 1865. Billard-, Bllarqueue- & Billardball-Fabrik. Mainz ; Filiale in Mûnchen.

Manufacturer of billiard tables and accessories in Mainz and Munich.

......

Carmona Bonsai.

Schröder & Kartzke, 1884. Billardfabrik. Dresden.


......

AUSTRIA – HUNGARY.

Heinrich Seifert & Söhne, 1848 - 1920. Wien-Budapest.

Billiard table manufacturers, Warrant holders of the Court (Serbia, Persia, Bulgaria). Vienna and Budapest.

......


SWITZERLAND.



F. Morgenthaler & Co., 1892. Spezialfabrik für Präzisions-Billards, Bern - Zürich.




The above advertisement mentions that German Hugo Kerkau (1874 - 1918) won the French free game world championship with 7156 caroms on a "Baroc" billiard in Zurich.

Note that Gottfried Kerkau, Hugo’s brother, writes in his 1908’s book [8] 'Auf Morgenthalerschem Billard vollendete Hugo Kerkau die höchste Karambolserie der Welt mit hilfe des Banden-seriespiels: 7156 Points.' (= 'Hugo Kerkau completed the highest carom series in the world with 7156 points on a billiard table manufactured by F. Morgenthaler & Co.').

Such performance could probably be achieved thanks to the improvements to the table cushions, as illustrated (below) by Burroughes & Watts in England.

THE NETHERLANDS.


"Wilhelmina",1890. Biljartfabriek, Amsterdam (Royal Warrant holder, from 1910 on).



......

Caption: The "Wilhelmina" billiard table is used by the greatest masters!

 

ENGLAND.

The 'Billiards & Snooker' - A Trade History’ compilation, dating from 1981, by J. R. Mitchell


 

informs that in England:

1. The first billiard tables were built by cabinet maker Robert Gillow around 1770.

Below,

a) A billiard table with its accessories, shown in the book by E. White in 1807 [9].

 

b) An aquatint 'The Billiard Table' ,1812 (**),


where the table legs are quite simple, which is normal for a first construction.

2. Cabinet maker John Thurston settled as a billiard table manufacturer in London in 1799. At the beginning the table bed shelf was made of wood and then of slate.

Elaborate Thurston table with eight robust legs (***).

Thurston Billiards - Match room. Thurston's Hall 1903. [vi].



3. Burroughes & Watts.Ltd. was founded in London in 1836.

The drawing below is excerpted from their 1889 catalogue, which includes twenty other tables and a folder on the history of billiard cushions.


 



This company is as reputed as Thurston for great quality and expertise.

 

In summary, billiards was probably born in France in 1469. Its slow improvement, which culminates at the time of the industrial revolution (1800s), has finally resulted in the production of high quality tables. Some of them are real masterworks and are still existing.

_______________________________________________


(*) In the absence of available catalogues.
(**) Excerpted from 'The Tour of Dr Syntax in Search of the Picturesque' by British writer William Combe (1742-1823).
(***) Probably necessary if the table bed dates from after 1830 and is made of slate, whose density is much higher than the wood one.


[1] ALBOUKER Robert, Autour du billard. Découvertes. Gallimard N°162, France, 1992, 160p.
[2] MARTY Jean, Billards, Ed. du Garde-Temps, Paris, France, 2002, 128p.
[3] TROFFAES Georges, Le billard et l'histoire. Chronique des temps passés. Ed. Laguide, Paris, France, 1974, 149p.
[4] MARINIERE, Jean Pinson de la, La maison académique. Contenant un recueil.de tous les jeux divertissans...Paris, France, 1654, 236p.
[5] STEIN V. et RUBINO P., The Billiard Encyclopedia. An Illustrated History of the Sport. Balkline Press Inc., New York, U.S.A., 2008, 629p.
[6] KERKAU Georg et KERKAU Gottfried, Kleine Billardschule, Sport und Spiel MB 40, Ed. Grethlein & Co. Leipzig, Allemagne, 1920, 70p.
[7] STELLINGA Mark et Connie, Pool & Billiard Collectibles, Ed. Schiffer, Pennsylvania, U.S.A., 2003, 288p.
[8]
KERKAU Gottfried, Handbuch der Billardspielkunst. Ed. Grethlein & Co, Leipzig, Allemagne, 1908, 232 p.
[9] WHITE E., A Practical Treatise on the Game of Billiards. Ed. Carter Adams, Fayettevile, U.S.A., 2007, 212p.

 

 

Credits:

[I] Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
[ii] Adriaen van de Venne. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
[iii] Source gallica.bnf.fr / BnF.
[iv] National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
[v] Georg Kerkau, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
[vi] AAB, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.