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The Complete History of Billiards and Pool

The game of billiards has cemented itself as a pastime in many countries throughout the world. Teens enjoy visiting the local pool hall for a few games after school, and young people challenge each other to a game or two at local bars and restaurants. Professionals hone their skills every day and even enjoy some international fame through televised championships. Most common of all, the game is used to entertain friends and families at home with some cordial competition.

The way we experience billiards in today's society is different than what it used to be. The evolution of billiards took place over a long and rich history, growing into the game we know and love today. When you contemplate your shot and add chalk to your cue stick, you're experiencing the culmination of hundreds of years in the making. If you love the game of pool and want to know more about it, HB Home is your trusted source for reliable billiards game information. We'll take a look at who invented pool, the expanded history of pool and what it has become today.

Origins of Billiards: Who Invented Billiards?

It's hard to know who invented the game of pool, but we do know how and where billiards originated. It all started during the 15th century in France and northern Europe. In northern Europe especially, people enjoyed playing lawn games such as croquet. It was from this enjoyment that people decided to take the game indoors and create a tabletop version. Then, people could enjoy their favorite pastime despite the weather. This marks the point when pool was invented.

Early players constructed bordered, wooden tables covered in green cloth to simulate the look of grass for their "tabletop croquet." During play, they'd take a wooden stick called a "mace" and use it to shove balls across the surface of the table. The French called the mace a "billart" and referred to each ball as a "bille." This could be where the word "billiards" comes from. The table contained six pockets, two balls and a hoop reminiscent of a croquet wicket with an upright stick as the target.

We know little information on billiards from this period. What we do know comes from the accounts of people of royalty and noble upbringing. For this reason, many people refer to the sport as the Noble Game of Billiards. Yet, it's likely that people from all upbringings and social status played and enjoyed billiards. Billiards gets a mention in Shakespeare's "Antony and Cleopatra," which is evidence of the game's widespread familiarity and popularity during the 17th century.

The Evolution of Pool

It didn't take long for the game of billiards to diverge from its croquet-like beginnings. This was a result of two major factors — player preferences and the Industrial Revolution. Like any sport, people figured out what works best to streamline the game and make it more enjoyable over time. But the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century also opened up new opportunities for production, shaping the possibilities for what billiards could be.

How the Equipment Changed

Early players discovered that their maces were not the best tool for moving balls around the table. People had a difficult time hitting balls that landed near the rails, or edge, of the table because of the size of the mace's head. They would turn the mace around and hit these balls with the thinner handle instead. People referred to this part of the mace as the "queue," which means "tail." This is how we get the word "cue" that we use today to refer to the playing stick.

Players had their new and improved cue sticks, but they needed a proper table to keep up with the times. Tables in the 1700s were wooden with flat walls around the edge to keep balls from falling off during play. People associated these walls with outdoor river banks and referred to them as "banks." They realized they could bounce balls off the banks to take more elaborate shots. And so the term "bank shot" was born. This inspired designers to create new ways to construct the billiards table.

In the 1800s, the Industrial Revolution changed billiards forever. People began using chalk to increase the friction between the cue and the ball. Companies began developing dedicated tips for cue sticks, including options made of leather, which allowed players to practice new ways of striking balls to achieve spin. With the invention of the two-piece cue in the first half of the 1800s, the cue stick took on today's recognizable form.

Proper pool tables were invented around this time as well. Wooden tables warped over time, so people started using slate in place of wood for tabletops. This ensured a smooth, even surface that would last. With the popularization of rubber during this time, companies developed billiard cushions to put around the edge of tables. By the middle of the 19th century, billiard tables started looking like they do today.

English Billiards: The History of Pocket Billiards

As players settled on the right equipment for the game, more modern billiards game modes began to take shape. The 1700s found players agreeing upon the proper dimensions of a billiards table for the first time. Players built the earliest tables in any shape and size they wanted. In the 18th century, it was agreed that a 2:1 ratio for length to width was best. This unified the game and gave players a cohesive experience from table to table.

A unified playing surface helped players create new rules and game versions throughout the 19th century. This led to the development of English billiards, the most popular version of billiards in Britain at the time. This game mode used three balls and six pockets. Over time, this version was left to the history books in favor of Snooker — a version still played to this day.

Snooker uses 22 colorful balls and incorporates defensive and offensive elements to provide more of a challenge. The object of the game is to score more points than your opponent by knocking balls into the pockets with a cue ball. This version of billiards should sound familiar since it shares characteristics with billiards games played in pool halls around the world today. People in England feel the same way about Snooker as Americans do about baseball. It's one of their favorite pastimes.

History of Billiards in the United States

Billiards has firm roots in British culture, but how did it get to the United States? The probable answer to this question is that English and Dutch settlers brought billiards with them to the New World in the 17th and 18th centuries. These settlers would have played billiards in their home countries, leading them to build billiards tables to play in their new homes.

The game spread throughout the colonies in the 1700s. This was due to the efforts of American cabinetmakers who began building fine billiards tables on the side. They didn't flood the market, but they did make their way around. Some legends even state that George Washington enjoyed the game and won a match in the mid-1700s.

Once the 1800s arrived, public billiards rooms sprang up across the United States. Billiards became a shared pastime for people in cities across the states. The most famous public billiards room was Bassford's in New York, where stockbrokers played each other. They even invented their own version of the game called Pin Pool. They would play it with tiny wooden targets, creating a sort of "tabletop bowling."

Michael Phelan: The Father of American Billiards

Eventually, the billiard industry in the United States exploded, reaching a wider audience than ever before. This was thanks to Michael Phelan, who many consider the father of American billiards. An immigrant from Ireland, Phelan penned the first American book dedicated to billiards. He helped devise lasting rules and set standards for behavior while playing the game.

Phelan was also an inventor and used this to enhance the pool experience. He was the first to add diamonds to the table to help players aim when taking their shots. He even developed new designs for tables and cushions to streamline the game and give it its signature appearance. This was when the pool table was made to look like it does today. Phelan was the first American billiard columnist, raising awareness and excitement for the game in his weekly articles.

Phelan solidified billiards as an American pastime when he won a large sum of money at the first betted match in the country. This made more people take note of the game, and everyone wanted a piece of the action. Phelan continued to promote the game and went on to start the manufacturing company called Phelan and Collender. His company merged with his chief competitor, and by the end of the 1800s, he had become the nation's leading billiards manufacturer and authority on the topic.

Why Is Billiards Called Pool?

When considering billiards vs. pool, many people wonder how the two terms relate to each other and if they're interchangeable. For the sake of accuracy, you want to make sure you're using the right name to refer to the game you're playing. Here's the bottom line — both terms can refer to the same game. So why not use the term billiards? Why is pool called pool in the first place?

The word "pool" takes its meaning from the concept of a collective bet. When people put their money together in a game that involves wagers, you could say they're "pooling" their money. Everyone who participated in the pool has a chance to claim the entire prize of money if they win or if the person they bet on won. Common activities that include pools of money include poker and horse racing.

The word "poolroom" has a much different meaning today than it did in the 1800s. Then, a poolroom was a place to make bets during horse races. Participants needed a way to occupy themselves between races, so the owners of these establishments installed billiards tables to keep their patrons entertained. The connection between billiards and poolrooms stuck, and people began referring to billiards as pool.

Billiards in the 20th Century

Billiards continued to evolve into the 20th century. Societies around the world went through many changes during the 1900s due to wars, political climates and advances in technology. As society changed, billiards' place within society changed as well. Its popularity ultimately declined before it spiked again into the beloved game it is today.

Midcentury Decline

American troops brought billiards with them during both World Wars. It was a favorite recreational activity, helping to keep spirits high during both wars. The game stayed popular after World War I, but it had trouble staying relevant after World War II.

Troops returning from World War II came back to a different society than the one they had left. In the mid-to-late forties, society shifted its focus to commercialism and consumerism. Many of the soldiers who returned from World War II weren't in the mood to spend afternoons and evenings with their buddies around the pool table. They wanted to build careers, start families, buy houses and enjoy the latest gadgets and products.