A "Pocket" History of Billiards

The history of Billiards -- or Pool as it is also known -- can be traced back to a medieval game known as "Ground Billiards." Although its earliest origins can not be accurately fixed to a single point in time, it is likely that the game originated in either medieval England or France during the 12th or 13th century.

Manuscripts and paintings from the 14th century depict the game of "Ground Billiards," and even document the equipment used to play this earliest version of Pool. Although, "Ground Billiards" remained popular in some form into the 17th century, at some point it was transformed from an outside to an indoor sport played on a tabletop.

Historians estimate this transformation took place in the second half of the 15th-century; for example, King Louis XI of France owned a Billiard table in the year 1470. At this point, the game would have been known as "Table Billiards" and was favoured by aristocracy and wealthy land-owners in England and France.

It was only around the year 1600 when the game began to be played in public places in London and became popular with the working classes. The Shakespeare play, "Anthony and Cleopatra," from 1609, makes reference to the game of "Billiards," as opposed to the traditional "Table Billiards," and Shakespeare is considered the first writer to shorten the name of the game to its modern form.

In 1674, "The Complete Gamester" by Charles Cotton was first published in England, detailing the rules and common practises of the game of Billiards. At this time, players did not use a Pool "Cue," but rather a curved stick-like instrument with a large flat head, called a "Mace." The Mace was used to push the balls, rather than striking them in the manner to which we are accustomed today.

Over the next two centuries, the Mace was gradually phased out, and the use of the Pool Cue came into fashion. Billiards also spread to North America during this time. Even several of the founding fathers of the American continent played Billiards regularly, including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.

By the end of the 18th-century, Billiard tables -- or as they were now sometimes called, "Pool tables" -- began to be standardised in size. It was also during this time that the first felt cloth Billiard table appeared.

By the 19th-century, Billiards was enormously popular in England, and spread to the English colonies, including South Africa, Australia, India and the South Pacific. Meanwhile in North America, census records indicate that there were between 50 and 60 "Billiard halls" in New York City in 1850.

But it was only in the 1900s that Billiards or "Pool" champions became well-known sportsmen. In the 20th century, both England and America established a championship tournament and a nationwide Billiard association, and the game reached the height of its popularity between the 1930s and 1960.

The history of Billiards shows the game to be versatile and ever-changing. The odds are that some form of Billiards or Pool will be with us for a long time to come, though if history is any judge, it may bare little resemblance to the game we know as Pool today.