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The Fascinating History of Billiards and Pool, Revealed

Updated: Feb 26

Hear the word billiards, and chances are you don't imagine people knocking balls around a croquet pitch by hitting them with maces.

But interestingly enough, billiards didn't start out on a table. It's a game with an interesting history and a loyal following today. So how did billiards move indoors? Why do we call them pool tables now?

We'll reveal all this and more in our fascinating look at the history of billiards and pool.

First Things First - Is Billiards the Same as Pool?

For the sake of clarity, let's answer this question first.

Today, in the United States, the two terms are often used interchangeably. Pool is the far more common word. The simple answer is yes; they both refer to the same game.

The origins of pool are in the world of gambling. People would pool their money when making wagers on the outcome of a game. Anyone taking part could win the entire pool if they, or the player they bet on, won the game. 

People would assemble to make bets on horse races in poolrooms. To keep the punters busy, the pool room owners installed billiard tables. The name pool stuck for billiards, and billiards went into obscurity.

Billiards: The Origins Story

Let's first examine the question, 'When was billiards invented?'. The history of billiards begins with a game called ground billiards in France in the 14th century. However, the origin of the word billiards is a little obscure.

Two French words vie for the title of the root word. Either 'billette', meaning the mace stick used to bash the balls around, or 'bille', meaning the balls themselves. The word cue almost certainly comes from a French word meaning tail - think of how it looks when you bend over to take a shot.

The use of this word reflects that by the 17th century, billiards in their more recognizable form were well established. Billiards can rightly be called a game of kings. A the end of the 15th century, King Louis XI of France was the first to stop by his local pool table store and pick up the latest model.

This early model had a central hole - more like a putting green. What it did have, though was the familiar velvet covering. Why is it traditionally green? - To reflect the fact that its roots were in a lawn game.

During the Tudor period, the billiards table began to look a lot more like it does today. An early form of padded edging kept the balls in place. The six pockets as we know them today also became a feature.

From French Lawns to English Castles

In the Tudor period, the ruling and upper classes loved all things, French. One of the stylish French habits they adopted was playing billiards. 

King Henry VIII (famous for his six wives) was likely an avid player. His close friend Cardinal Wolsey had one in his house, and Henry was a regular visitor.

It was popular in Shakespeare's time as well. He wrote a little after Henry's death and included several references to billiards in his plays.

Not Just For Men

It's fair to say that pool and billiards tend to be more popular today among men than women. But that wasn't always the case. 

Mary, Queen of Scots, was a Tudor-era ruler who was familiar with French ways. She was raised in France and had been married to the Dauphin of France. She evidently picked up more than just a taste for fine wine and cheese in France - she

She was so into the game that when she was imprisoned at Fotheringay Castle, she was bitterly upset when her billiard table was taken away. So much so that she wrote a stinging letter to the Archbishop of Glasgow about it in 1587. Her love of the game has moved some to call her Mary, Queen of 'Shots'.

Billiards continued to be the game of kings and the upper classes in the following centuries. It was known in France as the 'noble game'. Kings and nobles started commissioning their joiners to make billiard tables for their homes.

Rule Changes 

One of the fascinating changes in billiards through time has been the role of the pockets.

In the 16th century, the aim of the game was to avoid the pockets. They were hazards rather than goals. The aim of the game was to avoid knocking over the 'king', set up at the far end, and try to pot your opponents' balls or cause them to knock the king over.

This is an extremely simplified version of the rules. It was actually very confusing, full of fiddly rules and penalties. Over time, the game developed and became what we know today. The rules were finally written down in the book 'Game of Billiards' by Michael Phelan in 1856.

Equipment Refinements

People also found that the maces they were using were impractical for hitting the ball when it was close to the sides of the table. This led to them turning the mace around and using the butt end. So here we find the origin of our modern-day pool cue.

Players also found they could take advantage of the fact that the balls bounce off the sides. Thus the bank shot was born.

Balls during this period were generally made of ivory. There was also no set size for the tables. In time, a 2:1 ratio became the standard, with the long sides twice the length of the short side.

Throughout the 1800s, cues gradually developed into what we know today. As the game grew in popularity, manufacturers developed leather cue tips and two-piece cues. These advanced cues gave players much more control, allowing them to impart more spin to the ball.

Another breakthrough in this period was the addition of chalk to pool cues. This gives them more bite and allows the player greater control. 

Tables made of wood were prone to warping - precisely what you don't want when playing pool! Pool tables needed a natural alternative that would stay level and true. Slate became popular, and pool tables as we know them today emerged by the mid-1800s.

In time, a man would emerge, who would influence the development of billiards and pool more than any other.

Who Invented Billiards and Pool?

Despite its European roots, pool is now seen as a quintessentially American game. The early history of billiards in the United States is somewhat vague. However, it's safe to say that early English and Dutch settlers would have brought the popular game over with them.

During the 1700s, the game continued to rise in popularity. However, it was still mainly restricted to the upper classes due to the cost of producing tables and equipment. All this was to change in the 1800s.

We've seen that billiards has a long history. But the answer to the question, 'Who invented billiards and pool?' in the modern form at least, is Michael Phelan.

Michael Phelan's father, John Phelan, emigrated from Ireland to the United States in 1883. He began to operate pool rooms. Michael followed his father into the trade.

There were many ups and downs along the way, but eventually, he established a thriving pool hall business. He wrote to book on pool and was a successful pool player himself, winning several high-stakes matches.

He established a manufacturing company producing pool tables and equipment. He was even responsible for prompting the move away from ivory balls.

Pool In the Modern Era

The heyday of the pool hall at the end of the 19th century did not last. Although pool continued to be popular throughout the 20th century, society was changing. This impacted its appetite for pool.

Increasingly, people disapproved of gambling. Finally, the two world wars changed people's attitudes. It was no longer socially acceptable for young men to while away hours at the pool hall.

The allure of the game of pool, though, would never fade completely. So some pool halls have reopened with a more family-friendly vibe. And now more and more people enjoy the game of pool - in the comfort of their own homes.

The History of Billiards and Pool - And Pool Today

The history of billiards and pool is a fascinating topic - one we've only scratched the surface of in this article. However, what's been true throughout the ages holds true today - pool is an awesome game for everyone to enjoy.

A pool table makes the perfect addition to a home's games room or man cave. Whether you're a seasoned player or a complete novice, pool is fun and accessible. From kids to seniors, it's the perfect choice for the whole family.

Check out our awesome range of pool tables today. You're sure to find something that's a perfect choice for you and your family.

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