It comes as no surprise to see that billiards and croquet share a common ancestry (perhaps both derived from the Italian game of troco, and in turn from ground billiards, popular in the Middle Ages).
Somewhere along the line (and I suspect because it was always raining) some bright spark hit on the idea of moving the game indoors, and playing it on a table. The table was covered in green baize (to simulate grass) and the sides were vertical barriers to stop the balls rolling off. They were known as banks (as in ‘grassy banks’ alongside the original lawn on which the outdoor game was played) – giving rise to the term ‘bank shot’ if a player deliberately played onto the bank so that it rebounded.
At that stage the table had no pockets and the game was played with wooden balls, and with a hoop (which is where the croquet link comes in). Players used a mace (a length of wood with a shaped head at one end, known in French as a billiart) and where the ball was left close to the bank players found it helped to turn the mace round and use the tail-end (in French, the “queue”, from which we get “cue”).
This was a sport for the men, and in particular noble men – ladies were considered unsuitable players because of their propensity for ripping the baize fabric by catching it with the end of the cue. It became known as ‘the noble game of billiards’ and was played by people such as the French monarch Louis XIV.
By the Eighteenth Century different versions of the game were emerging – the French kept (and still keep) a pocket-less version of the billiard table for use in games of Carom Billiards (such as balk-line, straight rail, four ball and a thing called ‘artistic billiards’ which turns out to be the same sort of thing in relation to billiards as dressage is to show jumping – or figure skating to ice skating – in other words you have to play a series of set moves and get the balls to rest in precisely the required spot each move).
In the second half of the 18th Century a new variation of the game came across the Channel from France called carambole, where a red ball was added to the two white balls. As with modern billiards, each of the two players had their own white ball and could use it to hit the other balls (a carom or cannon) or to send one of the balls into pockets which started to appear on tables. Incidentally the tables were not necessarily oblong (as in this hexagonal version in a print from 1787).
Using the banks or cushions to effect caroms/cannons meant that it was easier to strike the ball with the cue end rather than push it via the mace end and by the 1820’s the mace had more-or-less died out. Originally the banks were made of compressed flannel wrapped in canvas and covered in baize. Then in 1845 along came Goodyear with vulcanized rubber cushions. By then the beds of the tables were being made of slate (rather than interlocking wood panels) and very few technical changes have happened since then, to the extent that most billiard tables today are still time-warped in mid-Victorian splendour. Mind you, snooker is now far more popular than billiards, but then snooker is a comparative newcomer to the scene, having apparently been invented by bored army officers in India in the 1870’s.
The leather cue tip came out in 1823 and when allied to the use of chalk to enhance friction it enabled players to put spin on the ball (called ‘side’ in England, but because it was introduced to the United States from England, it is often called ‘english’ in America).
The picture of women playing billiards by Boilly in 1807 shows that suddenly in post-revolution France it was acceptable for women to play the game. Its popularity spread through all sections of society – it was no longer the preserve of the nobility or even the gentry.
The balls used by the well-heeled punters were made of ivory. These were always expensive since the centre of each ball had to coincide with the exact centre of the tusk (meaning that you could only get four or five balls per tusk). The reason for this is that a nerve ran through the centre of each tusk (as with a tooth) leaving a hole (usually filled with ebony, giving rise to the ‘spot ball’). By the middle of the nineteenth century tens of thousands of elephants were being slaughtered ( the smaller tusks of the female African elephant being particularly favoured). Fortunately artificial composites were just around the corner – celluloid being introduced in 1868 and eventually Bakelite, acrylic and polyester.
There is still running in Belgium a company called Iwan Simonis – formed in the 1680s and which still makes the highest quality baize for billiard tables – an astonishing run of nearly 350 years. Wikipedia says that the company has its origins back in the 15th Century but the company’s own website makes it clear that a fire destroyed all its earlier records and so an exact start date for the manufacture of baize for billiard tables is impossible to give.
What is clear though is that the game became fashionable throughout the Eighteenth Century and billiard halls sprang up in every town and city.
In this Dutch drawing from the 1730’s I particularly like the seated figure (bottom right) who appears to be having a fish barbie while above him the players wield their maces…