The History of Billiards: From Lush Lawns to the Glamour of Hollywood

by | Apr 25, 2023

Explore the rich and storied history of billiards in this comprehensive historical account that delves into the game’s evolution over time.

A brief history of Billiards:

Welcome to our article on the history of billiards. For centuries, billiards has been one of the most popular and enduring games in the world. From its origins as an outdoor pastime played on lush lawns to its transformation into an indoor game played in cozy pubs and billiard halls, to its glamorous portrayal in Hollywood films, the game has undergone a fascinating evolution.

In this article, we will take a deep dive into the history of billiards, tracing its roots back to the medieval era and following its development through the centuries. Join us as we explore the various stages of the game’s evolution and examine the cultural and societal influences that have shaped it over time.

Whether you’re a seasoned player or simply a fan of the game, this journey through the history of billiards is sure to be a fascinating and enlightening one.

I tried to AI-generate an image of Louis XIV, Paul Newman, a Tudor man & a 1920’s women of fashion around a billiards table. Can you guess who is who?

The origins of billiards are not entirely clear, but it is believed to have originated in France in the 15th century as a lawn game similar to croquet. The game evolved over time and was eventually played indoors on a table covered in green baize. The modern version of pool, with numbered balls and pockets, emerged in the 19th century in the United States.

Is Billiards the same as Pool?

In common usage, the terms “billiards” and “pool” are often used interchangeably to refer to cue sports played on a table with balls and cues. However, strictly speaking, “billiards” typically refers to a specific type of game played with three balls (one white and two red) on a table with no pockets, while “pool” generally refers to a game played with numbered balls and pockets.

Where was billiards invented?

Billiards has a long and complex history, with many different variations and regional styles that have evolved over time. One of the earliest known forms of the game was ground billiards, which was played outdoors on a lawn or field using balls and wooden mallets.

One theory is that billiards evolved from a game called “croquet,” which was popular in France during the 14th century. Croquet was played outdoors on a lawn, and involved striking balls with wooden mallets through a series of hoops or “wickets.”

Another theory is that billiards evolved from a game called “paille-maille,” which was played in France during the 15th century. Paille-maille was played on a long, narrow field with wooden posts and balls, and involved striking the ball with a long stick or “maille.”

A game of French ground billiards, 1480 woodcut [See page for author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons]

Regardless of its precise origins, it’s clear that billiards as we know it today was fully developed in France during the 16th century. The game quickly spread throughout Europe, and by the 17th century, it had become a popular pastime among the wealthy and aristocratic classes.

Over time, the game evolved and began to be played indoors on a table with no pockets, using three balls (one white and two red) and a wooden cue. This version of the game became known as “carom” or “carambole” billiards, and was popular throughout Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Louis XIV of France and Billiards

Louis XIV of France, also known as the “Sun King,” was a prominent figure in the history of billiards. Louis XIV was an avid player of the game, and he was known for his skill on the billiards table.

Here is an AI-generated image of Louis XIV playing billiards… Not bad!

In fact, Louis XIV was instrumental in popularising billiards among the French aristocracy during his reign. He commissioned the construction of a number of billiards tables for his own use, and he even had a special room in the Palace of Versailles dedicated to billiards.

Billiard Table inside the Palace of Versailles

Billiard Table inside the Palace of Versailles [DiscoA340, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons]

Louis XIV’s love of billiards was also reflected in the art and literature of the time. Many paintings and engravings from the era depict Louis XIV and other nobles playing billiards, and the game was a common theme in works of literature and poetry.

Today, billiards tables similar to those used by Louis XIV can be found in museums and historical sites around the world, and the game remains a popular pastime among people of all ages and backgrounds.

Why is Billiards called Billiards?

The term “billiards” is believed to have originated from a French word “billart,” which means “mace” or “cue stick.” The game of billiards, as we know it today, was developed in France in the 16th century, and it quickly spread throughout Europe and beyond.

Originally, the game was known as “billart” or “bille,” which referred specifically to the wooden pins or “skittles” that were used as targets. Players would use a mace or cue stick to strike a ball at the skittles, earning points based on which ones they knocked over.

Over time, the game evolved to include multiple balls and no skittles, and the term “billiards” came to be used to describe the game as a whole. By the 18th century, billiards had become a popular pastime among the wealthy and aristocratic classes, and it was played in private clubs and salons throughout Europe.

The History of Pool in England

The Tudor period in England was a time of significant development for the game of billiards, which eventually led to the development of pocket billiards or “pool.”

During this time, billiards was primarily played on a table with no pockets, and the object of the game was to hit one ball with a cue stick and have it rebound off of two other balls to score points. The game was played primarily by the wealthy and the nobility, and it was often used as a way to display one’s skill and status.

However, by the late 16th century, a new form of billiards had emerged, which featured pockets in the table and multiple balls. This game, which was known as “pocket billiards” or “pool,” quickly grew in popularity among the lower classes and became a popular pub game.

The development of pool in the Tudor period was driven in part by improvements in cue-making technology. Prior to this time, cues were made of wood and tended to warp or deform over time. However, in the late 16th century, cue-makers began to use a new material called “green wood,” which was less prone to warping and allowed for greater precision in shots.

Another factor contributing to the development of pool during the Tudor period was the increasing availability of leisure time among the working classes. As people had more time to spend in pubs and other social gathering places, games like pool became more popular as a way to pass the time and socialise with others.

A late nineteenth century match of English Billiards [See page for author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons]

After the Tudor times, English pool and billiards continued to evolve and grow in popularity. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the game became more refined and formalised, with specific rules and equipment developed to ensure fair play.

English billiards, also known as “the three-ball game,” became the dominant form of billiards in England during this time. The game was played on a large, rectangular table with three balls – a red, a white, and a yellow – and required players to score points by striking both the opponent’s ball and the red ball with their cue ball.

As the game of billiards became more formalised, a number of different variations emerged, including pyramid billiards, snooker, and “blackball” pool. Each of these games had its own unique rules and equipment, and they all became popular in their own right.

Why is pool called pool?

There are a few different theories about the origin of the term “pool” in reference to the game of billiards.

One theory is that the term “pool” comes from the French word “poule,” which means “collective pot” or “betting pool.” In the early days of the game, players would often place bets on the outcome of the game, and the winnings would be collected into a common pot or “pool.” This term was later adopted to describe the game itself.

Another theory is that the term “pool” comes from the practice of “pooling” bets or resources. In this theory, players would contribute money or other valuables to a common pool, and the winner of the game would take a share of the pool as their prize.

A third theory suggests that the term “pool” comes from the fact that early billiards tables were often made from slate quarried in Scotland, which was known as “pool slate.” This term may have been adopted to describe the game played on these tables.

It’s unclear which of these theories is correct, and it’s possible that the term “pool” has multiple origins that have contributed to its use in reference to the game of billiards.

The history of women playing pool

The history of women playing pool dates back to at least the 15th century, when the game was first played in Europe. However, it was not until the late 19th century that women began to participate in the game in significant numbers.

Women playing billiards in early 1880s [Unknown 1880s poster artist, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons]

During this time, pool halls became popular gathering places for working-class men, and many women were excluded from these spaces. However, some women did manage to find their way into the game, often by playing in their own homes or in private clubs.

In the early 20th century, women’s involvement in pool began to increase. Some women began to compete in pool tournaments, and there were even a few professional female players. However, women’s participation in the game was still limited, and they often faced discrimination and harassment in male-dominated pool halls.

In the 1920s and 1930s, a new phenomenon emerged: women of fashion playing pool. This trend was popularised by Hollywood films, which often featured glamorous female characters playing pool in elegant settings. This led to a surge of interest in the game among women of all social classes, and many began to play in their own homes or in upscale clubs.

During World War II, many women took up pool as a form of recreation and entertainment. They often played in military canteens and other venues, and the game became a popular way for women to socialise and connect with each other.

In the post-war period, women’s involvement in pool continued to grow. In the 1950s and 1960s, women’s pool leagues began to form, and many women began to compete in local and regional tournaments. In the 1970s, the Women’s Professional Billiard Association was founded, which helped to promote women’s pool and provide opportunities for female players to compete at a professional level.

Paul Newman popularising modern-day pool

Paul Newman played a significant role in the revival of modern-day pool by producing and starring in the 1961 film “The Hustler.” The film, which was based on the novel by Walter Tevis, told the story of a talented but troubled pool player named “Fast” Eddie Felson, played by Newman, who is determined to make a name for himself in the world of pool.

The Hustler 1961 Alternative Poster [English: “Copyright 1961 by Twentieth Century–Fox Film Corp.”, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons]

The Hustler” was a critical and commercial success, and it helped to popularise pool as a serious sport and form of entertainment. The film showcased the skill and strategy involved in the game, and it gave audiences a glimpse into the gritty world of pool halls and hustlers.

Newman’s portrayal of “Fast” Eddie Felson also helped to make pool more glamorous and appealing to a wider audience. The character was suave, stylish, and charismatic, and he inspired many people to take up the game.

In addition to his role in “The Hustler,” Newman was also an avid pool player in his personal life. He owned a pool table and frequently played the game with his friends and family. His love of the game helped to further popularise pool and make it more accessible to the general public.

Overall, Paul Newman’s involvement in “The Hustler” and his personal passion for pool helped to revive interest in the game and make it a popular pastime once again. His legacy as a pool player and advocate for the game continues to inspire new generations of players today, and is an important part of the modern history of billiards.

Chris Rivers

Chris Rivers

Christopher is a former semi-professional pool player from England who has dedicated his life to the sport. With years of experience playing at a high level, Christopher has developed a deep understanding of the game and its intricacies. Today, he uses his expertise to help others improve their skills as a coach. His unique perspective as a former player allows him to provide valuable insights and guidance to his students, helping them reach their full potential on the pool table.


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