Mace to Billiard Cue



Days of Old number 9
Mace to Billiard Cue

The further back we research into the history and development of the game of Billiards, the tables and the accessories, the more interesting it becomes. This article in the “Days of Old” series, looks at the development of the Billiard Cue.

Many present day players of snooker, will probably be surprised to learn that 500 years ago, the game was played on the ground, out of doors, and so the “implement” from which the cue has developed is not recognisable as a cue.

The first illustration with this article shows a group of “shepherds” playing billiards in 1480, it is taken from a French wood cut or carving, and can be accepted as a fair recording, by the craftsman who executed the work, of the game of billiards as then existing, readers should especially note the “implement” used to propel the balls on the ground, and should also note the hoop or hazard and the King Post. (Some similarity here with croquet).

Now look at the second illustration, which shows King Louis XIV (wearing hat), playing billiards in 1694, and you will again see the hoop or hazard, and the King Post – obviously it is the same game, but now the game has come indoors, and has been raised up to table height. The implements, – now called maces, which are the forerunners of the billiard cue, are also obviously the same as previously used, when the game was played on the ground out of doors.

The next stage in the development of the billiard cue, was brought about by some players turning the mace around, in order to strike the ball with the thin end of the shaft, instead of with the head of the mace – such an act is recorded in the Billiard Room Scene, executed in marquetry work, on the lid of a box which was quite recently sold by auction in London, here you can clearly see the player using the “wrong end” of his mace, and so-again I think it can be accepted as a fair recording by the craftsman, showing how the mace was sometimes used the other way round.

Players evidently found they could achieve scoring strokes more readily using the pointed end of the shaft, and so I think gradually over quite a long period of time, this became the accepted practice. If our readers will look at the next illustration, which shows a billiard room in the year 1770, it will be observed that the striker is using a mace in the accepted fashion of that time – but the none striker is clearly holding a cue. The use of the cue to strike the ball developed in France, during the last quarter of the 18th Century, and was later introduced into England.

Evidence of the time of change, can be confirmed, by reference to the “Rules of Billiards”, as published by Hoyle in 1779 – wherein rule XLVI states . . . “When the parties agree to play Mace against Cue,, the Mace Player has no right to use a Cue, nor has the Cue Player any right to use a Mace during the game or match, without permission from his adversary”.

The following rule XLVII, then goes on to say . . . “When a person agrees to play with the Cue, he must play every ball within his reach with the point thereof, if he agrees to play with the butt of the cue, he has no right to play with the point thereof, without permission from his adversary”.

Further evidence of the time of the change, from the Mace to the Cue, is provided by reference to the book entitled “A Practical Treatise on the Game of Billiards”, by E White, published in 1807, where in Chapter I, he states . . . “The instruments employed for the purposes of striking the balls are two, the Cue and the Mace. The former of these is a long round stick, usually made of Ash, and shaped in the form of a cone, being broad at one end and at the other converging to a narrow flattened or rounded point. The latter consists of a long slender rod, with a thick piece of Mahogany or other wood affixed to its extremity and adapted to it in such an angle as to rest flat upon the table, while the stick is held up to the shoulder in the act of striking . . . of these instruments, the Cue is by far the most universal in use”. White then goes on to observe in a footnote that . . . “The Cue is the only instrument in use abroad . . . but in England until of late years, the Mace has been used almost exclusively, which the foreigners hold in the utmost contempt”.

At the same period of time (1807), that White wrote his treatise Monsieur M Mingaud – formerly a French Infantry Officer, is credited with the idea of fitting a leather tip to the point of his Cue, using leather taken from an old harness (remember Infantry Officers always rode on horses). This simple idea, long since universally adopted, is undoubtedly the first important improvement in the equipment used for the game of billiards.

Both Maces and Cues remained in general use, side by side for a very long time, as can be confirmed by pictures of Thurstons Catherine Street Billiard Room, published at various dates between 1830 and 1850, which clearly show both of these instruments in the Cue Racks.

Now it is also interesting to note, that during the period of change over from Mace to Cue – players were permitted to strike the ball with either end of the Cue! This fact which will certainly surprise many players can be confirmed by reference to the advice given in two books, both published in the third quarter of the 19th Century – viz:- in Chapter II of “The Billiard Book”, by Captain Crawley, published in 1866, in the paragraph giving advice on “The Cue”, he states – “The long tapering stick with which the ball is struck, is called a Cue. The best Cues are made of thoroughly seasoned Ash. The butt or handle should be well flattened on one side, in order that it may be used to strike with when necessary !” – Hence the Chamfer still to be found on the butts of billiards / snooker cues of English manufacture – now mainly used as the position to fix a makers nameplate.

Again – in the book entitled “Practical Billiards”, by Dufton, published in 1873, he actually produces the illustration shown in this article, which demonstrates the best stance to adopt when playing a stroke, with the butt end of the cue!

It was not until the Billiards Association was formed in 1885, and rules of play were properly established, that a rule was introduced stipulating that the ball must be struck with the tip of the cue.

From this date forward, our readers might think, that there could be no further development in the instrument now called the cue. Far from it however, as although from 1885 onwards, most thought was given to specifying the Full Sized Billiard Table, and finally the model submitted by Thurstons was adopted in 1892 as the standard to be stipulated in the rules, the size of the balls etc, was also specified, but it was evidently not considered necessary to specify what was or was not a billiard cue.

As a result many enthusiasts “invented” and took out patent protection on their own ideas of what a perfect or ideal Cue should be. I have selected a few examples from patents filed during this period, and I think readers will first of all be interested to note (see the illustration), that patent Number 8849 by Mr W Buttery, dated 22nd July 1885, shows a Cue joint, identical with some of the joints used in two piece cues today!

Next see the illustration of the “spring loaded” cue, under patent Number 4170, by Mr A J Aspinall, dated 25th March 1886 – would such a cue be permitted under present day rules, so long as the ball was struck with the tip? It is doubtful as the present day rule states . . . “and shall show no departure from the traditional and generally accepted shape and form”.

On 22nd January 1887, a Mr E Edwards, patented a part wooden – part tubular metal Cue (see illustration), which was adjustable for both length and weight, to suit the requirements of different players.

The famous professional player – J P Mannock, under patent 1117, dated 21st January 1891, introduced a Cue, which was claimed to prevent the making of “miss-cues”, especially in The Masse stroke.

Finally it is perhaps interesting to note the old Burroughes & Watts advertisement, of 1889, for “The Portable Billiard Cue”, in which the sales description makes it clear that it is a two piece jointed cue, with a replaceable screw tip – features which many players may think have been only very recently introduced!

It was still to be very many more years before the somewhat loose definition of a “Billiard Cue” was included in the rules, which throughout the period from 1885 until 1938 (53 years), had nothing at all to say about how short or how long a cue should be, and even to this day, although a minimum length of 3ft (910mm), is now stipulated, there is no maximum length.

The story behind the very sudden introduction of the minimum length and the loose definition of a Cue in 1938, is interesting, since when the rule has remained unchanged, and so this concludes the story or history of the billiard cue.

© 1990 Norman Clare / 2018 E A Clare & Son Limited
Reproduction of this article allowed with permission from E A Clare & Son Limited