Brief history of French billiards.

The current French billiards results from the transposition on a table of a billiards game on the ground. The first known table was commissioned by Louis XI (1423-1483), King of France, to carpenter Henri de Vigne in 1469. It was made of wood and twice as long as it is wide. Its stone bed was covered with cloth and its cushions were composed of hemp [1- 3]. Also part of this order: an arch, a pin, balls and maces [2]. This type of playing equipment did not change for at least 225 years, as can be seen in 'A Game of Billiards' [i], painted around 1620-1626 by Adriaen van de Venne (the player is Frederick Henry of Nassau, Prince of Orange (1584-1647))

and in the print of 'Third Apartment' [ii] engraved in 1694 by Antoine Trouvain (1656-1705) (the player is the King of France Louis XIV (1638-1715))

The goal of the game was to knock down the pin. From the 1500s, tables started to be equipped with pockets to trap an opponent's ball. Notice that the first known printed billiard rules (5 pages of [4]) date from 1654 only.

The drawing 'Ladies and gentlemen playing billiards' from 1756 [iii], by Johan Esaias Nilson (1721-1788)

shows that at that time, the pin (probably replaced by a ball) and the arch disappeared, and that ladies were still using a mace while men were already using a cue. Note that the pockets, clearly visible on the drawing, began to disappear around 1850 to give way to the French free game [1].

Billiards as it is practised today developed mainly in the 1800s as a result of :

a) the invention of the leather cue tip, allowing to apply side spin (= english) to the cue ball, and the use of chalk, to prevent a miscue (early 1800s)

b) the appearance of firms dealing only with billiards (tables, cues and balls) (from 1816)

For more details on points a and b above, see section 'Collection 1. Q'

c) the construction of table beds made of slate from Italy (1830s) on which the quality of the ball rolling is better than on wood or marble

(d) the replacement of the natural rubber of the table cushions by vulcanized rubber which is more stable and resistant (1845)

e) the use of table diamonds as aiming referenties (around 1850)

f) the production of synthetic balls that starts in 1868 (for details, see section 'Collection 3')

(g) the use of electricity to light and heat table beds (early 1900s)

h) a constant development of billiard clothes, especially those made by the Belgian firm Iwan Simonis founded in 1680.

For more details:

STEIN V. and RUBINO P., The Billiard Encyclopedia. An Illustrated History of the Sport. Balkline Press Inc., New York, U.S.A., 2008, 629 p.
HENDRICKS William, William Hendricks' History of Billiards. Ed. Hendricks, Roxana, U.S.A., 1974, 54 p.
LABLEE Richard, Le billard: histoire et règles du jeu. Ed. Hatier, France, 1992, 117 p.
JUFFERMANS Cas, Beter biljarten. Ed. Francis Productions, Rotterdam, Pays-Bas, 2007, 176 p.
SHAMOS Michaël, Le billard et le billard américain. Ed. Minerva, Paris, France, 1992, 128 p.

[1] ALBOUKER Robert, Autour du billard. Découvertes. Gallimard N°162, France, 1992, 160 p.
[2] MARTY Jean, Billards, Ed. du Garde-Temps, Paris, France, 2002, 128 p.
[3] TROFFAES Georges, Le billard et l'histoire. Chronique des temps passés. Ed. Laguide, Paris, France, 1974, 149 p.
[4] MARINIERE, Jean Pinson de la, La maison académique. Contenant un tous les jeux divertissans...Paris, France, 1654, 236p.


[i] British Museum, London.
[ii] Source / BnF.
[iii] National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.