The first billiard table on record was built for Louis XI of France in 1470, allowing the King and his pals to play this croquet-like game indoors instead of out. The billiard table’s felted wool surface was dyed green to simulate a lawn, while balls were pushed around using wooden sticks known as maces, which had enlarged ends rather than tapered points.
Cues were developed in the 17th century after players began using the narrow handle of their maces to hit the billiard balls when they rested too close to a table’s rails. These flat, vertical walls were originally known as banks, which is how we got the name for a “bank shot.”
By the 1600s, public billiards tables were common enough that the pastime was included in Charles Cotton’s popular book, “The Compleat Gamester.” World championships for the sport began in earnest during the 1870s, and billiards became known as “pool” due to its association with gambling, as the game tables increasingly popped up in betting halls or “pool rooms.”
Billiard balls were originally made from wood, though ivory was the material of choice for most of the 17th and 18th centuries. As elephant numbers dwindled in the late 1800s, companies began switching to plastics like celluloid, despite their flammable properties. Leather cue tips and chalk were adopted by the mid-19th century, around the time that the two-to-one ratio became standard for billiard table dimensions.
A typical early pool game was English billiards, a game played with two cue balls, one object ball, and a six-pocket table. Another British game, snooker, required using a cue ball to knock a set of numbered, colored balls into the table’s pockets in sequence. American billiards used four balls—two white and two red—and a four pocket table. The familiar game of eight-ball, sometimes called “solids and stripes,” evolved from a version introduced shortly after 1900.
In contrast to these pocket billiard games, carom billiards (short for carombole) requires a pocketless table where points are scored by striking the opponent’s cue ball and an object ball in a single motion. Though the billiard trend lost its lustre during World War II, Paul Newman’s starring role in the 1961 film “The Hustler” helped boost the pool shark’s popularity among a new generation.