A Brief History of Staunton Chess Pieces

The Staunton Chess Pattern for Chess Pieces

A Brief History of Traditional Chess Pieces

What is meant by the phrase Staunton Pattern? This is actually a big question to answer. The Staunton pattern is basically the chess pieces we are most familiar with. The king being the tallest piece in the set, with a cross on the top of his head. The knight being depicted as a horse head. The rook being shown as a characterized castle. These familiar pieces are what we call based in a Staunton pattern. Where did this standard design come from? Well, to answer that we need to return to the middle of the 19th century.

In the period leading up to the first half of the 19th century, there was a large number of different chess piece style being used for the game. In Great Britain, sets like the Saint George, Calvert, Edinburgh, Lund, Merrifield and many others, were in use during game play. Several problems existed with these styles. Since many of these designs were fairly complex, they tended to be expensive. Some where a bit ungainly, meaning they were unstable. Many would tip over very easily and being ornate proved to be fragile as well. Also, my personal observation is that because of the many different styles being used, it might be difficult to identify chess pieces during a game if you were not familiar with the particular set. Apparently, many players of the day were complaining about the lack of a standard chessmen style. Other nations used an even more diverse combination of chessmen.

At this time, an alert London businessman, who dealt in ivory products, named John Jaques seized upon an opportunity to supply the chess community with a new standard. He was already producing many different chess sets for several retailers in London and the surrounding area. Here's where things get a little vague. In March, 1849 a gentleman named Nathaniel Cook registered a design for a new set of chessmen. To the right is an image of the slightly singed page from the original Jaques pattern book, which was the guideline for the original production chess sets. This pattern page was damaged during a fire at the original Jaques factory during the war. The rights to produce these sets were secured by John Jaques, and on September 29th, 1849, Jaques & Son of London began distributing the new chess set to his clients. This was followed the next day with an advertisement in the "Illustrated London Times". Of interest is that Nathaniel Cook was John Jaques brother-in-law. Because of this association, it is unclear whether or not Nathaniel Cook was actually the designer or simply acting as an agent for John Jaques. One thing that is clear, Nathaniel Cook did convince Britain's top player of the day, Howard Staunton, to put his moniker on the new chess pieces. This was a simple matter, since Cook was the editor of the "Illustrated London Times" and Mr. Staunton wrote for that periodical. And so the Staunton pattern was born.

The design proved to be a huge success. The combination of relatively low cost, and a style that was stable and simple lending to it not being fragile, quickly made this chess set the standard that we all know; this is what a chess set should look like. Governing bodies of chess tournaments even specify that sets used for play must be of the Staunton pattern design. It has gone even deeper than that. Nearly any person from the western world, would immediately agree that this design is what a chess set looks like. It seems the Staunton Pattern has become common knowledge, even public domain, as far as the general public is concerned. This is a great legacy and tradition left by Nathaniel Cook, John Jaques & Howard Staunton.

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