The Staunton Standard: Evolution of the Modern Chess Set

The Staunton Standard includes a spectacular array of Staunton and Staunton-style chessmen, which were first introduced to the public in September of 1849 and are still the international standard for tournament play. The exhibit showcases early Staunton chessmen as well as sets owned by famous players and those created for historic tournaments.

On view: April 12 - September 16, 2018

Photography by Michael DeFilippo



Artifacts: Collection of the World Chess Hall of Fame, gift of the House of Staunton; Collection of Jon Crumiller; Collection of Dr. Jeanne and Rex Sinquefield; Collection of the World Chess Hall of Fame; Collection of the World Chess Hall of Fame, gift of Hartwig Inc.; Collection of the World Chess Hall of Fame; Collection of Jon Crumiller

The Staunton Standard: Evolution of the Modern Chess Set

2018 marks the tenth anniversary of the Saint Louis Chess Club (STLCC), which now hosts some of the United States’ and the world’s most prestigious chess tournaments, making it the perfect time to examine the history of the Staunton chessmen. Their familiar pieces are used in these competitions as well as elite tournaments around the world. The Staunton chessmen, first introduced to the public in 1849, are now so well-known that their form is taken for granted. However, they only rose to prominence through the efforts of their namesake, 2016 World Chess Hall of Fame inductee Howard Staunton (1810-1874). Staunton, a top player of the 1840s as well as a writer and promoter of chess, was an early proponent of the set during a time when multiple styles of sets proliferated throughout Europe and around the world. Its advantages were clear, as stated by Staunton himself in a June 2, 1850, issue of the Illustrated London News. “In the simplicity and elegance of their form, combining apparent lightness with real solidity, in the nicety of their proportions one with another, so that in the most intricate positions every piece stands out distinctively, neither hidden nor overshadowed by its fellows, the ‘Staunton Chess-men’ are incomparably superior to any others we have ever seen.”

First produced by Jaques of London, competing firms quickly imitated the pattern. Jaques produced ads warning, “Caution—As spurious imitations are sometimes offered, purchasers are requested to observe Mr. Staunton’s signature on the box, without which none are genuine.” By 1863, publications from locations as far-flung as Australia’s Sydney Morning Herald declared a local auction house would be selling “Solid ivory Staunton chessmen, as used in the Paris and London clubs.” The New York Times published an 1853 ad for Bangs, Brother & Co. advertising “Several elegant sets of the STAUNTON CHESSMEN with the Carton Pierre Box,” and in 1873, the Helena Weekly Herald declared that players in Bozeman and Deer Lodge, Montana, would compete in a telegraph match with Staunton chessmen of English manufacture as the prize. Additionally, U.S. and World Chess Hall of Fame inductee Paul Morphy (1837-1884) challenged Staunton to a match in 1858 to be played, “with Staunton chessmen of the usual club-size, and on a board of corresponding dimensions.” During his 1858 visit to Europe, Morphy also challenged “Alter,” a strong well-known amateur player to a match with a set of ivory club-size Staunton chessmen as a prize for the winner of the first five games. Though Jaques warned of imitators, the pattern’s popularity could not be denied, and by the late 19th century, the set was mass-produced by multiple companies.

The 20th century saw a number of innovations for the set, from its aforementioned mass-production in a number of materials from wood to Bakelite, catalin, lead, and plastic, to the 1998 introduction of Digital Game Technology (DGT) boards and pieces. DGT boards, which record the moves of the pieces, allowed chess fans to follow games as they happen rather than waiting until they were published in chess periodicals. The Staunton Standard: Evolution of the Modern Chess Set contains examples of Staunton and Staunton-style chess sets from the 1840s through the present-day, showing how the set has both become a tradition as well as how creators have customized it to make it their own.

The show includes spectacular sets from the collection of Jon Crumiller, who owns some of the earliest Staunton Chessmen created. Crumiller has worked with the World Chess Hall of Fame on two previous exhibitions: Prized and Played: Highlights from the Jon Crumiller Collection (May 3 – September 15, 2013) and Encore! Ivory Chess Treasures from the Jon Crumiller Collection (May 14 – October 18, 2015), lending both sets from his collection and his knowledge of antique sets and their makers. His collection contains over 600 sets from more than 40 countries, with the earliest set dating from the 11th century.

Shannon Bailey, Chief Curator, World Chess Hall of Fame

Emily Allred, Associate Curator, World Chess Hall of Fame

The Staunton Chessmen: Rook of Ages

Chess games are often won by the heroics of a single well-placed piece on the board: proverbially, the right chessman in the right place at the right time. In a larger context, the English chess champion Howard Staunton was precisely the right man to introduce and endorse a new universal design for chess pieces. And in the right place, at the right time: Victorian London was a locus of the world’s chess activity, as chronicled by Staunton in his weekly chess column in the Illustrated London News (ILN).

Howard Staunton never claimed to be the designer/creator of the chess piece pattern that bears his name. The Staunton chess pattern was patented in March 1849 by Nathaniel Cooke (misspelled as “Cook” on the patent document). Cooke was the business partner and brother-in-law of Herbert Ingram, the primary founder of the ILN. Although the Staunton design is officially attributed to Cooke, speculation abounds as to other possible contributors—perhaps John Jaques, the manufacturer of the first Staunton chess sets; or perhaps Staunton himself influenced the design in some way.

Regardless of the set’s actual designer, the direct connection of Staunton’s name with the new design was a savvy and effective marketing tactic. Celebrity branding is common these days—Air Jordan sneakers and the George Foreman grill come to mind—but all of today’s named products share a marketing ancestor: Howard Staunton was one of the earliest celebrities in modern history to lend his name to a product. And Staunton’s name carried considerable weight within the chess audience of his far-reaching weekly ILN column. And indeed, he advertised the Staunton pattern relentlessly in his column. The first mention comes in the September 8, 1849, ILN issue:

“The Staunton Chess-men.” — We have lately been favoured with a sight of the newly-designed Chess-men you speak of, and shall be greatly mistaken if, in a very short time, these beautiful pieces do not entirely supersede the ungainly, inexpressive ones we have been hitherto contented with. In the simplicity and elegance of their form, combining apparent lightness with real solidity, in the nicety of their proportions one with another, so that in the most intricate positions every piece stands out distinctively, neither hidden nor overshadowed by its fellows, the “Staunton Chess-men” are incomparably superior to any others we have ever seen.

The Staunton Standard: Evolution of the Modern Chess Set Gallery View

Photo by Michael DeFilippo

Staunton repeated these accolades, and others, in column after column. All 16 subsequent columns in 1849 touted the benefits of the Staunton pattern, as did the vast majority of columns in 1850, and onward, spanning over a 20-year period. And Staunton’s efforts were gradually rewarded, not due solely to his diligence, but also due to one important fact: he was right! For the actual playing of chess games, the Staunton pattern is indeed “superior to any other” with “simplicity and elegance of their form, combining apparent lightness with real solidity.” Especially when compared to the prevalent chess patterns of the era, e.g. the Old English pieces, with short pawns often hidden behind other pieces; or the Barleycorn and Edinburgh patterns, easily tipped over; or the ornamental patterns, fragile and breakable; or, in France, the Directoire and Régence patterns that could be knocked askance with the slightest errant touch.

It took quite a while for the new design to become popular. Initial sales were slow, in spite of Staunton’s frequent assertions to the contrary in his weekly column. A portrait of Howard Staunton posing with other leading chess players in the July 14, 1855, issue of the Illustrated London News includes a Barleycorn set, not a Staunton set, on the table! But slowly, surely, the advantages of the Staunton standard won out over all others, and by the end of the 19th century it had become the prevalent chess set pattern. Other patterns were still marketed in chess manufacturers’ catalogs, even well into the 20th century, but the dominance of Staunton’s standard continued to increase until it became the only chess set design allowed in major chess tournaments, starting in the 1920s.

Howard Staunton’s preeminent place in history would have been assured solely on his exploits as the world’s top player in the 1840s. Or solely on the chess literature he produced: 1,440 weekly ILN chess columns, a dozen chess books, several magazines, and hundreds of articles. Or on his relentless efforts to popularize the game. Or even on his other endeavors, as a Shakespearean scholar (he wrote a 3-volume, 2,400-page book series on Shakespeare’s plays) or as an authority on education (he authored The Great Schools of England, a treatise on educational reform). But first and foremost, Staunton’s legacy is inevitably linked to the chess set pattern, “superior to any other,” that bears his name: the Staunton standard.

—Jon Crumiller

A longtime chess fan and competitor, Jon Crumiller purchased his first antique chess set online in 2002. This acquisition quickly sparked a passion, and Jon’s collection of antique sets now numbers over 600. It includes pieces originating from over 40 countries, dating back to the 11th century (and gaming pieces dating to 3000 BCE), unique sets owned by 18th- and 19th-century royalty, and made from materials such as jade, silver and gold, bone, wood, and precious stones, among others.

The scope of his collecting has also grown to include chess boards, timers, and chess miscellanea, mainly from the 19th and 20th centuries. Now recognized as one of the greatest chess set collections in the world, the artifacts he has gathered serve as a visual history of the diverse ways that cultures across time and around the world have interpreted the game of kings. Portions of Crumiller’s collections have been highlighted in two previous WCHOF exhibitions. Not only interested in acquiring artifacts but also learning about their origins and histories, Jon conducts research on the evolution of chess set styles, usage, and manufacturing. He shares this information with the global community of collectors, including his fellow enthusiasts in Chess Collectors International. Jon provides curious chess devotees from around the world with beautiful photos of his stunning collection as well as some of the fruits of his meticulous research through his website www.chessantique.com.

On Collecting Staunton Chessmen

My chess set collecting obsession had its start a few months after I first learned the moves of the game. That was the summer before my 16th birthday. A few friends in my new neighborhood took the pains to explain the moves to me and I was addicted. All I could do was eat, drink, and sleep chess. I was entering my junior year in high school. I turned 16 in the fall of that year and, for my birthday, my mother gave me a nice set of wooden Staunton chessmen. These were nothing spectacular, just a good, solid, German-made weighted set of lacquered chessmen in a wood slide-top box. The pieces were tournament size, and I made good use of them in the years that followed.

First, having been a serious tournament chess player, my interest was in practical playing sets—the Staunton design in particular. What I had discovered very early in my collecting career was that there was woefully little information on the Staunton chessmen and what did exist was mostly incorrect. So, I decided to pull together as much information on the Staunton pattern as I could.

The Staunton chessmen were designed and first manufactured in the United Kingdom by the firm of John Jaques. I obtained a copy of the design registration for the Staunton chessmen from the patent office in London. The Staunton chessmen design was registered as number 58607 on March 1, 1849. The title of the registration was “Ornamental Design for a set of Chess-Men.” It was registered by Nathaniel Cooke, 198, Strand, London, under the Ornamental Designs Act of 1842. Interestingly, the registration was limited to Class II, articles fabricated mostly from wood.

The Chessmen:

The original Staunton chessmen produced by John Jaques were and still are quite unique in appearance. Although generally described as a radically new design for their time, the form was based on the earlier Edinburgh Upright Chessmen which were designed in the 1840s by Lord John Hay. The Staunton chessmen featured very broad bases, gracefully contoured stems and attractively turned and carved headpieces. From the graceful Formeé cross atop the king to the six-crenelled rook, these chessmen make an impression. The knights, however, are their hallmark. They were derived from the visages which adorn the Elgin Marbles, which form a part of the east Pediment of the Greek Acropolis. The “Marbles” were “expropriated” in 1816 by Sir Thomas Bruce and brought to London. They can be viewed today at The British Museum in London.

The original Staunton Chessmen were available in a Standard size (8.9 cm king) and a Full Club size (11 cm king) only. The original chessmen were available in boxwood and ebony, ivory and Wedgwood Carrara(!). This latter is largely unknown to both the Wedgwood and the chess collector communities. Jaques originated the praxis of weighting their chessmen for enhanced stability. In a true Jaques set, the king’s crosses are removable. Also, the knights are two pieces—the head and the base-which are screwed together. Jaques was the first chess set manufacturer to affix the symbol of a king’s crown to the summits of the kingside rooks and knights. This praxis was largely copied and is not unique to sets produced by Jaques. Every Jaques chess set will have “Jaques London” imprinted on the upper part of the rim of the base of the white king if the set is boxwood and ebony and on the underside of the base of the ivory king. Both kings are so marked for sets produced after around 1890.

Registration Certificates:

Each chessman in a Jaques set, sold during the first three years of production, had a small green paper disk affixed to the underside of their bases. This disk bore a registration mark consisting of a small diamond which identified the day, month and year the design was registered, the class, and a parcel number. This protected the design from piracy during those three years. Although the pamphlet from the patent office in the UK lists one registration disk design for 1849, the year the Staunton chessmen were registered, I have discovered that there were actually three designs printed and distributed. The first two had printing errors and omissions. These were used from 1849 to 1852.

Boxes and Carton-Pierre Caskets:

Perhaps the most intriguing aspects of collecting Jaques Staunton are the richly adorned Gothic style Carton-Pierre caskets in which they were housed. These caskets were designed by Joseph L. Williams. Matching Carton-Pierre treatment adorned leather chess boards were designed and sold by William Leuchars and first offered to the public in December, 1849. Chessmen were initially housed in hinge-top mahogany boxes with a semi-mortise lock and key, Carton-Pierre caskets in three configurations for “unweighted” wooden and ivory chessmen, and the large Spanish mahogany coffer with removable compartmented trays for the club-size ivory chessmen.

The mahogany boxes which housed the earliest boxwood and ebony chessmen were distinctive. They had unique handmade dovetail joints, soft, slightly rounded corners, and they bore their manufacturers label on their undersides. Some of the earliest boxes also bore a small green label on the underside of the lid. Printed on that small label were the words “The Staunton Chessmen Jaques, London.” This label is quite rare and a good indication that the box is one of the earliest made to house the Staunton chessmen. Later mahogany boxes would carry their labels on the underside of the lid. This did help preserve the labels since they were not placed directly on a wear surface.

The Staunton Standard: Evolution of the Modern Chess Set Gallery View

Photo by Michael DeFilippo

Early Labels (1849-1851):

Each box bore a manufacturer’s label affixed to the underside of the box or on the bottom inside of the large Spanish mahogany caskets. This praxis was later changed to affix the label to the underside of the lid of the mahogany boxes. The earliest labels were white with a decorative black fleur-de-lis. A slightly different label was designed for sets numbered 600 or so to 999.

Along with the box contents and registration number (58,607 5&6 Vict. Cap. 100.), each label bore an original (not a facsimile) signature of Howard Staunton and the production number of the set, also in Staunton’s hand. Based on certain observations, I believe Staunton hand-signed and numbered 999 labels (or signed as many as he could until hampered by writer’s cramp).

These early labels were numbered sequentially, so set #120 could be an 8.9 cm wooden set in a small mahogany box, while set #121 might be a large ivory set in a large Carton Pierre casket. Little known is the fact that the earliest labels also have the Jaques London imprint invisibly embossed into the label. The same tool used to mark the bases of their kings was used to make this imprint. This little-known fact alone should be worth the time you have taken to read this article. These labels were used for sets sold during the first two years of production.

Numbered Labels (1852-1856):

After three years, the design registration expired and was not renewable. On August 11, 1852, Nathaniel Cooke entered into an arrangement with Howard Staunton for the exclusive use of his name and facsimile signature on the labels. This next group of labels was produced under this new arrangement. Labels within each of the three color groups were numbered sequentially without regard for the size of the chessmen.

The Leuchars Factor:

The earliest advertisements for the new Staunton chessmen have the following statement: “The Nobility and Gentry are respectfully informed that these new and elegant CHESS-MEN are now obtainable of W. Leuchars, 28. PICADILLY …” The earliest Jaques chessmen were sold through Leuchars and are quite valuable and have unique features. The Jaques London mark on the bases of both the wooden and the Ivory sets were over-stamped “Leuchars.” In the case of the ivory sets, the Jaques London mark is actually scratched out and over stamped. In addition, a Leuchars green sticker was affixed to the underside of the white king’s base. Leuchars ivory sets were sold only in Carton-Pierre caskets and only in the 8.9 cm king. The label on the bottom of the casket originally bore a green Leuchars sticker. Leuchars ivory sets also featured a very unique knight design which was clearly distinguishable from the more normal Jaques knight. Leuchars only offered boxwood and ebony sets in the 8.9” king. Unlike Jaques, Leuchars also offered lead-weighting in the smaller boxwood and ebony sets sold between 1849 and 1852. Although somewhat difficult to see, the Jaques London mark on the upper bevel of the king’s base is over-stamped Leuchars.

The Design Evolves:

The Jaques Staunton chessmen have evolved over the 150 or so years since their introduction. Many of the changes were made to improve the robustness of the chessmen. Among the other changes made were the relative proportions of the chessmen. Queens and pawns were made taller. The weight of the chessmen was increased. Boxes and labels also underwent significant changes. Boxes housing sets produced after 1895 or so were fitted with a partition which separated the white pieces from the black. Labels changed every five years or so.

—Frank Camaratta

The full version of this article first appeared in the November 2008 issue of Chess Life.

Frank Camaratta is the internationally-recognized expert in antique Staunton and other playing sets. Between 1986 and 2010, he owned one of the world’s largest collections of Jaques and Staunton-style sets, which numbered well over 1,000 sets. He has been a serious collector and researcher into antique playing chess sets, their design and history since 1986. His serious research, which started in 1989, was centered on Jaques and other Staunton chessmen and quickly expanded into Pre-Staunton playing sets. Camaratta is a serious chess tournament player, national title holder, International Correspondence Chess Master, collector, and historian with a broad educational and professional background. He purchases and sells chess collections, large and small, and has provided numerous appraisal and research services. In addition, Camaratta has brokered the sale of several large collections in the States and overseas. In 1990, Camaratta founded The House of Staunton, Inc. and later, The House of Staunton Antiques, LLC. His website is chessantiques.com.

Sinquefield Cup Imperial Chessmen, 2018

United States

Sinquefield Cup Imperial Chessmen

2018

King size: 8 in.

Board: ⅞ x 34 x 34 in.

Boxwood, maple, and zebrawood

Collection of the World Chess Hall of Fame, gift of Frank A. Camaratta

This exquisite set is a supersized version of the set that Frank Camaratta created for the 2013 Sinquefield Cup, a tournament held annually at the Saint Louis that includes the greatest players in the United States and the world. The king in this set is over double the height of the one in the Sinquefield Cup set, which is also on view in this gallery. The Sinquefield Cup set itself is a smaller version of the Imperial Collector set. This oversized set is one of only two that exist—the other is a gift from Camaratta to Rex Sinquefield, the founder of the Saint Louis Chess Club and the World Chess Hall of Fame.

Pre-Staunton Sets

These sets are examples of many of the styles that proliferated throughout Europe and around the world before the dominance of the Staunton chessmen. Some of the styles on view contain delicate elements that could easily be damaged, while some others have pieces that are hard to distinguish from each other. When promoting the Staunton chessmen, Howard Staunton stressed these points, stating, “In the simplicity and elegance of their form, combining apparent lightness with real solidity, in the nicety of their proportions one with another, so that in the most intricate positions every piece stands out distinctively, neither hidden nor overshadowed by its fellows, the ‘Staunton Chess-men’ are incomparably superior to any others we have ever seen.” However, another reason for the eventual success of the Staunton sets may have been the simplicity of their design, which made them easier to reproduce than many of their predecessors and competitors.

French Diderot Set, 1730

France

French Diderot Set

1730

King size: 3 ½ in.

Wood

Collection of Jon Crumiller

Washington Set, 1775

England

Washington Set

1775

King size: 3 ½ in.

Ivory

Collection of Jon Crumiller

French Regence Set, 1850

France

French Regence Set

1850

King size: 3 13/16 in.

Wood

Collection of Jon Crumiller

Islamic Red and White Ivory Set, 1800

Middle East

Islamic Red and White Ivory Set

1800

King size: 1 ⅝ in.

Ivory

Collection of Jon Crumiller

Selenus Bone and Horn Set, 1875

Germany

Selenus Bone and Horn Set

1875

King size: 4 9/16 in.

Bone and horn

Collection of Jon Crumiller

Thomas Lund Antique Ivory Chess Set, 1840

England

Thomas Lund

Antique Ivory Chess Set

1840

King size: 3 ½ in.

Ivory

Collection of Jon Crumiller

Lund Style Unstamped Set, 1850

England

Lund Style Unstamped Set

1850

King size: 2 13/16 in.

Ivory

Collection of Jon Crumiller

Victorian Bone Playing Set Retailed by Rhoads, 1850

England

Victorian Bone Playing Set Retailed by Rhoads

1850

King size: 3 ½ in.

Bone

Collection of Jon Crumiller

English Ivory Playing Set with Victorian Tilt-top Chess Table

England

English Ivory Playing Set

1840

King size: 4 ⅞ in.

Ivory

Collection of Jon Crumiller

 

England

Victorian Tilt-top Chess Table

1850

28 x 22 x 22 in.

Papier mâché and wood

Collection of Jon Crumiller

Calvert Stamped Ivory Set with Victorian Gothic Penwork Chess Table

England

Calvert Stamped Ivory Set

1820

King size: 2 ⅝ in.

Ivory

Collection of Jon Crumiller

 

England

Victorian Gothic Penwork Chess Table

Late 1800s

29 x 17 x 17 in.

Wood

Collection of Jon Crumiller

Two of the popular styles of English playing sets that were displaced by the Staunton style are displayed on a pair of beautiful Victorian chess tables. John Calvert created the Calvert Stamped set. After his 1822 death, his wife Dorothy Calvert then took over and kept his company running. She then sold the stock in 1835 and later died in 1840. The set is displayed on a table with elaborate penwork imitating the appearance of a “specimen table” or a tabletop inset with different varieties of marble.

An elegant English ivory chess set is paired with the tilt-top table. The set includes elements both typical of pre-Staunton playing sets, such as stacked “collar” decorations on the pieces, as well as ornamental elements like the waving rook flags.

Jaques 1849 Club Size Wooden Set with English Mahogany Chess Table

England

Jaques 1849 Club Size Wooden Set

1849

King size: 4 ½ in.

Box: 4 ⅝ x 6 ¾ x 8 ¾ in.

Wood

Collection of Jon Crumiller

 

England

English Mahogany Chess Table

Early 1900s

34 x 20 x 30 in.

Wood

Collection of Jon Crumiller

Advertisements indicated that early Staunton chessmen, like the ones on view here, were available in boxwood and ebony, ivory, and Wedgwood Carrara. Though made from wood and ivory, which were conventional materials for playing sets during that era, Staunton chessmen included a number of innovations, even aside from their forms. Jaques originated the praxis of weighting their chessmen for enhanced stability. Additionally, Jaques was the first chess set manufacturer to affix the symbol of a king’s crown to the summits of the kingside rooks and knights. Howard Staunton himself indicated that this would aid players in their study and analysis of games.

Havana 1966 Olympiad Set with Chess Table from the 1966 Havana, Cuba, Chess Olympiad

Cuba

Havana 1966 Olympiad Set

1966

King size: 3 13/16 in.

Box size: 4 11/16 x 12 x 19 5/16 in.

Wood

Collection of Jon Crumiller

 

Cuba

Chess Table from the 1966 Havana, Cuba, Chess Olympiad

1966

Chairs: 33 x 22 x 18 in.

Table: 30 x 45 x 36 in.

Board: 7/8 x 19 ½ x 19 ½ in.

Wood, leather, fabric, and marble

Collection of the U.S. Chess Trust

This mid-century modern set of table and chairs as well as the chess set displayed on it were created for the 1966 Havana, Cuba, Chess Olympiad. Chess Olympiads are biannual chess competitions featuring teams of players representing countries around the world. The Havana organizers made special efforts to make it one of the best Olympiads in history. In a December 1966 article in Chess Life, U.S. team member Larry Evans noted that it was the “biggest, best organized, and best run to date” and that organizers reportedly spent 1.3 million pesos on the event. After the event was over, the organizers sent tables and chess sets to Board One players and important FIDE (Fédération Internationale des Échecs or World Chess Federation) officials around the world. Fred Cramer, then Zonal President for the United States, received the table on display, while International Master Nevzat Süer, who played Board One for Turkey, received the set. The table has replica flags and name placards. Since the tables were used continuously throughout the tournament, it is impossible to tell which players competed at specific tables; however, no matter who played on this table, it is an important part of chess history.

2018 Spring Exhibitions Opening Reception

Thursday, April 12 5pm

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