Chessmen and chess sets by Bill Wall

The earliest Indian chess pieces were called shah (king), wazir (counselor), fil (bishop), asp (knight), rukh (rook), and piyade (pawn). The earliest Persian names were shah, farzin, pil, asp, rukh, and piyada. In Arabic they were shah, firzan, fil, faras, rukhkh, and baidaq. Countries of the western world translated the earliest names as closely as possible.

No chess set, complete or incomplete, used in the early Indian game of chaturanga have survived.

In July 2002, an ivory piece less than 2 inches in size was discovered in Butrint, an ancient Mediterranean city in southern Albania. The piece is dated to 465 AD. If this is really a chess piece, then it is the oldest chess piece found anywhere in the world. It even pushes back the date of chess. The piece has a cross on top of it and was found in an old Byzantine or Roman palace.

The earliest known chess pieces (chatrang) were found at Afrasaib, near Samarkand in Uzbekistan. What was found were seven pieces consisting of a king, chariot, vizier, horse, elephant, and two soldiers, all made of ivory. It is dated about 760 AD. A coin, dated 761 was found with the chess pieces.

The original chess sets from Persia and other parts of the East were highly abstracted pieces, since Islamic law forbade figurative art.  The first chess pieces were carved from ivory, bone, or wood.  Later examples were made of ceramic, porcelain, gold, silver, bronze, pewter, and glass.

In general, ivory was used for the best and most expensive chess sets.  Ivory was easy to carve and to turn.   Fine hardwoods such as rosewood and ebony were the next favorite material to use for chessmen.  Cheaper chessmen were made of bone, even though it was actually harder to turn and carve.

Chessmen found in Nashipur, located in the Murshidabad district in West Bengal, India have been dated around 900 A.D.

The Mozarab chess pieces, also known as the pieces of Saint Genadio, may be as old as the beginning of the 10th century. The four small pieces were made of ivory and preserved in the Mozarabic monastery in Leon, Spain.

The oldest European chessmen may be some Italian chess pieces made of bone with ivory topping. It was found at Venafro, Italy and is dated about 980 AD. It is displayed in the Museo archeologico di Napoli. The pieces were discovered in a Roman tomb in 1932. The controversy is how to explain how it was possible that chess pieces of Arabic shape were discovered in a tomb of Roman age. Radiocarbon measurements yielded a date of 885 to 1017 AD.

The Ager chessmen are chessmen made of rock crystal that use to be preserved in a church in Ager, Spain.  In 1021, 96 pieces were made for chess.  Only a few pieces survive today.  There is a myth that this chess set belonged to Charlemagne.  It is also known as the Urgel or Urgell chessmen, named after a village nearby in Catalonia.  Part of these chess pieces are still preserved in Lerida, Spain.  In the late 19th century, some of these pieces were sent to Paris.  These pieces then appeared in a public auction and were purchased by the Emir of Kuwait.  The pieces were then plundered by Iraqi soldiers during the first Gulf War.  After the war, the pieces were returned to Kuwait.

One of the earliest authentic European chess pieces are the Lewis chess pieces (or Uig chessmen, named after the bay where they were found), which are now in the British Museum and the National Museum of Antiquities in Edinburgh.  There were originally 78 chess pieces, probably from the 12th century.  67 Lewis chess pieces are in the British Museum in London, the other 11 in the Royal Museum in Edinburgh. The pieces come from four different chess sets (8 kings, 8 queens, 16 bishops, 15 knights, 12 rooks, and 19 pawns). The set contains the oldest known ecclesiastical bishop.

The Lewis pieces were probably made in Trondheim, Norway (where similar pieces have been found).   They were made of walrus tusk (ivory) and whale teeth.  Some historians believe the Lewis chessmen were lost after some mishap at sea, when some goods from Norway were being sent to wealthy Norse settlements in Ireland.

The Lewis pieces were found in March, 1831 in an underground chamber on the west coast of the Isle of Lewis (Uig Bay) in the Outer Hebrides islands of Scotland. A local peasant, Calum nan Sprot, who was looking for his cow, found a small chamber 15 feet below the top of a sandbank that had been partly washed away. The shepherd was terrified by the expressions on the pieces and fled from the spot. He told his minister, Alexander MacLeod, who returned to the sight and exorcised the site, then sold the pieces (67 chessmen and 14 plain draughtsmen) to the British Museum for 84 British pounds.

Another early chess set is the so-called Charlemagne chessmen, which is in the Cabinet des Medailles, Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris. It is a massive elephant ivory carving. Charlemagne probably never played chess. The so-called Charlemagne chessmen were at the Saint Denis Abbey near Naples since the end of the 13th century. The pieces are dated around 1100 and were probably made in Salerne, Italy. The pieces may have come to Paris as a gift to French King Philip II or Phillip III. Both kings stopped in Salerne. In 1598 there were 30 pieces. In 1794, after the French Revolution, there were 16 pieces. The set consists of 2 kings, 2 queens, 4 elephants, 4 knights, 3 chariots, and 1 foot soldier.

A piece that is part of the Charlemagne set is a King Elephant. It carries an Arab (Kufric) inscription which translates as "made by Yusuf al-Bahilis." Its origin is India and it may not even be a chess piece. It has an Eastern leader being carried by an elephant, surrounded by a row of horsemen acting as supporters.

In the Salisbury and South Wiltshire Museum is a 12th century English chess king (king on horseback) carved of walrus ivory.  It is probably the earliest authentic English chess piece known.  The piece was found in the drainage channels – the old open sewers that ran through the streets of Salisbury.

The Museum of National Antiquities in Stockholm, Sweden, contains five chess medieval pieces.  One is an ivory rook found on the Island of Oland.  Another is a 13th century knight, crudely carved from walrus ivory, found at Kalmar Castle, Smaland, Sweden.  Another piece is a 13th century bishop carved from walrus ivory, found at Stegeborg Castle, Ostergotland.  Another piece is a 13th century walrus queen found at Vastergotland, Sweden.  The final piece is a 13th century walrus rook found in Stockholm.

From about the middle of the 15th century, chess pieces used for playing were of very simple form and this simplicity persisted for four centuries.

For centuries French craftsmen were the best at making chess sets.  For the most part, French turners and carvers settled in Paris or Dieppe.  However, there were many small workshops around the country that made chess sets on a commercial scale.  West African ivory, bone, and many types of wood were all used in the production of French chess pieces.  The French made their bishops to look like “fou” or clerics with clay pipes.  Until the French Revolution, large numbers of chess sets were exported to England.

In 1680, Siamese (Thai) artists carved a chess set from painted ivory depicting a fight between English and Indian armies.  The set was presented to King Louis XIV (1638-1715) of France by the Siamese ambassador.

A great majority of all decorative chess sets were made after the opening if the 18th century.

From 1700 to around 1750, Spanish turners and carvers made ivory ‘pulpit’ chess sets with delicate balustrades of acanthus leaves surrounding figures and symbols.

In the early 1700s, France made fanciful half-figure ivory and bone chess sets.  The knight piece was often transformed into a sea horse.

In the 18th century, an English ivory chess set was created depicting the battle of Constantinople.  One of the pieces (a rook) was a carved elephant with a rook on top.

In 1750, a French set was carved from polychrome ivory.  The two kings represented King Louis XI and Charles the Bold.  The other figures represented their respective armies.

In 1759, Wedgwood, a company that makes fine ceramics was founded.   Josiah Wedgwood, the master of all English potters, produced outstanding chess pieces.  The pieces were made of Jasperware porcelain.  In October 1783, John Flaxman (1755-1826), an English sculptor and draughtsman  designed a new series of chessmen for Wedgwood.  Some of the pieces were based on characters from William Shakespeare’s Macbeth.  It is believed the figure for the Queen was modeled after Sarah Siddons, a famous actress of her day, in the role of Lady Macbeth.  Wedgwood’s chess pieces were probably the most desirable of all pottery pieces.  Wedgwood chess pieces were the first portrait chess sets to be produced in pottery.  In 1926, the original molds were recovered and restored, and used once again to produce high quality pottery chess pieces.

Around 1780, George Washington acquired an ivory chess set, now housed in the U.S. National Museum in Washington, D.C.   Its design is now known as the Washington design.

The increased interest in chess in the late 18th century and early 19th century brought about a renewed demand for a universal model for chess pieces.  Philidor tried to introduce a standard chess set, but the time was not ready for it in the late 1700s.

One of the first chessmen designs came from John Calvert. He was a master of the Worshipful Company of Turneers,189 Fleet Street, London. The king and queen had openwork crowns, the bishop had a deep clefted mitre, and the rook was a tower on a pedestal. He produced his chess sets from 1791 until his death in 1822.  After his death, his widow took over the Calvert business and made Calvert chess sets until her death in 1840.

Besides Calvert, other firms such as Lund, Pringle, and Toy had their names and places of business engraved on the basis of the chess pieces they sold.

Thomas Lund manufactured ivory chess sets and boxes from the early 1800s until his death in 1843.  His son, William, continued to make chess sets throughout the rest of the 19th century.  Their workshop was located at 24 Fleet Street in London.  William Lund became the master turner at the Worshipful guild of master turners.  The Maltese cross always appeared on Lund chessmen.

Toy Brothers of London produced beautiful turned chess sets.  They were heavy but well-balanced, and not too decorative.

Around 1820, the Dublin pattern was introduced in chess sets.  They were made of ebony and boxwood with fine carved knights.  The pattern was marketed by Jaques.

George Merrifield of Great Turnstile, London made popular wooden chess sets from around 1823 to the 1840s.

The best English chess pieces made during the 19th century came from the workshop of Charles Hastilow, beginning around 1830.  His ivory chess sets were displayed at the Great Exhibition of 1851.

Another design, called the Regency design, was produced in the late 1700s up until the end of the 19th century.  The design was named after the Café de la Regence in Paris.  The knights did not yet have the traditional horse head.  Instead, the knight had a notched collar to distinguish them from the bishops.  Later sets had the more traditional horse head for the knight.  Benjamin Franklin had a chess set of the French “Regency” design.

English bone chess sets were produced mostly in London from 1820 to 1880.  It was made of bone in a plain pattern and used in the English chess clubs of the time.  They were later decorated with a “rope twist” pattern.

King George III of England had a chess set showing a stag and bear hunt.

One popular design was the English Barleycorn chess set.  Barleycorn chess sets were almost always made from white natural bone and red-stained bone.  They were very popular in the early 19th century until the mid 1800s.  The rooks usually were designed to look like a full tower with a flag.  The kings and queens usually had elaborate decorative carvings on the barrels (the barleycorn).  The carvings were corn leaves and husks engraved and carved on the pieces, resembling barley grain.  In some sets, the rook also had the barleycorn decoration.  The bishops had a vertical split mitre.  Thomas Jefferson had a chess set of the “Barleycorn” design at Monticello.  John Quincy Adams had a Barleycorn chess set made around 1825.

The Barleycorn chess sets first appeared at the beginning of the 19th century when there was a decline of trade with Napoleon’s France.  The supply of chess sets from Dieppe and other French sources decreased significantly.  Barleycorn chess sets continued in production around 1920.

In the early 19th century the most common chess design was the St. George chessmen. The chessmen were named after the famous St. George chess club in London.  Most manufacturers in 19th century England, starting around 1830, produced chessmen of this style.  It was the standard chess design in Britain until it was replaced by the Staunton design.  The French also made St. George chess sets at a factory in Rouen.  The design was a simple form and the pieces were easy to turn.   There was no difficulty in using cheap woods for such robust shapes.

Chess sets of the St. George type were made in tin-glazed earthenware at Rouen, France, in plain, compact, baluster shapes painted with floral designs in red-on-white or blue-on-white.  They were very popular at the time.

Around 1845, Lord John Hay (1793-1851) designed the Edinburgh-Upright (also known as the Northern Upright) pattern for the Edinburgh Chess Club in Scotland.  The chess set, usually made of wood, was marketed by Jaques of London, mostly for the Scottish market.  They continued to be used until the late 1800s.  The Edinburgh-Upright design featured large, straight columns on all its pieces, thus the origin of it name.  Lord John Hay was a member of the English Parliament and a Read Admiral of the British Navy.

In 1845, Peter Mark Roget (1779-1869) , best known as the author of Roget’s Thesaurus, invented the pocket chess set.

In early 1849 Nathaniel Cook designed the Staunton set at a time when players were refusing to play with each other's pieces because of the difficulty in distinguishing the various chess pieces. The main patterns prior to the Staunton pattern were the Lund, Merrifield, Calvert, Barleycorn, Selenius and St George patterns. Cook used symbols in their plainest form. The king had a crown, the queen had a coronet, the bishop had a mitre, the knight was a horse's head, the rook was a castle, and the pawn was a ball. The horses' heads were based on the Elgin Marbles. These were designs found in the Parthenon frieze and taken to England by Thomas Bruce, 7th Lord of Elgin, in 1806. The pawns were developed from the freemason's square and compass. Every symbol was supported on a plain stem rising from a heavy, wide base which gave stability. The design impressed John Jaques (pronounced “Jakes”), leading wood carver, that he immediately suggested making the pieces on a commercial basis.

Nathaniel Cook was Staunton's editor at the Illustrated London Times. He registered the Staunton pattern in March, 1849.

Jaques was a friend of the English chess master, Howard Staunton, who sanctioned the request that the design be called the Staunton chessmen. John Jaques was also the brother-in-law of Nathaniel Cook. Jaques obtained a copyright for the design, registering the design under the Ornamental Designs Act of 1842, and began manufacturing the set in London. The wooden pieces were turned from ebony and boxwood and very heavily weighted. Some ivory sets were made from African ivory. King sizes were 3.5 inches or 4.5 inches (for match or tournament play). The first Staunton Pattern chess pieces from Jaques were offered to the public on September 29, 1849.

The original plan for the Staunton chess set was to have Staunton hand-sign and hand-number about 1,000 of the manufacturer’s paper labels, which were affixed to the bottom of the boxes of Jacques chessmen.  It is known that Staunton signed at least 600.  The box came with an ivory or wood chessmen and a textbook on chess.  Some of the sets were unweighted, while others were weighted by lead.

The Jacques/Cook Staunton design was patented (No. 58,607) in 1849, but was immediately copied or emulated by competitors, despite strenuous attempts to maintain the exclusivity from the part of the patentees.

From the mid to the late 19th century, the British Chess Company (BCC) produced chess sets based on the Staunton pattern.  Some of their wooden sets had composite knights heads, while the rest of the chess set were made from conventionally turned wooden work.  BCC was the main competitor to Jacques.  Their pieces were usually better weighted than Jacques, and a nicer carved knight.

In 1883, an original Staunton chess set was used in the Zukertort-Blackburne game in London.

In 1887, Henry Bird published Bird’s Modern Chess and Chess Masterpieces.  He also advertised H.E. Bird’s Chessmen, “considered a great improvement on Staunton’s design.”  It came in ebony and box-wood four inches high with the price of 25 shillings.  He continued the advertisement in his 1892 book, Chess Practice.  Later, there was an advertisement of Bird’s De Luxe Chessmen, made in America.

During World War I, many chess sets were improvised for actual use.  After the war, chess sets made from cartridge cases were made as souvenirs.  Many sets were made from standard 30-calibre cartridge cases used in Springfield rifles.  Some have small wooden symbols fitted into open-ended cases.  Others had the bullet end flattened and cut into shape.

In the early 20th century, all chess sets sold in the United States were manufactured in Europe.  With the outbreak of World War I in 1914, the supply of chess sets to the United States ceased.  In 1914, William F. Drueke of Grand Rapids, Michigan, started supplying wooden chess sets to stores.  At the time, Grand Rapids was famous worldwide for its skilled wood turners, hand carvers, and craftsman wood workers.  The Drueke company was soon had the biggest chess producing factory in the U.S.  In 1954, Drueke started making the first plastic chess sets.  In 1990, Drueke was purchased by The Carrom Company of Ludington, Michigan.  All the Drueke game manufacturing was moved to the Carrom production facility in Ludington.  They still make Drueke chess sets.

Everywhere, chess sets have been an inspiration for artists.  Artists of every age and nation have chess sets, usually reflecting the country’s history, tastes, or religion.  In China and India, little pagodas and Buddhist shrines are used as rooks.  In Eskimo sets, sled dogs and igloos appear. 

In 1922, the Soviets created chess sets of Communist vs. Capitalists  workers to spread propaganda.  The Capitalist king is a death’s head.  The queen is pouring gold from a cornucopia.  The bishops are officers of the old Russian regime.  The pawns are workers enchained.  The Communist king is a workman holding a sledge hammer.  The queen is a woman clutching a sheath of corn.  The bishops are Russian soldiers.  The pawns are happy women harvesters.  The rooks on both sides are boats.  The Communist boats are decorated with a hammer and sickle.  The Capitalist boats are decorated with chains and an executioner’s axe.  In some chess sets, anvils took the place of pawns, while blacksmiths and gleaners replaced the knights and bishops.

In 1924, FIDE recommended that only Staunton design chess sets should be used in tournament play.

In 1926, artist Man Ray (1890-1976)  created a suite of chessmen with clean, abstract geometric shapes.  The design was part classic Cubist sculpture and part components for some enigmatic machine.  The set was made out of silver-plated and oxidized silver-plated brass.  The pieces are currently on display at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

In 1934, the Nazis designed a new chess set dubbed “Deutsche Bundesform” (German Federation style).  It was supposed to be a chess set in all future German chess activities for the next thousand years.  It was designed by Ehrhardt Post, chief editor of the Deutsche Schachblatter chess magazine.  The new set was meant to be simpler and cheaper to make than the Staunton design.  The copyright design was touted as the official chess set for Nazi chess.  The set was made at Erzgebirge from 1934 until 1990.

In 1944, Max Ernst designed a boxwood chess set for the Imagery of Chess exhibition at the Julien Levy Gallery in New York.  The king was represented by an elongated pyramid.

In 1990, at a Sotheby’s auction, a 1616 carved amber chess set was sold in London for $574,000.

In 2007, at the Christie’s London auction sale, ivory chessmen from 19th century Germany, hand sculpted in the shapes of owls and mice, sold for $299,100, a world record for a 19th century chess set. 

Other chess sets include:

Alabaster chess set.  Alabaster, a type of stone, is a popular material for chess sets and boards.  Most of the alabaster chess sets are made in Italy.  You can find alabaster chess sets in several colors including black, brown, white, blue, green, red, etc.

Alice in Wonderland chess set.  This set started appearing in the early 1900s and was popular.  The pieces were based on the Sir John Tenniel illustrations  for the first editions of “Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland,” published in 1865 and “Through the Looking-Glass and what Alice found there,” published in 1871.

American Revolution chess set.  It’s the Americans vs. the British.  For the Americans, the king is George Washington, the queen is Horatio Gates, the bishops are Benedict Arnold, the knights are the Continental Calvary, the rook is the Star and Stripes, and the pawns are the Continental Infantry.  For the British, the king is King George, the queen is Charles Cornwallis, the bishops are Banastre Tarleton, the knights are the British Calvary, the rooks are the Union Jack, and the pawns are the British Infantry.  The Military Chess Set of the American Revolution was created by Charles Stradden, the world’s foremost military sculptor.  Earlier, he had created a chess set commemorating the Battle of Waterloo.

Avon chess set.  Avon produced these chess sets with cologne in the early 1970s, at the height of the Fischer era.  There are thousands of these sets still in existence.

Baseball chess set.  A Golden Age of Baseball Chess Set was created in the 1990s.  It was the first chess set authorized by Major League Baseball.  The kings were Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron.  The other pieces were Ty Cobb, Willie Mays, Frank Robinson, Ted Williams, Walter Johnson, and Roy Campanella.  The pawns were bat-in-ball pawns.  It came with a stadium-design chessboard and display case.  A National League vs. American League chess set was later created, endorsed and signed by Willie Mays.

Civil War chess set.  These sets are highly detailed productions of various artifacts and historical soldiers from the Union army and the Confederate army.  The Franklin Mint produced their first civil war chess set in the early 1980s.

Conqueror chess set.  This set was designed by sculptor Peter Ganine (1900-1974) in the early 1960s.  The set consisted of tall, thin statuesque figures.

Faberge chess set.  The only known Faberge chess set was specially made in 1905 for Csar Nicholas II’s Commander in Chief of the Russo-Japanese War, General Alexei Kouropatkin.  The pieces were carved from tawny aventurine quartz and grey Kalagan jasper.  Its value is about $13 million.

Glass chess set.  The famous Waterford Crystal Of Ireland made glass chess sets incorporating their elaborate cutting to differentiate between opposing sides.  The Cristalleries de Saint Louis of France created angular chess pieces with sharp cut points on the crowns of the king and queen.  Some of the pieces were frosted to distinguish the opposing sides.  Glass companies in the Czech Republic and Austria manufacture glass chess sets.

Gothic chess set.  Gothic sculptures and carvings form the theme.  In 1939, sculpture Peter Ganine designed a gothic chess set (gothic heads) made of ceramic material.   He had planned to reproduce the set for popular sale, in Bakelite, but World War II prevented that.  By 1947, he was producing the set for popular sale.  The gothic chess set came in two versions, the Salon Edition (small heads) and the Tournament Edition (large heads).  Ganine later designed another chess set known as the “Conqueror” chess set.  Rather than a collection of heads, the set consisted of tall, thin statuesque figures.

Harry Potter chess set.  The board has the exact same colors as the chess set seen in “Harry Potter & the Sorcerer’s Stone.”  The pieces were designed using the same sketches that Warner Brothers did for the movie.

King Arthur chess set.  The rooks depict Camelot where the Knights of the Round Table met.  The knights are Lancelot, King Arthur’s knight and friend.  The bishops are Merlin the wizard.  The pawns depict young Arthur who would become king.  The queen is Queen Guinevere.  A King Arthur chess set was made by ANRI of Italy between 1958 and 1993.

Lord of the Rings chess set.  This is a chess set inspired by J.R.R. Tolkien’s books and the Lord of the Rings movies.  The bone  pieces are as follows: king – Aragorn; queen – Arwen; bishops – Gandalf and Frodo; knights – Merry and Pippin; rooks – Legolas and Gimli; pawns – Sam.  The bronze pieces are: king – the Tower of Barad-Dur; queen – Ringwraith; bishop – Gollum; knight – Warg Rider; pawns – Orc.

Medieval chess set.  The medieval chess sets, as a category, are the most popular them in chess sets.  The sets can be cast in polyresin, pewter, or bronze.  Sets can be from King Arthur and his court to the Crusades to Robin Hood.

Napoleon chess set.  Napoleon and his military conquests have been a favorite them for chess sets.  Napoleon is the king and his wife, Josephine, is the queen.  The other figures are elements of  his French army.  The usual opposing force is Wellington and his army.

Renaissance chess set.  The pieces are represented by characters from the middle ages along with a horse as the knight and a castle tower as the rook.  In 1959, E.S. Lowe produced a black and white plastic Renaissance set that was quite popular.  The new Renaissance chess sets bore both the Lowe and ANRI names.  ANRI was a company in Italy famous for high quality wood carved products.  They also made some chess sets out of Bakelite and wood.

Star Trek chess set.  The Star Trek tridimensional chess set is based on the futuristic chess game seen on board the U.S.S. Enterprise.  It was first introduced by Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock in the episode called, “Where No Man Has Gone Before.”  The Franklin Mint issued a star trek chess set in 1994, but was shortly discontinued.

Star Wars chess set.  For the silver side, the pawns are Republic Clone Troopers, the rooks are C3PO/R2D2 and Padme, the knights are Han Solo and Chewbacca, the bishops are Princess Leia and Luke Skywalker, the queen is Obi-Wan, and the king is Yoda.  For the black side, the pawns are storm troopers, the rooks are Count Dooku and Darth Maul, the bishops are General Grievous and a bodyguard, the knights are Jango Fett and Boba Fett, the queen is Darth Vader, and the king is Emperor Palpatine.

Waterloo chess set.  This chess set used the theme of the Battle of Waterloo.  The king  is Napoleon and Josephine is the queen.  The bishops are Marshals Berthier and Massena.  The knights are fiery French chargers.  Napoleon’s Old Guard are pawns.  On the opposing force, the Duke of Wellington is the white king and the Duchess of Wellington is the queen.  Lords Liverpool and Castlereagh are bishops and the pawns are British grenadiers.