Staunton Chessmen

The Staunton chessmen is the standard pattern for chess pieces used in all world chess federation and United States Chess Federation events.

The increased interest in chess in the 19th century brought about a renewed demand for a more universal model for chess pieces. The variety and styles of the conventional form begun in the fifteenth century had expanded tremendously by the beginning of the nineteenth century. Some of the more common conventional types popular during the period included the English Barleycorn, the St. George, the French Regence  and the central European Selenus styles. Most pieces were tall, easily tipped and cumbersome during play. But their target sin was the uniformity of the pieces within a set. A player's unfamiliarity with an opponent's set could tragically alter the outcome of a game. By the early decades of the nineteenth century, it was all too clear that there was a great need for a playing set with pieces that were easy to use and universally recognized by players of diverse backgrounds. The solution, first released in 1849 by John Jaques of London, sport and games manufacturers since 1795, of Hatton Garden, London, England, was to become known as the Staunton chess set after the Shakespearean scholar, author and the world champion, Howard Staunton ( 1810 - 1874).


On March 1, 1849 the Staunton pattern was first registered by Nathaniel Cook (patent number 58607). At the time, there was no provision for the registration of any design or articles of ivory.   Registration was limited to Class 2 articles made chiefly of wood. Prior to that, the pieces most commonly used were called the St. George design, followed by the Calvert, Edinburgh, Lund and Merrifield designs. Cook registered his wooden chess pattern under the Ornamental Designs Act of 1842.   Although Nathaniel Cook has been credited with the design, it may have been conceived by his brother-in-law, John Jaques.

The design of the knight came from the Greek horse of the Eglin Marbles in the British Museum (brought to the museum in 1806).

The appearance of the new chessmen was based on the neoclassical style of the time, and the pieces were symbols of "respectable" Victorian society: a distinguished bishop’s miter, a queen's coronet and king's crown, a knight carved as a stallion's head from the ancient Greek Elgin Marbles and a rook streamlined into clean classical lines, projecting an aura of strength and security. The form of the pawns may have been based on the Freemasons square and compasses. However,  another theory of the pawns form is derived from the balconies of London Victorian buildings. There were also practical innovations: for the first time a crown emblem was stamped onto a rook and knight of each side, to identify their positioning on to the king's side of the board.

In September 1849 the manufacturing rights were bought by John Jaques of London, workers of ivory and fine woods.  The sets were made in wood and ivory. The unweighted king was 3.5 inches in size. The weighted king was 4.4 inches in size. Jaques removed much of the decorative features that topped earlier chess patterns, and was able to manufacture the new design at less cost. The king was represented by a crown and the queen was represented by a coronet.

Some of the ebony and boxwood sets were weighted with lead to provide added stability and the underside of each piece was covered with felt. This afforded the players the illusion that the chessmen were floating across the board. Some ivory sets were made from African ivory. The  sets typically came in a caron-pierre case, each one bearing a facsimile of Staunton's signature under the lid.

On September 8, 1849 the first wooden chess sets from Jaques was available. The first sets actually had a different pattern to the King's Rook and King's Knight that distinguished it from the Queen's Rook and the Queen's Knight.

On the same day that the Jaques chess sets were available, Howard Staunton recommended and endorsed the sets in the Illustrated London News. Nathaniel Cook was Staunton's editor at the Illustrated London News. The ad that appeared in the newspaper called it Mr. STAUNTON's pattern. The ad that first appeared in the Illustrated London News, September 8, 1849 read:

"A set of Chessmen, of a pattern combining elegance and solidity to a degree hitherto unknown, has recently appeared under the auspices of the celebrated player Mr. STAUNTON. A guiding principle has been to give by their form a signification to the various pieces - thus the king is represented by a crown, the Queen by a coronet, &c. The pieces generally are fashioned with convenience to the hand; and it is to be remarked, that while there is so great an accession to elegance of form, it is not attained at the expense of practical utility. Mr. STAUNTON'S pattern adopts but elevates the conventional form; and the base of the Pieces being of a large diameter, they are more steady than ordinary sets.".

Later, Staunton began endorsing the set and had his signature on the box of Staunton chess pieces. One of Staunton's chess books was given free with every box of Staunton chess set.   The first 500 sets were numbered and signed by Howard Staunton.

The Staunton set obtained the stamp of approval of the World Chess Federation (FIDE), when in 1924 it was selected as their choice of set, for use in all future international chess tournaments.

In 1935 the Jaques company no longer made ivory Staunton sets.

During World War II Jacques was asked by the British government to mass produce chess sets for the troops. The factory was later bombed by the Germans and destroyed.

At the start of the 1978 World Championship match in Baguio, Philippines there wasn't a Staunton chess set in the city. Someone had to drive to Manila to find a Staunton chess set, which arrived just 15 minutes before the start of the scheduled match.