The history of the Staunton style chess set
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A huge increase in the popularity of chess, particularly in international play during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, brought about a renewed demand for a more universal model of chess set. 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 St. George, English Barleycorn, the French Regence and the central European Selenus styles. Most pieces were tall, easily tipped over and cumbersome during play. But their largest downfall was the uniformity of the pieces within one set. A player's lack of familiarity with an opponent's pieces 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 chess set with pieces that were easy to use and universally recognized by players of diverse cultural backgrounds. The solution, first released in 1849 was to become known as the Staunton chess set after the Shakespearean scholar, author and the world champion, Howard Staunton ( 1810 - 1874 ).
The pieces were symbols of "respectable" Victorian society: a distinguished bishops 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 castle streamlined into clean classical lines, projecting an aura of strength and security. It has been said that the form of the pawns was based on the 'Freemasons square and compasses', however; another theory reflects 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.
The key was the use of universally recognizable symbols atop conventional stems and bases. Moreover, the pieces were compact, well balanced and often weighted to provide a playing set that was as useful as it was understandable. Further to the design, the expensive ebony and boxwood sets were weighted with lead to provide added stability and the underside of each piece was covered with felt. The king sizes ranged from 3.5 inches to 4.5 inches and the sets typically came in a carved wooden box.
"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. 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."
The Staunton as it became known, became available to the general public on September 29, 1849. The Staunton style chess set was soon the standard on which most tournament playing pieces have been made and used around the globe ever since. The low cost to produce the Staunton style chess set allowed the masses to purchase sets and helped to increase the popularity of the game of chess
The Staunton set obtained the stamp of approval of the World Chess Federation, when in 1924 it was selected as their choice of set, for use in all future international chess tournaments. For over a century and a half, this style has been cherished by players around the world. The superiority of the design lay in its well-balanced, easy to recognized pieces. Such was its success that it will be the style of choice for play to this day and hopefully many years into the future.
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The Staunton Chess game set : a brief history
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30 January 2006
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