By Jim Parker
Last year, a dozen or so of today's renowned billiard scholars and
historians were called together in an effort to write an encyclopedia regarding
all cue sports. While certainly not to be considered a writer, scholar or
historian, I was nonetheless asked for any small support I might be able to
provide. The concept of compiling historical information in reference to
American billiards has always been of profound interest and importance,
therefore, a request I was happy to oblige.
Due primarily to business interests, time has always been in short supply and a gift we all receive to little of. To help satisfy the request I found myself, typically about three nights a week nearing midnight, opening and sifting through boxes, books and photo albums in search of any information that would be of help.
From the 19th century through the mid 20th century two of my principle sources of information are documents and personal scrapbooks compiled by their deceased hall of fame owners; Mr. William Fredrick Hoppe (1887-1959) the greatest billiard player of all time, and Mr. Herman J. Rambow (1881-1967) our nations finest cue maker during the time in which he lived.
While the search proved successful in as much as I was able to fill a few gaps of lost records and various scores, the mission of mercy also provoked thought and raised questions in my mind as to the accuracy and entirety of many of billiards existing records, principally those provided by an organization known as the Billiard Congress of America (BCA).
The major collapse in American billiards occurred in the late 1940's, ironically in and about the same time this organization was founded (1948). While the two occurrences were somewhat simultaneous, it would be unfair to assume they were related, or suggest the BCA was the cause of billiards decline. Based on the following years of industry growth and popularity, or in this case, the lack of it, does suggest however, the organization did little or nothing to effectively boost or popularize the game. However, almost immediately after they're founding the organization displayed several obvious gestures of good judgment and concern for the games immediate benefit and future preservation.
Since the BCA's founding, I have yet to find any single act by any other individual or organization of greater importance to the welfare of the game and its users, than the BCA's attempt to maintain and publish a book regarding rules, specifications, records of past championships, instructions, scores and capsule summaries of many of the games hero's and various contributors. While their efforts are to be viewed as nothing less than sincere and honorable, they, along with historians, all to often fall victim to both incomplete and unintentional inaccuracies contained within their reports and writings. The principle purpose of this newsletter is to most respectfully begin addressing those issues while also disclosing positive historical information, that to the best of my knowledge, has never been previously presented.
The concept of recording and reporting billiard rules, regulations and the like, was certainly nothing new to billiards at the time of the 1948 founding of the BCA. Billiard rulebooks and their assorted contents were first introduced to America as far back as 1850. The first 175-page publication, Billiards Without A Master, was written by a man who has since been rightfully referred to as the "Father of American Billiards."
"Supreme on all accounts ... husband, father, inventor, writer, publisher, player, tournament organizer, billiard room proprietor, promoter, designer, columnist, manufacture, visionary and humanitarian," would only begin Daniel Webster's opening introduction of this billiard Icon ... Mr. Michael Phelan.
Phelan (pronounced Fay-lin), a highly intelligent man of profound vision, physical skills and sense of order, was the first person to introduce an unbelievable variety of assorted billiard achievements. An accurate account of his contributions to the game would literally require far to many pages of text to be viewed as merely a newsletter. In recent years dedicated historians have made remarkable progress in their efforts directed to the acknowledgment of this man and his unique, one of a kind achievements. However they have failed, I suspect by their unawareness, to mention perhaps his most significant and interesting contributions to the sport and its future generations.
Historian's claim the first organization founded for the betterment of American billiards was established in 1865, and was referred to as the American Billiard Players Association (ABPA). This is incorrect and I will explain later.
It is common knowledge among historians that the first recorded billiard tournament hosted in America was in 1860. However, it was not promoted as a formal, professional or public tournament, therefore, aside from it being the first, in contrast to a tournament with a similar format hosted three years later, it was not of spectacle significance and did little to boost billiards popularity. Incidentally, prior events were typically one-day affairs promoting challenge matches between their two respective contestants.
With your indulgence, and the help of Mr. Phelan along with another behemoth of American culture, I'm going to take each and everyone of you on a trip back in time to the year of 1863, and for the first time ever, disclose a few truly amazing facts regarding billiards history.
The year of 1863 was the year that American billiards realized several its most significant moments in history, and of course, brought about by the magnanimous, Michael Phelan.
Phelan deserves full credit for writing America's first billiard book outlining the games rules and the like. He further compounded his efforts when over the following years wrote several others, along with a newspaper column for Frank Leslie's Illustrated Weekly, all of this was in fact, only the preamble of Phelan's major lifetime achievements and what was yet to come.
The most in-depth various records and billiards rules, regulations, specifications and results of past championships was titled "Modern Billiards," and published first in 1881 by Throw's Printing, NY. Then later, the Brunswick-Balke-Collender Co (BBCC) bought the rights and reissued it in 1891, 1904, 1906, 1908, 1909 and 1912, with additions. To the best of my knowledge this achievement has never been equaled since, or its completeness even attempted until today's newly proposed encyclopedia of cue sports.
The BBCC's hardcover, 398 page book was designed with incredible detail and is considered to this day the bible or main source of information that historian's use when compiling data in reference to 19th century billiard events. The book had been updated several times, my copy, titled Modern Billiards, was published in 1912 and is not the first, nor the last edition.
Page 210 lists seven of the most popular Four-Ball Game championships hosted in the years 1862 and 1863. Of these, the most notable event, which is carried forward to the following page 211, was hosted from June 1st through June 9th, 1863. The report reads as follows ...
First Public Tournament, First Formal Professional Championship Anywhere, and First Four-Pocket Table
Irving Hall, N.Y. City, June 1-9th. - First prize, emblematic cue and a $750 Phelan & Collender billiard table; second $250. Instead of the usual 6x12 six pocket, a 6x12 four pocket was used for the first time in public. The highest run was made by "jawing," also for the first time in public. Tying in both high run and high winning average, done by Kavanagh and Tieman, has yet to be paralleled in a public tournament. Average of this one (seven games apiece), 12.19. Points and money stake in all succeeding matches, 1500 and $500 a side.
|D. Kavanagh, N.Y.||6||203||33.33||15.18|
|Louis Fox, Rochester||5||141||23.81||14.45|
|John Deery, N.Y||4||313||16.13||11.41|
|Phil Tieman, Cincinnati||3||203||33.33||14.48|
|John Seereiter, Detroit||3||114||13.16||10.22|
|M. Foley, Detroit||3||102||16.67||12.48|
|Wm. Goldthwait, N.Y||3||185||17.24||11.46|
|Victor Estephe, Philadelphia||1||86||8.31||9.19|
For a multiple of reasons this tournament is far more significant to billiards history than would be detected in the BBCC's book, or for that matter, any other records, reports or disclosures by the games historians, both past and present.
Sometime during or shortly after this event, Phelan and his colleagues leveraged off the success of this first event and organized an ongoing series of challenge matches, similar to our proposed 2001 Illinois Billiard Club Challenge of Champions. Unlike our proposed events however, the stakes of $500 per side, were provided by each of Phelan's contestants, in contrast to our clubs current policy of providing an entire $1,500 prize fund (which could give cause to second-guess our clubs generosity)!
The success of this pilot series was both immediate and enduring. Marketing was obviously profound and I can't help but wonder if somehow the prolific showman, promoter and Phelan's neighbor, Phineas T. Barnum, wasn't somehow, either directly or indirectly responsible for its success.
Even during the civil war the challenge matches, not tournaments, were ongoing and uninterupted for the following six years, beginning Oct. 15, 1863 and continued until its last match on Dec. 22, 1868. The series was comprised of 17 scheduled challenges, 3 of which were forfeits (with full payment). The 14 completed championships were hosted in New York, Montreal and Chicago. Three days following the final match it was recorded; "On Christmas day, 1868, there being no challenge pending, McDevitt (winner of the preceding event) resigned the cue (emblematic cue that had been passed along to each of the events succeeding champions) to its donors, Phelan & Collender, as a step towards a new championship, push barred (rules change). The old style game thus came to an end."
What all of this meant, was Phelan, in addition to his long list of other "firsts" and innovative concepts, also orchestrated the first successful national professional billiard tour in the history of American Billiards! Also at this time I would like to point out for the benefit of sport buffs ... this act gives reason to suggest that Phelan's series of national sporting events and their longevity, was perhaps the first of its kind in any and all of American sports. Therefore, while only a probability to be further investigated, the true concept and origin of our professional American and National leagues and tours, including our revered sports of golf, football, basketball, baseball, tennis, ect. Quite possibly all of this could have been introduced through the sport of billiards and its Icon ... Mr. Michael Phelan?
Now with those observations discussed, lets step back to the 1863 tournament itself and the principle purpose of this report. When reading our history books and learning just how civilization and its special events actually evolved, did you ever stop to imagine what the people of their time actually looked like, especially those responsible for the advancement of whatever their field? I have. I suspect due to my lifetime interest in art and my younger years as a student at Chicago's Art Institute and The American Academy of Art.
While studying the works of the great masters, we are all given an opportunity to appreciate the features and physical appearances of their subjects. I would often wonder however, what about the legions of histories exalted personalities less fortunate and never given the privilege of being recorded by an artist's brush or a sculptors chisel. Just exactly what did these people actually look like?
Based on the fact that our earliest ancestors left drawings on the walls of subterranean caves, along with statues, carvings and artist renderings found within the ruins of ancient civilizations, all suggest my interests and concerns were certainly not unique or without value.
Why then, for the interest of future generations and the preservation of historical events and those most responsible, are there no photographs of our ancestors until the first quarter of the 19th century? While the answer to this question is simple, its solution was a subject that confounded the majority of those seeking it. The only medium that could possibly produce as exact likeness was photography, and photography was just coming of age and little was actually known about its process.
While various forms of capturing images on a variety of materials is traced back to the 17th century, the subject of photography as we know it today didn't actually begin to emerge until the 1830's. The camera evolved from the camera obscura and camera lucida - devices used by artists to capture images of nature as an aid to painting and drawing. Da Vinci is said to have used such devices, as did William Henry Fox Talbot, a scientist and weekend painter whose frustration with his lack of drawing skill is said to have driven him to explore ways to fix the image captured in his drawing box.
Named after its inventor Louis Daguerre, a Parisian promoter and showman who was known for his immense painted fantasy worlds, called dioramas, began working with a more reclusive gentleman with the generally mispronounced name, Nicephore Niepce. Daguerre's work with Niepce (and Niepce's son, who continued the work after his father died), resulted in the Daguerreotype, a direct-from-the-camera positive exposed onto a silver plate. The image produced was startling in its detail and in the virtual likeness of its subject.
In their final form, Talbot's results were broader in their definition, partly due to the fact that the positive print was made by contact printing a paper negative that had been exposed in the camera. Though the Daguerreotype certainly delivered the most precise impression of reality, Talbot's approach to photography eventually won out, not because it produced a better image, but because it could be reproduced. Daguerreotypes were one of a kind; this type of precision in such a promising commercial venture could hardly be expected to survive in the time's industrial age. Fame was fleeting however, for even Talbot's system (though not his approach) was virtually abandoned a scant ten years after its announcement in 1839.
During this time, Mathew Brady, a student of painter William Page, entered the field of photography in 1844 when establishing his first Daguerreotype studio located in New York on Broadway and Fulton Street. Brady's success and reputation as one of the finest photographers of his time provided him the opportunity of meeting some of the most influential people of his day, with none greater than Abraham Lincoln himself. Recalling his portraitures taken by Brady, Lincoln often said that Brady's portraits of him, won him the election.
As Brady's reputation grew so did his business which by this time included his famous "Gallery of Illustrious American's." Over the following years and several relocations of his studio, he continually moved up-town and eventually located his studio within societies most prominent business district. A journalist of the time reported that if anyone wanted to be advised in what direction New York's upscale side of society would locate their business; "follow the location of Mathew Brady's studio."
Photography, like Brady's career was forever improving. Early photographers were bedeviled by the slowness of their sensitized materials. Their exposure times were eventually shortened to workable lengths, while early studios had to use neck braces and confining chairs to keep their subject still while the exposure was being made. Today, our perception of people who lived in those times may be formed by those necessarily stiff bodies and staring faces; this false impression of such a vibrant age is the cause of the medium's low sensitivity to light.
The situation improved in 1851 when a sculptor by the name of Frederick Scott Archer invented the wet plate process. Film emulsion was flowed onto a glass plate, a medium that eliminated the textural interference and light dispersing character of the paper negative. Almost immediately Talbot's paper negative was transformed merely into a passage in photography's history books. While Daguerreotypes were still used for portraiture, they also were eventually replaced with Archer's glass plate negative.
Printing papers went through similar improvements. Commercially available albumen paper, which literally used egg whites as the medium in which light sensitive salts were suspended, became so widely used that it was said that the chickens of Europe and America were put under great strain.
The birth of true modern photography occurred during the period of 1870 to 1890 when the wet plate was replaced by the dry plate process. This system helped free the photographer from his darkroom. The next major step was the introduction of film on a flexible support as opposed to on a glass plate ... a technology that provided convenience to it's users and the inevitable eclipse of most all other known techniques.
By the 1880's, George Eastman introduced film emulsions coated on paper. This novel arrangement allowed the film to be rolled up and placed inside of a camera, where a transport system wound the film into place for each new exposure. After exposure, the camera and film were returned to Kodak for processing. When the prints were returned by mail, the customer also received a freshly loaded camera (similar to the so-called single-use camera of today). The cost for developing, printing and mounting 100 pictures, including a fresh spool for another 100 in it's reloaded camera ... $10.
Now, with that all too belief, yet important glimpse of the historical side of photography, lets return to the 1860's and Mathew Brady ... With the outbreak of the civil war, working from his Washington office he established in 1849, Brady, along with major assistance from the exceptionally gifted Alexander Gardner, set out to record the wars drama photographically. He employed as many as twenty teams of photographers and was personally present at Antietam, Fredricksburg and the battle of Bull Run in 1861. After the war ended his activities diminished, his eyesight failed, and his income vanished. Congress bought his collection in 1875 for $25,000. Brady worked for other photographers for some years and in 1896 died in a New York charity ward. A standard encyclopedia calls him; "perhaps the most important figure in American photographic history."
Included within the legions of illustrious people photographed by Brady and his studio, were political figures that included Abraham Lincoln ... to military Icons of the civil war, Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee. Brady would upon occasion photographic his subjects within a group of their colleagues. In reference to his civil war photographs, this is seen in his albumen silver portraiture taken in 1865 of Colonel William Tecumseh Sherman (1820-91) seated amongst his generals.
When analyzing the lives of Phelan, Brady and Barnum, all men of the same time, I couldn't help consider the possibility that at one time they worked together, sharing their individual talants.
Phelan and his expressive curiosity and proven creativity, Mathew Brady and his pictorial documentation of the Civil War and artistic portraitures of illustrious personalities of his time, and Phineas T. Barnum with his prolific showmanship and marketing skills ... and all entrepreneurs located in New York's elite business district at the same time! While currently there is no tangible evidence of Barnum's roll in Phelan's success, other than its suggestive style, I do however have tangible evidence linking Phelan to Brady and or his contemporaries.
Other than by the means of line art illustrations, woodcuts and various forms of etchings, newspapers and the like were still forty years away from photojournalism and being capable of publishing photographs as pictorial documentation.
In my earlier description of Michael Phelan's 1863 tournament I included the names of all eight-tournament entries, all of which were without question the best billiard players of their day. Phelan had already established himself as a reputable businessman. His prominent upscale billiard room, located within New York's affluent high society district, established a new and refreshing view of comfort, cleanliness and prestigious style necessary for billiards acceptance by societies elite.
Why then, in an effort to leverage off each other's skills, wouldn't these two entrepreneurs merger on a common cause that would ultimately benefit both of them. Further, at what better time than when Phelan was introducing his first of a kind, 1863 tournament that broadcasted the greatest billiardists of the time? Brady and his studio had already successfully organized group portraitures as shown in his civil war photographs, he could now orchestrate a group photograph of the eight players entered in Phelan's tournament, while also including Phelan as the events promoter and officiate.
Brady however, was tied to his studio due to photography's extensive processes. While pioneering photographers loaded their wagons with chemicals, glass plates, assorted papers and a host of other necessary devices, and then set out to capture the drama of the civil war, it was not likely Phelan's premier event with it's unproven concept of spectacle would encourage the interest of an already successful Mathew Brady. What could, and I suspect did encourage the interest of Brady's Studio, would be convenience and friendship. As I pointed out earlier Phelan's most prominent billiard room was located in New York's upscale business district on the corner of Broadway and 10th Street.
On October 15, 1860, the American Journal of Photography and the Allied Arts & Sciences reported that Mathew Brady established his fourth and most illustrious studio ... also on the corner of Broadway and 10th Street! That's not the whole of it. Based on sketches of both facilities found in the periods Frank Leslie's Illustrated Weekly newspaper, its reasonable to suggest the probability that Brady's studio was located in the same building as Phelan's billiard room! The billiard room's two rows of Corinthian columns displaying the need for structural support suggests Phelan's room was located on the first floor ... while Brady's exquisite studio displayed two elaborate handrails enclosing stairways leading to the buildings lower level, all suggesting Brady's Studio was a second and possible third floor operation. While all of this is more than a ninety-five percent probability, it is not confirmed by historical reports. What is an absolute certainty however, is the documented historical evidence that these two Icons of separate causes coexisted on a corner of the same intersection, in the same city, and at the same time!
After now establishing a more accurate understanding of all the related subjects, the following is a historical fact that relates not just to American, but more precisely to world culture. A fact that links billiards to the elite public side of society as never before. It lifts the game from the valley of societies view of its historical insignificance, to a more visual and accurate view of billiards original and prominent social significance.
During the time in which Michael Phelan began and ended his June tournament of 1863, based on the findings contained within this report and supporting pictorial documentation, he posed for the lens of a Mathew Brady camera, and like Brady's Civil War portraiture of Colonel William Tecumseh Sherman and his generals ... Phelan sat in a chair that was carefully and artistically centered within "his" surrounding generals ... eight of our nations greatest billiard players of the time in which they lived. Within that fleeting moment in 1863, when the Mathew Brady Studio opened and closed the iris of their camera's shutter, they captured for infinity, not only a first in American history. This would be the first known photographic pictorial documentation of the sport of billiards and its affiliation with elegance, corporate order and it's professional competitive side ... ever recorded in the entire global history of humankind!
My studio portraiture of this historical event, an original taken in June of 1863, is an albumen silver print measuring 14.75-in. wide x 10.75-in. high. While the density of the photograph is faint, its distinct and overall condition is as perfect as the day it left Brady's darkroom. Its accompanying copy suggests a reproduction made in either the late 19th or early 20th century. Unlike its 138-year-old original, its unmated and the hand-printed names of all of its nine subjects are still visible, along with the name of the first governing body of American Billiards.
Reading the names of the organizations first committee and tournament contestants ... from left to right; Seereiter, Deery, Estephe, Goldthwait, Phelan, Fox, Tieman, Foley and the winner of the 1863 tournament ... Kavanaugh. Centered slightly beneath their names and hand written in bold script is the name of Phelan's first organization ... the BILLIARD CONGRESS.
Ironically, with absolutely no affiliation or intent of duplication, nearly a hundred years after Phelan founded billiards first governing body, the Billiard Congress ... an upstart organization in 1948 chose an almost identical name, the Billiard Congress of America.
If up to this point there had ever been any doubt that Michael Phelan was a visionary, these facts above all, should put those doubts to rest. The man was a hundred years ahead of his time, and oddly enough, more than one hundred and thirty years after his death, with the help of the 19th century's, Mr. Mathew Brady, and the 21st century's Illinois Billiard Club ... he proved it!
A reproduction of my 1863 original; "Michael Phelan and his Billiard
Congress" will be on display in the Illinois Billiard Club's Museum and
Antique Billiard Room beginning September 1, 2001. Public showings are welcome
by reservation on Sundays between the hours of 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. 708.839.5820.
An important note to historians and collectors ... Photography's cyanotype process, introduced in 1842, utilizes ferric (iron) salts as the light-sensitive medium. Once paper is hand coated and dried, it is contact printed with film, exposed to sunlight or artificial light, and developed in water. Though cyanotype prints will fade in direct sunlight they miraculously regain their composure when stored for a few days in a cool, damp and dark place. I strongly suggest before discarding any old photographs that might appear weak in their detail, investigate this possibility. Knowing this might prevent by ignorance, discarding a possible national or even world treasurer!
The Illinois Billiard Club is a private facility founded in 1975 for the preservation and promotion of the elegant, historical, professional and social side of billiards. The IBC is not a poolroom, barroom or any other form of public place of amusement. Yet by its design, popularizes the sport of billiards to all positive sides of society. This Newsletter and all of its contents is copyrighted material and is not to be reproduced without written permission from the Illinois Billiard Club, and its president and founder, Mr. James K. Parker.