The Staunton chess set is the style of chess pieces approved for competitions. Nathaniel Cook patented the design in the U.K. in 1849, and they are named after English chess master Howard Staunton. The first 500 sets were hand signed and numbered by Staunton. The pieces were first made available by games and sporting goods retailer Jaques of London and quickly became a standard. They have been used around the world since.
The increased interest in the game of chess, particularly in international play during the late 18th century and early 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 15th century, had expanded tremendously by the beginning of the nineteenth century. Conventional types popular during the period included the English ‘Barleycorn’ set, the French ‘Regence’ chess set, and the central ‘European.’ Most pieces were tall, easily tipped and cumbersome during play, but their major disadvantage was the similarity of the pieces within a set. A player’s unfamiliarity with an opponent’s set could alter the outcome of a game.
By the early decades of the 19th 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 chess players of diverse backgrounds. The solution, first released in 1849 by the purveyors of fine games, John Jaques of London, sport and games manufacturers, of Hatton Garden, was to become known as the ‘Staunton’ chess set after Howard Staunton (1810–1874), the chess player and writer who was generally considered the strongest player in the world from 1843 to 1851. Although Nathaniel Cook has long been credited with the design, it may have been conceived by his brother-in-law and owner of the firm, John Jaques.
The first theory of the development of the set is that Mr. Cook had used prestigious architectural concepts, familiar to an expanding class of educated and prosperous gentry. London architects, strongly influenced by the culture of Greece and the culture of ancient Rome, were designing prestigious buildings in the neoclassical style. The appearance of the new chessmen was based on this style and the pieces were symbols of ‘respectable’ Victorian society: a distinguished bishop’s mitre, a queen’s coronet and king’s crown, a knight carved as a stallion’s head from the Elgin Marbles from the Parthenon, and a castle streamlined into clean classical lines, projecting an aura of strength and security. The form of the pawns was based on the Freemasons’ Square and Compasses; however, another theory regards the pawns’ form as derived from the balconies of Victorian architecture. 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 reason for this is that in descriptive chess notation, the rooks and knights were often designated by being the ‘queen’s knight,’ the ‘king’s rook,’ etc.
An alternate theory states that Jaques, a master turner, had probably been experimenting with a design that would not only be accepted by players, but could also be produced at a reasonable cost. In the end, he most likely borrowed and synthesized elements from sets already available to create a new design that used universally recognizable symbols atop conventional stems and bases. Moreover, the pieces were compact, well balanced and weighted to provide a useful understandable playing set. Another theory is that the Staunton design may have been taken from chess books from 1820 that were using diagrams of chess pieces similar in many respects to the Staunton chessmen, including a recent change from arched crown to coronet for the queen.
The original 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 sets were made from African ivory. The king sizes ranged from 3½ to 4½ inches and the sets typically came in a carton-pierre case, each one bearing a facsimile of Staunton’s signature under the lid. The Staunton pieces broadly resemble columns with a wide molded base. Knights feature the sculpted head and neck of a horse. Kings, the tallest pieces, top the column with a stylised closed crown topped with a cross pattée. Queens are slightly smaller than kings, and feature a coronet topped with a tiny ball. Rooks feature stylized crenellated battlements and bishops a Western-style mitre. Pawns are the smallest and are topped by a plain ball. Pieces representing human characters (the king, queen, bishop, and pawn) have a flat disk called a collar separating the body from the head design.
Staunton not only endorsed the product for Jaques of London but promoted it to an extraordinary degree including the lambasting and derision of any other design of chessmen then proposed. This may have been the first time that a celebrated name was used to promote a commercial product. The Staunton set obtained the stamp of approval of FIDE, the World Chess Federation, when in 1924 it was selected as their choice of set, for use in all future international chess tournaments.