In the late 1800s (19th century), chess sets such as the Lund, Merrifield, Calvert and Saint George patterns, were fussy, intricate and costly to produce. As a result chess playing was restricted to the rich.
The company of John Jacques of London then set out to radically change things for ever.
The ingredients John Jacques needed was a good basic design to start with — to improve upon and refine, something popular and proved workable already. Jacques chose the Edinburgh pattern (sometimes known as the Northern Upright Pattern), and carefully chose materials for the new chess set that he intended to mass-produce and market to all and everyone.
The Edinburgh Pattern Knight pieces were derived from those horses carved in bas-relief on the Parthenon frieze (removed to the British Museum in 1806 by Thomas Bruce, 7th Lord of Elgin and since referred to as the Elgin Marbles), the distinctive, finely detailed Knight head was the hallmark of the Staunton design.
The design was streamlined for production, decorative features most susceptible to damage through use were done away with, and the bases were widened and weighted; adding lead to the wooden pieces also gave stability while playing, John Jacques’s design also reduced manufacturing costs and time. The result was cheap, practical, durable, user-friendly, desirable and soon became the international standard for all chess pieces.
So, on 1849-03-01, Jacques’s Agent, Nathaniel Cook of 198 The Strand, London, registered this Ornamental Design for a set of Chess-Men, under ‘The Ornamental Designs Act (1842)’. With the design and the registration in place, all that remained was for the set to be advertised and marketed. Jacques and Cook enlisted the endorsement of the reigning world chess champion — a Shakespearean scholar called Howard Staunton.
The chess set design was thereafter sold as ‘The Staunton’.
A masterly piece of design, this chess set standardised the game (important for tournaments), and through mass production, allowed the game to spread and increase in popularity worldwide — through the British Empire and Commonwealth of Nations. Each of the pieces is instantly recognisable as a chess piece, and so each has iconic status.
Apart from the British Imperial period, the game itself (and the pieces) were also very imperial, involving, castles, Kings, Queens, Knights, bishops, and pawns — church and state — a court game for courtiers or people who understand the moves and the thought processes of the chess game. Tangible property (castle/rook), intangible spirituality (Bishop), expendability, capture, male, female, animal, people (only in terms of titles) — the pieces of the game have a vast design resource as well as responsibility. Jacques’s Staunton pieces are apt, perfect and therefore timeless. A sheer design classic, and usually unsung, taken for granted and unquestioned at that.