by | May 13, 2024

Howard Staunton (left) vs. Pierre de Saint-Amant, Paris, 1843, detail. Alexandre Laemlein, CC0 1.0


Chess champion and new media journalist Howard Staunton revolutionized the game, promoting the design of the pieces which bear his name.

The game of chess has been played for many centuries, in many lands, with pieces of many patterns. But today there is one style of chess set that is preferred around the world, the standard for international tournaments since 1924, the default style that everyone, whether they know how to play the game or not, recognizes as what chess pieces should look like. It is the Staunton pattern, introduced in London in 1849.

A mid-20th century set (white, boxwood) in the classic Staunton design. Photo: Shinn.

Now you might think it was created by a person or business named Staunton, or in a town called Staunton, but that is not the case, and thereby hangs the tale of its design, and the remarkable man who was Howard Staunton, and the effect he had upon the world of chess. In his prime he was the best player in England and when he defeated the French champion Saint-Amant in 1843, at the Café de la Régence in Paris, many people considered him the best in the world, although it is impossible to know, as there was not yet a world championship—he would organize the first in 1851, concurrent with the Crystal Palace Exhibition. Staunton introduced the opening c4 (P-QB4) to tournament play; it is now the fourth most popular opening worldwide, known as the English Opening.

The Régence Queen is comparatively insignificant when compared with the King, and shares a bald, spherical head with Bishops and Pawns. Photo: Shinn.

Before Staunton came on the scene, Paris was the chess capital of Europe and the Café de la Régence was the place to play in France, as indeed it would be throughout the 19th century. The style favoured there and throughout France and its colonies is known as the Régence. The Shinnstitute set dates from the late 19th or early 20th century, slightly different from a hundred years earlier, but with the same basic features. For players today, familiar with the Staunton, there is a problem. Which is the King and which the Queen? And where is the Bishop’s mitre? In fact, in chess the King is always the tallest piece, but here his crown is much like that of the Staunton Queen, with which we’re all familiar, and this Queen has the same design as the Bishop and Pawn, topped by a sphere. The Castle and Knight are, as to be expected, representational, inconsistent with the abstract quality of the Queen and Bishop.

Nonetheless, the Régence was a popular style, relatively simple and economical to turn on a lathe without expensive hand carving, offering the turner considerable opportunity to smartly move the cutting tool about, creating visually dramatic and tactile configurations. The royals have fat bottoms, shaped like a kettle drum. The white pieces are made of boxwood and the black of ebony, both woods with a fine grain imperceptible to the eye. Boxwood often has small blemishes, but these are considered a mark of character.

Demise of the knob head Queens, Régence (left) and Barleycorn (centre), ousted by Staunton (right). Photo: Shinn.

Throughout the 19th century the Barleycorn style was popular in England, named after the knurled pattern on the body of the King and Queen. The high, barrel-shaped bodies of the royals exploit the hollow centres of the bones from which this particular set is made (Queen shown above), for impressive effect without being too top-heavy—but at the risk of obscuring pawns in the next rank.

The weak design of the Queen in the most popular French and English patterns—too modest in the Régence, too like the King in the Barleycorn—provided the opportunity for the definitive new style of the Staunton, embodied in the svelte silhouette of its Queen, deposing the old Queens. But how and why was this new design of the Queen, its key innovation, achieved?
Three people were involved, each in his own way a successful businessman.

John Jaques II

The first of these was John Jaques II, owner of a family business manufacturing equipment for games such as croquet and chess. He was a skilled turner, apprenticed to his father at an early age, and the Jaques business catered to an elite clientele, producing chess sets in many patterns.

Nathaniel Cooke

The second was Nathaniel Cooke, the visionary co-founder of the first illustrated newspaper in the world in 1841, named, appropriately enough, The Illustrated London News. At the time, daily newspapers such as The Times were typically an eight page sheet with a single illustration if that. They were expensive, bourgeois media, constrained by newspaper taxes and advertising taxes. Weekly and monthly magazines followed the smaller format of books, with a plain, repeated cover and a few illustrations throughout. Single sheet satirical prints had stimulated the public’s growing taste for a steady diet of visual excitement, through the work of Rowlandson, Gilray and Cruikshank in the early 1800s.

New media, meticulous craftsmanship. Photo: Shinn.

Cooke and his partner mashed up these genres into a radical new format, putting illustrations on almost every page of the large format, weekly Illustrated London News. It was an undertaking of huge size and complexity, in the days before typewriters and typesetting machines, with every character of type hand set, and every illustration laboriously engraved by hand, halftones not arriving until late in the century. The technology was however, rich in quality. 

The quality of newsprint over the centuries. Note that this is a single scan, and thus a fairly accurate representation of the relative colour hue and tone of the three papers. Scan: Shinn.

The type was small and precious, as can be seen in comparison with 1945 or today. The paper was bright and supple, made from rags, absorbing dense black ink from engravings of superlative skill. There were changes afoot, technical and legislative, which made the logistics of such scale and quality possible, most notably reduction of publishing taxes as these were migrated to income by the Peel government. Railways connected London with Birmingham and Manchester in 1837, for a wider market, with people now reading in transit, buying papers at new outlets in railway stations. Postal service was introduced in 1840, by which classified advertising copy might be delivered to the paper. This was the economic engine of the paper. 

But massive expansion would not have been possible without the culture of journalistic writing, typography and woodblock printing that had emerged in the early decades of the century. By 1855, The Illustrated London News’ circulation was more than 200,000 every week, ten times that of dailies such as The Times.

Howard Staunton

Howard Staunton was, of course, the third man. His day job was writing, and like his almost exact contemporary Charles Dickens, with whom he shared a penchant for extravagant attire and an early flirtation with the stage, he began his career as a hack journalist on Grub Street, progressed to regular columns and editing entire periodicals, and eventually wrote books—in Staunton’s case his magnum opus was editing and annotating the complete works of Shakespeare. 

But his specialty was chess. He wrote one of the first chess columns and was the first to publish a chess magazine, The Chess Player’s Chronicle. His textbook, The Chess-Player’s Handbook (1847), was the leading English-language work on the subject, and remained in print for a hundred years. And as the chess columnist for the Illustrated London News from 1845 until his death in 1874, he influenced a massive audience. There were no cartoons in this paper (leave that to Punch), and crossword puzzles would not be invented until the next century. Before the internet, TV, radio and movies, print was the mass media, and Staunton’s chess column a phenomenon.

Staunton’s weekly chess column, 1862.
Typographic diagramming and alphanumeric coding—these two innovations enabled chess journalism. Scan: Shinn.

Up front, Staunton responded to readers’ letters. This was an interactive feature of early magazines. But what made chess journalism feasible, besides Staunton’s relentless industry, was typography, with each piece and square a reusable piece of type, making it easy to rearrange the pieces and set a fresh puzzle every week, without having to engrave the whole board and position every time. That, and abbreviated notation, the coding introduced in the 1817 edition of Philidor’s classic textbook, Analysis of the Game of Chess, replacing the author’s verbose spelling out of every move in full. “Bishop to Queen’s Bishop 4th rank” became “B to Q B 4th”. Prominently featured in the new media of the day, play of chess spread from friendly games at home and in coffee houses, now people could study puzzles by themselves, play by mail or even telegraph, form local chess clubs and enter tournaments.

Howard Staunton was driven, not just as a player, but as someone who sought to increase the status of his game within society, and see it flourish. He succeeded mightily on both counts, but it rankled him to play with chess sets that contained, in his opinion, ugly pieces of obscure identity, or which obscured other pieces, or were poorly balanced. Worse still, players were reluctant to play with each other’s sets, having difficulty recognizing the pieces. Clearly, a new design was called for, for the good of chess!

An imaginary conversation  

While the full circumstances of the Staunton pattern’s origin are not known, we do know that these three men, Jaques, Cooke and Staunton, were part of the same social set. Jaques’ daughter married Cooke’s son. One can imagine a conversation at their London club: 

“Dash it all,” says Staunton, “I detest those confounded Régence pieces, can’t tell the ruddy Bishop from the Queen!”
“Heavens,” says Jaques, “our English sets also leave much to be desired, why, the Queen has no crown!” And that was an embarrassing shortcoming, with Victoria on the throne the past decade.
“I say,” says Cooke, “I crown the lady every week!” For indeed, the typographic convention represented the King by the English coronation crown, topped by a cross, and the Queen by a coronet or tiara.

27-year old Queen Victoria rocks a coronet, 1846, three years before the Staunton design. Maguire, after Winterhalter. Royal Collection Trust.

So here comes the epiphany: to model the third dimension King and Queen on the second. Which of the three men came up with it? Or perhaps one of their spouses. Who drew up the finished designs that were patented by Cooke in 1849? Were they sketched by him and then prototyped by Jaques? Or was Jaques the prime mover, incorporating Staunton’s demand for stability and simplicity? We can never know. But we do know that Staunton signed his name to each of the first 500 sets Jaques sold, and received a royalty for the use of his celebrated name and voluble promotion of “his” pattern. It was the first celebrity branding of a consumer product.

Beyond applying the typographic convention to the pattern of a real chess set, the Staunton style succeeds aesthetically through its practicality. Often the pieces are described as neoclassical in their simplicity and absence of ornament, and with comparison of the Knights to the horses on the Elgin marbles. However, if being neoclassical means, in the architectural sense, looking less like something that could pass for a garden ornament, and more like an actual building, say, the Eddystone Lighthouse, then I would agree with that. But really, this is functionalism, to the brief of Howard Staunton, chess master. Here is how he advertised his eponymous design in his chess column in The Illustrated London News:

“In the simplicity and elegance of their form, combining apparent lightness with real solidity, in the nicety of their proportions one with another, so that in the most intricate positions every piece stands out distinctively, neither hidden nor overshadowed by its fellows, the ‘Staunton Chess-men’ are incomparably superior to any others we have ever seen.”

Shared iconography between pieces and the page, and now the digital screen. Photo: Shinn.

The Staunton design did not immediately supplant all others, but their days were numbered. One does expect a certain amount of consistency between the typographic image and the real world pieces, which the Staunton provided. In France, the Deberny foundry provided chess type icons in the Régence style, mid 19th century, which did indeed correspond with reality, but the distinction between the pieces was poor. The Staunton pattern is universal, with its synergy between board and the page, and today, the digital screen, where it corresponds with the symbols used at, with its millions of subscribers.

15-minute video documentary of this subject:
Treasures of the Shinnstitute: The Staunton Effect