BY the early decades of the 19th century it was clear that the ancient and cosmopolitan game of chess would require pieces of standardised size and shape as it entered the era of international competition.
And it was one Nathaniel Cook, editor
of the Illustrated London News, who on March 1, 1849,
registered the distinctive design that would achieve that
Cook's Ornamental Design for a set
of Chess Men was daring in its relative simplicity and
utility (its trademark pieces the knight carved as a stallion's
head from the Elgin marbles and the bishop with a diagonal cut to
indicate a mitre) and it was quickly embraced by both a Hatton
Garden purveyor of fine games and the era's leading
The combination of John Jaques, keen
to embrace a design that could be produced at relatively low cost,
and the endorsement of the product by the English chess master
Howard Staunton (1810-1874), proved unstoppable.
It was perhaps the first time that a
celebrated name had been used to promote a commercial product in
this way. It would not be the last.
According to adverts in the
Illustrated London News dated September 8, 1849, the
first Jaques Staunton pattern sets were available in "the finest
African ivory (5 guineas), boxwood and ebony (£1/15 shillings or
club size (£2/5 shillings) and Wedgwood's Carrara (£2/12/6
All sorts of minutiae are involved in
the dating of these early issues (size, signatures, weights,
materials, construction etc) but boxes and labels are an equally
Frank Camaretta, one of a handful of
collectors who have pushed forward the scholarship in this area in
recent years, wrote a very useful article on the subject On
Collecting Staunton Chessmen published in Chess
Life in November 2008. An original box is as important
here as it is in the die-cast toy world.
Early Jaques sets were sold in two
types of 'packaging' - dovetailed mahogany hinged-topped boxes with
mortise locks and rounded corners and "the unique box of
carton-pierre resembling richly carved ebony". Designed by one
Joseph L. Williams, these gothic revival caskets are distinctive
for their castellated corners and pierced chess pieces and were
available in three sizes.
In the first two years of Staunton
production, the boxes carried paper registration labels titled
The Staunton Chessmen that, along with a printed
description of the box and its contents, were hand signed and
numbered by Howard Staunton himself.
Up to 1000 sets were signed in this
way before a facsimile signature was used and they are a holy grail
of chess collecting.
Lot 1 at the Rosehill, Carlisle,
salerooms of H&H Auctions on March 26 was
an 8½in (21cm) wide carton-pierre casket with a paper label reading
Carrara Set With Text-Book and Carton Pierre Box £2.12.6.
It was numbered in ink '17' and signed H.
It had been entered for a weekly
general sale in a box of bric-a-brac by a Carlisle charity shop but
- although devoid of contents and in poor condition - was spotted
as something worthy of research by auctioneer Paul
His colleague Georgina Nixon soon
identified it as a 'signed first production' box with a very early
number from September 1849 but it also proved of great interest as
the box for the enigmatic Carrara set.
These Staunton pattern sets were
apparently made by Wedgwood in a white hard-paste porcelain
'parian' body although it was hitherto unclear if any were actually
produced. According to Frank Camaretta, they are "largely unknown
to both the Wedgwood and the chess collector
The box was cautiously estimated
£300-500 (the price of a standard carton-pierre casket) but two
telephone bidders and a generous commission bid saw it sell at
£5800 (plus 19.5% buyer's premium).
The Staunton pattern remains the style
required for chess tournaments today.