Billiards & Snooker balls

BILLIARDS / SNOOKER BALLS  (see Article on 'Balls' )

Apart from the fact that we heard earlier that a certain Irish King seemed to use Billiard Balls of brass, throughout most of the time that the game of Billiards has existed the balls were made of Ivory. Composition Balls are of comparatively recent introduction.

Until the year 1830 the size of Billiard Balls used on a full sized billiard table was 1 15/16 inches from 1830 onwards balls measuring 2 inches diameter were generally used, although at this time pocket openings were considerably smaller than they are today, being generally 3 ¼ inches across the fall of the pocket.

I do not know when the present day size of ball was first introduced, but as we all know the rules stipulate that the balls shall be of equal size and weight, and must measure 2 1/16 inches diameter.

The use of Ivory for making Billiard Balls during the 19th Century created a very considerable business in the importation of Ivory, principally through the London and Liverpool Docks, and quoting from the Encyclopaedia Britannica the following quantities are given as typical importations:-

In the year 1827 through the port of London - 3,000 cwt.(150 tonne)

In the year 1850 - 8,000 cwt(400 tonne), and finally in the year 1890 - nearly 15,000 cwt. (750 tonne)

From this date forwards the quantities decline rapidly, which seems to indicate that Composition Balls were probably introduced towards the end of the 19th Century. At any rate by 1895 the quantity imported had declined to 11,000 cwt. (550 tonne) In 1900 less than 10,000 cwt (500 tonne), and by 1927 - 5,000 cwt. (250 tonne)

It is now known that Composition Balls were invented in 1868 by Mr. Hyatt in the U.S.A.

Hyatt Albany Billiard Ball Co.
Mr. Hyatt

He set up the Albany Billiard Ball Co.

In the year 1927 Ivory Tusks suitable for making Billiard Balls were selling at £66.00 per cwt (approx £1.32 kilo), whilst partially prepared Billiard Ball pieces were fetching £154.00 per cwt. (approx £3.08 kilo)

Imported Ivory Billaird Balls

From the information I have gathered by perusing very old catalogues published Mr Messrs. Burroughes & Watts , and by Thurston & Co. - it seems that the best quality Ivory for making balls was obtained from Tusks weighing between 7 and 8lbs. Billiard Balls required the highest possible quality, and of the varieties available described as hard or soft etc, it seems that the soft quality was considered to be the best.


From each of these tusks not more than 4, quality, balls could be obtained - three of which would be of top quality - one second quality - and one third quality. Thus from the Ivory provided by one Elephant only 2 good quality sets of Ivory Balls could be obtained, and it would take 4 elephants to provide enough Ivory for a set of Snooker Balls.

In 1998 the Collection had donated by Mrs. Perry a copy of the Indetures of Apprenticeship between, the Manchester firm,  Orme & sons and her grandfather John Thomas Nuttall as an Ivory Ball Turner. It seems that it was a reasonably well paid job and after the seven years of apprenticeship he would be paid 18 shillings (90 pence) per week!! (see story about G W Ellis - Ivory Turner)

1888 Apprenticeship 001

R Page 1 1888

R Page 2 1888


The following page from an old Thurston catalogue gives quite a lot of information concerning ivory balls and the necessary procedures concerning selection etc.

 Ivory Billiard Balls

It is on record that some 12,000 Elephants were slaughtered each year in order to supply Britain with Billiard Balls.

Also from an old Thurston catalogue mention of Bonzoline balls as being 'similar' to Ivory. The page also has further information on Ivory balls and the difficulty in obtaing them. -

Ivory & Bonzoline Balls

It seems that if Composition Balls had never been invented, it would have been quite impossible to provide all the snooker balls which are currently used. Composition Balls are one of the earliest forms of plastic, largely based upon the material we all know as "Celluloid".

I understand that the discovery of the process for making the modern Composition Balls was made simultaneously by two men working quite independently of each other - one in the United States of America, and the other in England. At one time it seems that the Bonzoline Composition Balls, which was of American manufacture, was the best known and most popular, however during my time in the Billiard Trade the British Market has been entirely taken over by the Crystalate Ball which was of English manufacture.

Billiard Ball Box Lid

The Composition Billiard Ball Supply Company, whose factory is at Congleton, Cheshire, now make both the Bonzoline and the Crystalate Balls, and they are certainly a most reliable product. A set of Composition Billiards or Snooker Balls gives very many years satisfactory service - unlike Ivory Balls, they do not require re-colouring, they hardly ever require re-adjusting, they are always very much more accurate, and on top of all this, being very much cheaper than Ivory, it was inevitable that the Composition Ball would completely supersede the Ivory Ball. In fact the Composition Ball had completely taken over the market by the time I joined the Billiard Trade on leaving school in 1930.(The Composition Billiard Ball Supply Company was sold to the Saluc Company of Belgium the manufactures of Aramith Billiard & Snooker Balls and production was moved to Belgium)

I have somewhere seen the date when the Composition Balls were first used in the English Championships, but I have not been able to find this information - no doubt it can be provided by the Billiards Association and Control Council. (In Norman's 'Days of Old' articles it is noted that the 1926 Amateur Championships used composition Billiard balls and the Professional Championships used them from 1928)

There are in fact two quite distinctly different types of Composition Ball. The Crystalate and Bonzoline are made by what I believe is called a "Compression Moulding" process, whilst the other type of ball is a Cast Resin Ball, and must first of all be roughly moulded in a glass mould - the ball being extracted from the mould by breaking the glass away rather like taking the shell off a boiled egg. After being cured by heating, both types of ball must then be turned to approximate size, after which they are finished on a centreless grinder, and finally polished.

The size of Billiard Ball used for the Continental Game is very much larger than the English Ball, being somewhere about 2 ½" diameter, whilst the balls used for the various games of American Pool are 2 ¼" diameter, thus here again the equipment used in different countries varies considerably.


© Norman Clare 1990. © E.A. Clare & Son Ltd. 2023.
Reproduction of this article allowed only with the permission from E.A. Clare & Son Ltd.  

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