In the 18th century the game of billiards, or pool, was popular with the colonial gentlemen of Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania, and billiards tables were commonplace in their taverns. In New England, however, the general attitude about the game was summed up in a letter to the Boston Evening Post in 1757. Every sort of game, the writer warned—cards, dice, shuffleboards, billiards—all were “thieves that rob the journeyman and laborer of their precious time, their little Property, and their less Morals.”
Over the years the New England colonies, then states, reinforced their bans on gaming in taverns. They increased the penalties for tavern keepers who broke the law, and also imposed fines on players themselves. In 1799 New Hampshire even made possession of a billiards table illegal. Eventually, similar laws intent on curbing the “pernicious evil” of gaming crept into the southern states. But these laws fell out of step with an increasingly diverse, secular society that saw no harm in amusing itself with games. By the early 19th century advertisements for the New Pocket Hoyle, with rules for all sorts of games, billiards included, began appearing in Boston newspapers.
Still, the opposition did not go gently into that good night. In 1816, the determined selectmen of Portsmouth found it necessary to repost the 1791 state law regulating public houses—which included a ban on all gaming—since the law, they said, “had been for some time past grossly neglected.” A decade later, during the last dying gasp of the public’s aversion to gaming, the Adams administration created a minor moral scandal by spending fifty dollars of taxpayer money to repair the White House billiards table. By the 1850s, however, the famous pool player Michael Phelan wrote and published the first book on billards in the United States. He also manufactured his own line of tables and ran an elegant billiards parlor that was the talk of San Francisco.
In New Hampshire, Portsmouth and other towns began issuing licenses for the keeping of billiards rooms and bowling alleys. In Massachusetts the legislature finally threw up its hands and sought to repeal the law against billiards, bowling, and card playing, on the grounds that these entertainments were not necessarily harmful, “and that whether so or not, the present law is essentially a dead letter, except when used for annoyance.”
By the time of the Civil War, billiards saloons were commonplace in the cities of New Hampshire. The popular game presented a lucrative source of government revenue, and in 1878 the legislature allowed town clerks to issue yearly billiards table licenses to proprietors.
The game slowly gained acceptance in the smaller, more conservative towns. In Hampton, the building at 457 Lafayette Road—when it was located west of the railroad tracks on Exeter Road—was home to a billiards hall. Just across the road was the Franklin House, once the Loring Dunbar Inn, but reopened under its new name in 1898 by Loring’s son Melzar. This new generation Dunbar put in a billiards room, furnishing it with a standard rectangular table from Exeter and a round pool table that he had found moldering away in the barn of a Portsmouth butcher named Jack Young. Dunbar was proud of his unique “curio” and featured it prominently on his trade card.
Good for strabismus-afflicted southpaws
It’s hard to imagine why, but according to an article in the December 20, 1901 issue of The Rockingham Record, “cross eyed, left handed persons more easily become proficient players upon this style of table than others.” The salvaged table was said to be a “hit” with pool players, with many pairs of shoes having been worn out circumnavigating its bounds. But apparently there weren’t enough strabismus-afflicted southpaws interested in playing the game hereabouts to justify keeping the table—Dunbar sold it in early 1902 to Portsmouth saloonkeeper John H. Galloway, who installed it in his saloon on McDonough Street. From then on the fate of Melzar’s curio, like its origins, is lost to history.
The round pool table is reinvented
By the mid-twentieth century the country had forgotten that round tables had once dotted pool halls from San Francisco, California to Hampton, New Hampshire. They became a novelty once again. In 1964 a billiards table “believed to be the world’s first completely round pool table” was installed in a San Francisco restaurant. Built by a longtime patron of the restaurant, placed in a special room called The Loser’s Room, and dedicated to the memory of W.C. Fields, who, it was said, had once sipped martinis on the premises, the table was “calculated to bring nightmares to even the most accomplished experts in the art of pocket billiards.” Which might be why Dunbar got rid of his.
1880s gaming humor: “Billiards resembles matrimony, inasmuch as kisses and scratches are common to both.”
A History Matters column originally published in the Hampton Union, June 3, 2016.
History Matters is a monthly column devoted to the history of Hampton and Hampton Beach. Cheryl Lassiter is the author of three books of local history, including “Marked: The Witchcraft Persecution of Goodwife Unise Cole.” Her website is lassitergang.com.