When I write one of those "Around the Web" features like I did on Friday I'll sometimes throw in the latest fun fact I happened to have picked up from hither and yon (for instance, every single state in the United States now produces wine. Did you know that? Not good wine, necessarily).
On Friday it was the interesting-to-me fact that Abe Lincoln was a pool player.
Of course, as should happen, people do question the information and ask for sources. This often sends me, Alice-like, down the rabbit hole. Mark Alan Miller questioned whether Honest Abe had a pool table (with six pockets) or a carom billiard table (with no pockets). The latter is doubtful, I think; carom billiards (now mostly called three-cushion after the most widespread game) was mainly popular in France, and never caught on in America. But off I went.
I really don't know how much is known about Abe's billiards habit. I found two contemporary accounts, both from a book called Abraham Lincoln and the Structure of Reason by David Hirsch. The first one is a delightful account of Lincoln's first foray at the game (forgive the image of the text, but if you can copy and paste from Google Books I haven't figured out how). It's by one H.M. Russell:
(Urbana is in Illinois.)
Another contemporary reference comes from an attorney who knew Lincoln named Henry C. Whitney:
"...As a constant habit he [Lincoln] chose as his opponent at billiards a bibulous* lawyer of no merit save the negative one of playing as awkwardly and badly as Lincoln himself; and it was a strange but not unfamiliar sight to see these two men, who had nothing else in common, playing billiards in an obscure place, sometimes for hours together. Billiards, I may say, was the only non-utilitarian thing that I know of Lincoln indulging in."
I love that last line.
So what game exactly was Lincoln playing? I've cast two lines into the water—one an inquiry to Brunswick Billiards, from whose website I learned of Lincoln's affection for the game in the first place. They claim he owned, or at least had installed in the White House, one of their tables; maybe they have a record of which type? As for the other, I've put the question to Vic Stein, co-author of The Billiard Encyclopedia, now in its third edition**. If either of those fish bite I'll let you know.
A billiard, by the way, strictly speaking, is when you hit an object ball after first caroming the cue ball off another ball, or sink a ball by caroming it off another one.
*I.e., an imbiber, a drinker.
**The new price of this book is $130, so that's not inflation.
"Open Mike" is a series of off-topic posts by Yr. Hmbl. Ed. that appear on Sundays on TOP.
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Featured Comments from:
chris.scl: "Mark Twain's Autobiography includes several passages mentioning or directly dealing with the game of caroms, which Twain seems to have enjoyed playing and was quite good at it (according to his own accounts). He took every possible opportunity to drive unsuspecting friends and acquaintances nuts by inviting them to play, and then defeating them over and over. I was lead to believe that the game was quite common, if not popular, back then—although how contemporary this trend might have been to Lincoln, I wouldn't know. Anyway, I love how easily TOP goes off topic in such interesting ways.... :-) "
Mike replies: I think the popularity of billiards was at its height in the middle and late 19th century. Everyone from the very rich to the aspiring upper middle class had to own a table, and the artistry that was lavished on tables was quite extraordinary. The problem seems to have arisen because people who became "addicted" to billiards played all day every day, and had no other way to support themselves other than hustling. Pool rooms became gambling dens, and the reputation of the game took a giant nosedive. There was a strong movement in the middle 20th century to recast it as a wholesome family game for the home, with the upright Willie Mosconi in the vanguard. But you have to devote significant resources to the playing area—both the table and the space for it are expensive—and competency requires considerable practice time. It's unlikely that it will ever die out—too good a game!—but also very unlikely to ever match its peak again, I would imagine.
Bear in mind that mine are just casual opinions; I'm no expert.
gentle lemur: "President Lincoln was the exact contemporary of Charles Darwin, who also had a billiard table installed in his home, Down House. After a day of thinking, correspondence and experiments, he would play billiards with his butler as relaxation before dinner."