The Staunton Chess set was named after a Victorian gentleman and writer, Howard Staunton, considered to be the Kasparov of his day.
This copy in an advertisement in the popular Illustrated London News is attributed to Howard Staunton:
"A set of chessmen, of a pattern combining elegance and solidity to a degree hitherto unknown, has recently appeared under the auspices of the celebrated player Mr. Staunton. A guiding principle has been to give by their form a signification to the various pieces - thus the King is represented by a crown, the Queen by a coronet, etc. The pieces generally are fashioned with convenience to the hand; and it is to be remarked, that while there is so great an accession to elegance of form, it is not attained at the expense of practical utility. Mr. Staunton's pattern adopts but elevates the conventional form; and the base of the pieces being of a large diameter, they are more steady than ordinary sets."
— Illustrated London News, September 8 1849
But Staunton was not the designer, this being attributed to Nathaniel Cook, the editor of the aforementioned publication. It was first released in London in 1849 and met a need for a standardized design that would be recognised by players all over the world. In the past players had frequently conceded a win to an opponent for the simple reason that they failed to recognize the pieces on the board, such was the variation in designs!
Older chess sets in use at the time were the English Barleycorn set, the St. George design and the French Regence chess set. Sometimes the individual chess pieces were too similar in appearance, had a tendency to be unbalanced and fall over during play and were uncomfortable and difficult to handle.
Staunton Chess Pieces
The name Staunton refers only to the pieces. Even though we see marketed Staunton Chess Sets, there is no actual Staunton chessboard and a variety of chessboards will be sold to be used with Staunton chessmen. Wood has always been the most common material for manufacture, with a few older sets having been made from ivory. The variety of woods used in Staunton chess sets for sale today includes rosewood, sheesham, ebonised wood, sandalwood, real ebony and boxwood.
The inspiration for the Staunton Chessmen
ELEGANCE is the watchword for the Staunton design. Chess players in Victorian Britain were largely from the educated and cultured middle classes and their homes reflected their wealth and position in society. Then as now, chess pieces were works of art that would be on display in any house of distinction.
The Staunton design was influenced strongly by the neo-classicism in the architecture of the day, featuring classical columns as the basis for all the pieces. A horse's head from the Elgin Marbles in display in the British Museum is the inspiration for the knight. The pawns look very much like the columns that surrounded the garden walls and parapets on fine houses, but they might also have been based on symbols of Freemasonry.
Previously rooks, or castles had been square based replicas of the central building in medieval castles – the keep. These pieces were notoriously cumbersome! The Staunton chessmen castles have the distinguishing feature of the castle battlements, but with a round column base, so very elegant and much easier to handle.
The Staunton King stands significantly taller than the Queen, with a large crown to her smaller coronet. The bishop is distinguished by the bishop's mitre, simple but impossible to mistake for any other piece on the board. The Staunton design is not entirely fixed in stone. Pieces do vary from one set classed as a Staunton to another. There are many different deigns of the knight for example, all sitting on a classical column base.
Staunton chess pieces are the design that is universally favoured for competition chess, and was adopted by the World Chess Federation as the standard for international tournaments as far back as 1924.
Staunton Chess Sets for sale
The original Staunton Chess Set launched in 1849 was designed and manufactured mostly from wood in London UK. Today there are many hundreds of versions manufactured and you can still purchase traditional Staunton chess pieces, all in a variety of woods and other materials, notably marble, glass and metals.
Tournament Chess Sets
All tournament and competition chess sets have to use Staunton chessmen. All of the chess federations around the world have adopted this design as the standard everyone must use in chess competitions. One could argue that the design is perfect. It ticks all the right boxes when it comes to looks, practicality, style, durability and usability in a game of chess. One of the things that Howard Staunton so loved about the design is that no elements of it created a distraction to the chess player. Thus allowing him to concentrate on the game while having absolutely no trouble distinguishing the pieces from one another.