My exploration started with an article from a story in the August 4, 1864 edition of the Idaho Statesman. Headlined, “Where Our Ivory Comes From,” the piece caught my attention because I thought the answer was all too obvious. Ivory has been treasured by artisans for centuries because it is easy to carve yet durable. Elephants have been the largest source of ivory, though walrus, hippopotamus, narwhal, sperm whales, and elk all provide ivory. Providing it usually costs the animal its life.
But the 1864 article was not about elephants.
“You carry a beautiful cane—it cost $3.50—$1.50 extra, on account of its beautiful pure ivory head. Your wife has a costly fan, with a pure ivory handle. In your pocket is your pure ivory-handled pocketknife, very pretty and fine. On your table is a set of knives and forks with pure ivory handles, and little they have cost for being pure ivory. The ring in which are the reins of your costly double harness is pure ivory. The handles of parasols are pure ivory—and so on, with many articles useful and ornamental. But it happens that this “pure ivory” is manufactured from the shin bones of the dead horses of the U.S. Army.”
Well, that took a turn. I found the article by accident, which is often the case when I’m looking for interesting Idaho tidbits. I was searching for something about harness when this little piece popped up because it included that word in the text.
Encouraged by the quirkiness the article offered, I did a quick search on ivory. And that’s where the trouble began.
Early billiard balls were made of ivory. It gave the perfect heft, click, and bounce players enjoyed. But in the 1860s there was something of a billiard ball panic because ivory was allegedly in short supply. It wasn’t. Nevertheless, the belief that it was set billiard ball manufacturers on a quest for a material to replace ivory balls.
British inventor Alan Parkes came up with something he called Parkesine in 1862. It was the first plastic. It didn’t work well for billiard balls, so the quest was still on for the perfect synthetic material. John Wesley Hyatt, hoping to win a $10,000 prize from Big Billiard (a name I made up to represent the industry, so don’t call me on that) came up with celluloid. Celluloid is better known for its use in early motion picture film stock. That early film was highly flammable, and billiard balls made from celluloid had a similar, annoying feature. They exploded.
Exploding billiard balls would have been a health hazard for those who hung out in establishments where the game was played, but the explosions weren’t like grenades going off. They occasionally made a sharp pop, causing little damage even to the felt on billiard tables. The percussion sounded much like a gunshot, which reportedly caused quite a few “sports” to drop the hand of cards they’d been dealt to frantically look around the room.
Today, billiard balls are made from resin, another type of plastic. And, today, we are buried by plastic of all kinds because it shares something with the ivory it replaced. It is durable. Too durable, as it turns out.
One last note: Inventor John Wesley Hyatt never received the $10,000 prize, but he did start the Albany Billiard Ball Company. It stayed in business for 118 years.