Even amongst the rich heritage of many of our products here at the Games Room Company, the history of the game of shuffleboard stands out as one that’s uniquely fascinating. Invented in common taverns in medieval England, very few games can claim to have had quite such a varied reputation throughout history!
Over the years it’s endured many peaks and troughs in its popularity, from elite status symbol to crooked backroom bar game and everything in between. Ultimately, it’s been played by everyone from the highest king to the lowest criminal, medieval serfs to Hollywood stars. So, how did shuffleboard evolve to become the revered and frankly rather addictive game it is today?
Shuffleboard’s Historic UK Origins
Now, there is admittedly a bit of contention about the precise origins of shuffleboard. It didn’t start life fully-formed as the game we know and love in modern times. Instead, as you might expect from a game invented in taverns, it went through a number of names and iterations, which makes its early history somewhat murky. The earliest known form of shuffleboard involved sliding a groat – a contemporary coin – down a table, with points awarded accordingly. Often played in public houses, it was called shovel groat, or slide-groat. (Apparently bored, half-drunk pub patrons weren’t the most imaginative bunch. Who could have guessed?)
Soon, the English upper classes caught wind of it, and they made a few modifications to the game themselves. The groat was replaced with a silver penny, leading it to became shove penny, or sometimes shove ha’penny. They also developed a more elaborate system of scoring, using markings on the tables to indicate the number of points for each player. All the while, more and more English nobles were taking to the game increasingly enthusiastically, and before long there were beautiful bespoke tables being installed in great country houses in Staffordshire, Winchester and Wiltshire. (Today, of course, some of that majesty is beautifully captured in our very own Wellington Shuffleboard Table!)
Even the venerable Henry the VIII counted himself amongst one of its most enthusiastic players. He was known to have the odd flutter on a game too; at times with quite substantial amounts. According to the official record, he once lost £9 to one of his lords on the outcome of a game. While that might not sound like much now, bear in mind that in those days, £9 was equivalent to many people’s annual incomes!
For a while, there was almost no-one in England who wasn’t playing shuffleboard. Indeed, Henry eventually banned the game amongst the greater populace for fear that they’d be too busy playing to go to work, and similarly ordered his archers to cease playing because he worried it would become too much of a distraction from their military duties. Neither ban went down terribly well, and shuffleboard remained popular for decades after Henry’s death. Gradually, though, it began to lose popularity in England, and by the 1600s it had regained its seedier reputation as a game played more often in taverns than in parlours. For their part, the British nobility moved onto billiards.
That didn’t mean the end for shuffleboard though – far from it! Instead, a new market was developing…
Shuffleboard’s In The Land Of The Free
The game’s popularity amongst the masses and the military proved to be the key behind its success overseas. British soldiers brought the game to the colonies, while settlers brought the game to the new land of America. Initially, its associations with the lower echelons preceded it, and it remained linked to the more undesirable side of burgeoning American society. In the Salem Witch Trials of 1692, one of the accused, Bridget Bishop, was said to be running illegal games of shuffleboard from her tavern, in addition to serving minors. Whether this is actually true is still mostly academic, but it does to go to show how people still viewed the game at this stage in history.
On the whole, shuffleboard’s reputation wasn’t to improve for the next few centuries. Then, in the mid-1800s, an innkeeper in Pennsylvania named John Bishop – yes, another one – was accused of running an illegal gambling den in his basement, which included the game of shuffleboard. When the case went to court, the judge made the historic ruling that shuffleboard was a game of skill, not a chance, and therefore Bishop could not be prosecuted for it. (It’s interesting to note that lots of other classic games went through this exact same brush with the law, including pinball in the early 20th century).
Shuffleboard’s popularity took off once again from there, and by the early 20th century, it was famously getting just as much press coverage as games like boxing and baseball. Its popularity was attributed in part to its ability to bring together people of all age groups, physical ability, and economic backgrounds. Like all the best games, it was easy to pick up, but hard to master. Tournaments were soon behind held not only on the East Coast but from the early 20th century, in places like California too.
Then came the event that would, for a time, drastically alter the course of American society; Prohibition. From 1920 until 1933, the American government put a complete ban on the import, sale, and consumption of alcohol, and speakeasies became the haunt of many the average American. Due to their underground nature, speakeasies preferred games of chance rather than skill, so by the 1920s, shuffleboard had begun to decline once again. It didn’t enjoy a resurgence again until the 1940s, when it provided a much-needed sense of release for Americans in wartime. After the war, its popularity surged further with the endorsement of many high-profile Hollywood celebrities.
Aside from another few minor wobbles, shuffleboard made a strong, steady climb back into America’s national consciousness, where it remains to this day; several National Shuffleboard Halls of Fame now exist in states all across the continent, and the Texan-made Charleston Shuffleboard is a fine modern American specimen. Shuffleboard also has a strong international following too, with competitors from Brazil, Australia, Japan, Germany, and Scandinavia.
Here in England, it’s seeing an ever-greater resurgence in luxury games rooms…which is rather our area of expertise here at the Games Room Company! As well as stocking a broad variety of shuffleboards from leading manufacturers, we’ve also been developing some fantastic tables for our own flagship Waldersmith brand, such as the custom-built Buckingham Shuffleboard table. Take a look for yourself!
Don’t forget, our knowledgeable staff members are only too happy to assist you with any questions you may have before or after you purchase any Games Room Company equipment.