Ivory Billiard Balls

The best billiard balls once came exclusively from the tusks of Asian elephants. No natural material other than elephant ivory had the physical size, strength, and beauty to perform in the billiard room and the concert hall. But mass markets in the western world for ivory billiard balls, combs, piano keys, and commercial trinklets, placed the wild elephant in serious jeopardy in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
While one African elephant tusk could yield hundreds of slips of piano key ivory, only four or five quality billiard balls could be made from the average tusk of an Indian, Ceylonese, or Indo-Chinese elephant. Raw tusks arrived at shops in New York and Chicago where master ivory turners would reduce blocks of ivory to gleaming spheres. Today, synthetic materials attempt to reproduce the performance of ivory balls on the billiard table, while in dark corners of old pool halls and in the collections of the Smithsonian, balls such as this one from 1925 recall a time when, at the expense of elephants, the only real billiard balls were cut from fresh Asian ivory.
Currently not on view
Object Name
billiard balls
balls, billiard
Date made
associated dates
1925 08 12
Physical Description
ivory (overall material)
average spatial: 5 1/2 in; x 13.97 cm
ID Number
accession number
catalog number
See more items in
Culture and the Arts: Sport and Leisure
Data Source
National Museum of American History, Kenneth E. Behring Center
Additional Media

Visitor Comments

7/19/2013 9:59:30 AM
Contrary to the idea of emulating the performance of the ivory ball, the players of the day needed something that was consistant in its makeup. Ivory varied so much and was prone to go out of round to such an extent that several sets of balls were tried and rejected whenever an important match was set up. Balls were rolled down a ramp to check if they ran true and those that did not were rejected. Ivory was turned to something over two and one sixteenth of an inch and were subsequently turned again until some people played with the balls down to two inches. The expression used was that the balls were foul when not true. The ivories has to be lovingly looked after. Not too hot...Not too cold...not too damp. Just an addition, the spot on the billiard ball was the centre of the tusk and if the spot made contact with the other ball it invariably caused a kick.
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