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.
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