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Table-top Skittles History

There is no mystery about the origin of the various games of table-top skittles shown on this page - they are miniaturised forms of the larger pub game of Alley Skittles or Nine Pins. For more information on the origins and history of Skittles and where to play Alley Skittles, please see the Skittles page. In England, Alley Skittles itself splintered into a number of regional variations and, since a skittles alley takes up a large amount of valuable floor space in a pub, in some areas varieties that did not require alleys at all appeared. Most of these amounted to table-top, miniaturised versions of the alley game and several games of this type are still well-known and popular today.

Miniature Toy Skittles

For centuries, across the whole of Europe, straightforward miniaturised forms of skittles have been made for the table-top, usually as toys for children. Such skittles at the higher-end, made for aristocratic families, are extremely ornate and beautiful creations, almost too good for playing. The problem with all skittles at this scale is that they don't tend to play well. Often the skittles don't topple satisfactorily or are too thin to easily knock over their adjacent pins but, more importantly, pins and balls at such a size are fiddly and difficult to handle. A full-size skittle ball or skittle cheese fits solidly into the hand and throwing or rolling it down an alley is a fulfilling act in its own right. A skittles marble has to be held between finger and thumb or flicked, so the tactile enjoyment in the act of propelling the ball is all but lost. At the other end of the game, when a miniature balls hits miniature pins, the action is over in a trice, even on successful throws that topple most of the pins. By contrast, larger pins tend to spin and roll around making a spectacle that is worth watching as the balls make their way through the pin diamond. Like many games made for the home market, most miniature skittles are a triumph of form over substance that do not hold the attention of their intended market for very long.

Another class of toy skittle game has existed at various times at slightly more serious level. These tend to be purpose-made games forming an alley, often in wood with side boundaries to contain the balls and pins. Sometimes the problem of propelling the ball in a satisfactory way is dealt with using some kind of device that both launches it and contains a mechanism that gives the player control over its direction.

Bar Skittles

modern commercial version of Table SkittlesThe most famous of table-top skittles games is the game known as Bar Skittles or Pole Skittles or just Table Skittles. This distinctive version of the game was cleverly miniaturised so that no throwing area is required at all - the nine pins standing on a square plinth are knocked down by a ball which is swung around a pole, instead. For this classic pub game, please see our dedicated Bar Skittles page.

Northamptonshire Skittles and other Skittle Table Variants

modern Hood Skittles table example of Northants Skittles The Godfather of all smaller skittle games and, in many people's opinion, including the author of this page, hands-down the best pub game in existence, is Northamptonshire Skittles. For more information, please see the dedicated page on Northamptonshire Skittles and skittle table games.

Table A Toupie or Toptafel

Table Toupie or ToptafelThe author initially heard about this game from Americans who wrote to say they were trying to find a supplier of the game. It has been handed down the generations in North America for more than a century. The game consists of a several small rooms laid out on a board - designs vary somewhat. Skittles are positioned amongst the rooms and a top is then sent spinning from one end of the table in an effort to topple as many of the skittles as possible. Each skittle scores (or sometimes deducts) differing numbers of points and success is largely a matter of luck.

Table Toupie or Toptafel As the author has discovered more about the game, it's apparent that a great deal of uncertainty reigns, not least as to precisely what the game should be called. In the USA, it is somewhat confusingly known simply as "Skittles" - this is presumably because Americans don't tend to play the original game of Skittles or Nine Pins - only ten pin bowling, skittles' direct ancestor. One person wrote to say that the game was called "Racketeer" while another wrote to say that he was attempting to restore an old game believed to be French from around 1850 and that the English owner from whom it had been bought referred to it as 'Devil amongst the Tinkers' (incorrectly - it should be 'Tailors' - see below) . More research has established that the game is alive and still popular in France, Belgium and Holland. In France it's known as "Table A Toupie" (literally Table with Top) although one vendor also refers to it as "Jeu de Roi" (Game of Kings) and in The Netherlands it's called "Toptafel".

The game was played in Britain, too, for a while but there is little sign of it from the latter half of the nineteenth century. Joseph Strutt in 'Sports and Pastimes of the People of England', published 1801, disparagingly mentions a version of it played with nine small pins set placed "like skittles" within a circular board. "This silly game" he wrote, is played in "low public houses where many idle people resort and play for beer and trifling stakes of money". Strutt calls the game 'Devil amongst the Tailors' and it appears that in 1783, some theatre-goers and tailors rioted at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket over a play entitled “The Tailors: A Tragedy for Warm Weather“ that the clothes-making professionals thought was insulting. The Dragoons were called in to stop the riot which they did in such an enthusiastic way that their method was compared to a spinning top ploughing through skittles by the local press. Note: any reference to 'Devil amongst the Tinkers' is almost certainly based on a proliferated mistake and use of the name 'Devil Amongst the Tailors' for the game of Bar Skittles / Pole Skittles is also based on an errorneous factoid that seems to have been widely propagated.

While the game is possibly now most popular in the United States, it appears to originate from France and it's possible to find extremely ornate and luxuriously made tables from as far back as the eighteenth century. The game was probably a game played first by European aristocracy. An amazing collection of such tables is owned by 'Cyril M' near Paris. This video shows them in action.

In Aug 2001, an auction house wrote with a picture of an exquisite gaming table featuring a wealth of different games. The table is from France during the reign of Charles X, dated approximately 1820. One of the games (shown on the right) was the most beautiful Table a Toupie game with multiple intricate brass fitments and little bells to ring as well as skittles to topple. It is a piece that would have certainly originally belonged to French nobility.

 

Rules

Description and rules for Bar Skittles is available for free from Masters Traditional Games

Where to Buy Table Skittles

You can buy a Table Skittles game from Masters Traditional Games.  Full size Skittles sets and Northamptonshire Skittles equipment is also for sale.

Pubs

Please see the Bar Skittles Pubs & Leagues