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Notes on the origins of Pulpit Chess Sets:

Over the years there has been much speculation over the origins of Pulpit Chess Sets. I would like to put the argument to rest finally with my own research and conclusions.

For many years these types of sets in text books on Chess Sets were called Spanish Pulpit, it was realised not so long ago that this was a completely

wrong attribution as none of these sets had ever been sourced in Spain.

Theories abound as of their origin, places as far a field as the West Indies, Kholomogory Russia, Mexico and Portugal and her former colonies.

I maintain these sets are of Napoleonic French prisoner of war work.

1. They are invariably of bone, a material widely available and used by French Pow's. 

2.  They have a charming naive form of carving because of the lack of satisfactory tools in prison, again typical of other non-chess French P.O.W. articles. 

  1. 3.They are usually sourced in Britain where French Pow wares were sold to supplement their wretched confined life in purpose made prisons and floating prison hulks.

  2. 4.The main pointer is an illustration of a French Pow bone chess set with period covering documentation illustrated in

"The Arts and Crafts of Napoleonic

and American Prisoners of War 1756-1816",

by Clive L. Lloyd which has many Pulpit type

figure design features. (see images)

                                                                  Presentation bone Chess Set made by French prisoners

                                                                 at Dartmouth and given to Lord Doneraile with supporting letters.


There are some examples of Pulpit chessmen ( see images) in the magnificent collection of artefacts made by the prisoners in the Peterborough Museum ,Cambridgeshire, England which come from the nearby famous Norman Cross Prison,the first and largest purpose built prison for the French prisoners. I have shown an image of a rare pow carved bone Watch Stand. The two Roman type helmeted figures are very similar to figural pawns in some Pulpit sets (see images). Also they are very similar to figures used in Russian Kholmogory sets ( see images) and I think this is where some confusion sets in. I think it can be explained by some of the prisoners being mercenaries of Russian extraction and bringing their design features to the Pulpit sets. Mexican bone sets have a similar style as well to old Pulpit sets, explained by the close cultural association between France and Mexico. As of now if a design was a good seller, then copy it.

I do hope this small article has been informative and if you are lucky enough to own one of these delightful sets it will give you even more pleasure knowing their interesting history.

                      Russian Kholmogory Chess Men                                      French Pow Watch Holder