The original chess sets from the East as Chess was introduced to Europe were highly abstracted pieces like the chess pieces of St Gernadio and Lerida pieces found in Spain - showing the Islamic influence which forbade figurative art. Early Western sets were Lewis Chess men or those of Charlemagne's time. King Canute (circa 995-1035) a King of England, Denmark, Norway, and part of Sweden is said to have murdered of a Danish nobleman, allegedly over the results of a game of chess. In the Middle Ages, Chess was a game mainly for the Nobility and Clergy. They could afford expensive ornate sets. During the Renaissance, it was still mainly a game for the households of kings such as Philip II of Spain or Henry the 8th; and the Queens, such as Catherine De Medici, or Elizabeth I. A revolution in Chess play in the West was the development of the powerful Chess Queen. No longer a Visier, with single square moves like the king, the much more powerful Chess Queen that emerged in the West increased the playability of the game tremendously. In 1510, Bishop Vida of Alba wrote a poem on Chess - and that perhaps influenced the development of modern chess pieces.
Representational sets were ornate works of art and very expensive status symbols. But less expensive playing sets began in this period to be produced on the lathe - non-figurative pieces, experimenting with a variety of shapes and forms. They discovered that they could create chess pieces of remarkable beauty by varying the incisions creating channels and terraces. These too became more sophisticated and elegant. During this time -- the chess pieces also gradually took their modern symbolic forms - The King represented by his Crown, the Queen by a her Coronet, the Rook evolved from an chariot (ruhk)/ elephant, or a mythical bird (Sinbad's Roc?) to a Castle Tower, the Bishop developed his split Mitre, and the Knight went through a variety of forms (such as a triangular finial representing a tricorne hat) to become a carved horse's head.
The coffee-house epoch in the history of chess in England ended in the year 1810 with the establishment of the London Chess club, where members met for play in a private room in Cornhill. Other London Chess Clubs followed. The clubs were a place for gentlemen to meet and play, maintaining decorum while keeping out the charlatans. They also helped codify the playing rules and sponsored championship tournaments. It was not until the year 1832, that a rival association appeared upon the scene, the famous Westminster Chess Club where Howard Staunton, for many years the champion chess-player of England, made his first appearance. The club was temporarily dissolved in 1835, again in 1840, but once more revived by Staunton, and the meetings were held in Charles-street, off the Haymarket, but it closed in 1843. In 1843, a new chess club at the West-end was formed, at Beatties Hotel, George-street, Cavendish-square, and was called after the name of the street in which its first meetings were held, the St. George’s Chess Club. Beattie’s Hotel was closed in the following year, and the St. George’s removed to new quarters at the Polytechnic. Here was played the first International Chess Tournament in 1851. In the year 1857, after several moves, the St. George’s removed to its present quarters, Palace-chambers, King-street, St. James’s. In 1852, a club was formed in the city, under the title of the City of London Chess Club, by a few amateurs of little note at the time. This association is now, in point of numbers, and the chess force and public repute of its members, the strongest chess club in the world. Daniel Harrwitz was a great favourite at the London and St. George’s Clubs, where for some years he had lucrative engagements.
Politics also played its' part in the development of chess pieces. The Jacobean Style in the 1700's had three crowns on the King reflecting perhaps their allegiance to the Pope. In France as well as America, revolutionary feelings downplayed the "royalty" of the Kings and Queens. And there was a lengthy period of conflicts especially between the English and French, but also in Eastern and Northern Europe as well.
The most popular conventional designs in Western Europe and America were the French Regency; and the English Barleycorn, and St. George patterns. But a wide variety of interesting shapes and styles were in use during this time period.
The Regency pieces were produced in the late 1700's till 1890's. Earlier or more inexpensive sets had Knights without the traditional horse head, but rather turned pieces with notched collars to distinguish them from the Bishops. Latter sets had the more traditional horse head for the knight. The Regence set design is still being made in France and was promoted as a 'good' design in England as late as the 1930's.
Other pieces in use in France:
A game of chess even contributed to the success of the American Revolution - Washington's victory in crossing the Delaware at Trenton succeeded in part because a note warning of the attack from an English Sympathizer was pocketed unread while the officer, Colonal Johann Rall, finished his game of chess. The note was found in his pocket, still unopened, when he died in battle.
It is suggested that Jaques actually designed the Staunton pieces, and a relative, Nathaniel Cook registered the wooden chess pattern under the Ornamental Designs Act of 1842. They used the symbols in their plainest form, and a heavy wide base made them less likely to tip. In September 1849 the manufacturing rights were bought by John Jaques of London, workers of ivory and fine woods. Jaques was the brother-in-law of Nathaniel Cook. Jaques removed much of the decorative features that topped earlier chess patterns, and was able to manufacture the new design at less cost. On September 8, 1849 the first wooden chess sets from Jaques became available. The first sets had red crowns on top of the King's Rook and King's Knight that distinguished them from the Queen's Rook and the Queen's Knight. They were often marked with "J. Jaques London" on the base of the King as well.
On the same day that the Jaques chess sets were available, Howard Staunton recommended and endorsed the sets in the Illustrated London News. Nathaniel Cook was Staunton's editor at the Illustrated London News (small world, huh?) The ad that appeared in the newspaper called it Mr. Staunton's pattern. Later, Staunton began endorsing the set and had his signature on the box of Staunton chess pieces. One of Staunton's chess books was given free with every Staunton chess set. Celebrity endorsement and marketting helped, but the simplicity of the Staunton design probably contributed the most to its success. However the Jaques Staunton's weren't the immediate success that Howard would have had us believe. The Staunton pattern was only adopted by FIDE in 1934 and there were other contenders for the title.
To see examples of these various Chess Piece styles
You can browse the images in The House of Staunton Antique Chess Shoppe or in Jon Crumiller's personal collection of 200 chess sets
Dermot Rochford's Articles: Antique English Playing Sets, Collecting 101 and Condition and Restoration
To Shop for Antique Chess Sets:
You might check with Dermot Rochford or Garrick Coleman or check out my In Search of Unusual Chess Sets.
All sorts of sets are always being auctioned on Ebay as well.