Collectors have a new game: carpet bowling for dollars


February 10, 1991|By Lita Solis-Cohen

In the last century most of the Scottish mansions had two boxes inside the door in the hallway, one with a croquet set and the other with a set of carpet bowls, notes Paul Baumann in a chapter about carpet bowls in the recently published second edition of his book, "Collecting Antique Marbles," Wallace Homestead, $17.95.

When the first edition of Mr. Baumann's book was published 20 years ago, most marble collectors hadn't discovered carpet bowls and those who embraced the American Country style had not decided that a wooden bowl filled with plaid and sponged ceramic carpet bowls was the perfect accompaniment to a cupboard full of blue and white sponged chinaware.

Twenty years ago collectors could buy carpet bowls by the bushel basket for $1 apiece, according to John Moore, a Canadian collector now retired in Seminole, Fla., who watched them go up to $110 apiece before he stopped buying and selling them about five years ago.

Mr. Baumann says sponged and spattered carpet balls sell as high as $250, and those with designs of flowers and shamrocks on them, or with tan grounds instead of white, go for $350. But he warns that reproductions have appeared on the market, made in Scotland, and retailed through Colfax and Fowler in London and Lee Bogart in the United States. They are selling for $65 each.

Ask most dealers where carpet bowls were made or how the game was played and they don't know. There is little in print about carpet bowls.

Mr. Baumann prefers to call these large pottery spheres carpet bowls rather than carpet balls and distinguishes them from lawn bowls which are generally larger and made of wood. (Some carpet bowls were made of wood with designs formed by heads of iron or copper nails.)

Carpet bowls are generally 3 1/4 inches in diameter. However, those in Mr. Baumann's collection range from 2 1/2 inches to just about 3 1/2 inches. Some say the smaller ones are for children; others disagree.

While lawn bowling is an ancient game going back at least 3,500 to 4,000 years, carpet bowling with the type of sphere being collected can be traced back to 1796, the founding date of Thomas Taylor Bowls Ltd. of Glasgow, Scotland. In the late 18th century and during the 19th century Scots spent their Sunday afternoons playing carpet bowls. The game could be played either outside on a carpet or inside in a hallway, parlor or drawing room.

The game crossed the Atlantic to Canada. From 1910 to the 1950s carpet bowling was a social activity sponsored by a number of churches which held team play once or twice a week. The pastime has all but disappeared in Canada except at a few senior centers.

The rules of the game changed slightly from place to place. Generally the game consists of six players, three on each side, playing two balls each alternately. Some games required a 30-by-4-foot carpet with two targets marked on it, one at each end, 21 feet 6 inches apart. Teams took turns, as in shuffleboard. A set of carpet bowls consisted of 12 bowls, six pairs, plus a smaller jack, making a total of 13. The six pairs were differently colored and differently patterned so they could be distinguished when scoring. The jack was generally white. The freestyle game was earlier, wilder and required a larger playing area and a larger carpet.

Carpet bowls were produced in Scotland, England and Canada, and in Troy, Ind., in the 1840s by Jabez Vodrey at the Indiana Pottery Co., which charged 37 1/2 cents a dozen, according to Vodrey's diary. Vodrey went on to establish a new pottery in East Liverpool, Ohio, but there is no further record of his making marbles or carpet bowls.

Among the rarest carpet bowls are those that have lines of two colors, or wide crossbands of a different color from the thinner parallel lines that make the plaid. Bull's-eye patterns are strikingly attractive and rare. Those with "stick spatter" designs of shamrocks, hearts, crowns, stars (applied with a stick with the pattern on the end) and sponge designs that have dots at random over the surface of the bowl in two colors are rare. Blue is the most desirable color.

Jacks were generally undecorated and therefore are not appealing to collectors, except those marked with the names of the makers of carpet bowl sets. Among the names found on jacks are Taylor-Rolph, London; Harold, Wilson and Company, Toronto; A. G. Spalding, Great Britain; Jacques, London; and W. Sykes, London and Horbury.

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