The history of shuffleboard began in the pubs and palaces of England. During the 15th Century, the aristocracy and the peasants would slide English coins, originally groats, down tabletops. The object of the game was to get the coin to stop as close the edge as possible. Plenty of drinks and money were wagered on the these games of “shove board.”
Any Good Game Gets Banned
In its formative years the game went through several names and a few modifications. The groat was replaced with a silver penny and the game was called shove penny or shove-ha’penny. Royalty and other upper class citizens had beautiful tables made for the game. A more elaborate system of scoring was developed. Markings on the table determined the points that were awarded to coins that came to rest in certain areas.
The English had a habit of outlawing any game that distracted military men from training. So it was with shovel board. (We’re not sure exactly when the modern name shuffleboard came into use.) In the 1500s Henry VIII banned the sliding of the weight so that soldiers could concentrate on archery and peasants wouldn’t be distracted from work. Like most of these sporting bans, it was largely ineffective.
Even without Henry’s help, the game began to lose popularity in England. By the 1600s it was found in more taverns than parlors. The British upper classes were moving on to billiards.
Across the Pond
Shuffleboard immigrated to the United States with the English settlers. The game was mentioned (in a not so favorable light) in the 1692 play “The Crucible.” By 1848, the morality of the game was being argued in the courtroom. In a Pennsylvania case, a judge ruled that shuffleboard was a game of skill, not a game of chance. This was good news for the tavern owner who had been charged with running a public gaming table, fml forte.
During the second half of the 19th century, shuffleboard was popular up and down the Eastern seaboard. In New York, wealthy families were buying custom game tables from furniture makers like Duncan Phyfe. Shuffleboard merited ink on the sports pages and fans followed their favorite players to tournaments in New York and New Jersey. In 1904, shuffleboard moved to the other coast when a table was installed in a California pub.
Prohibition put a damper on the game during the 1920s. When taverns were shut down, so were many shuffleboard tables. During the Great Depression, many restaurants and even taverns replaced dining tables with shuffleboard tables to attract customers. People didn’t have the money to eat out, but they would come down to the bar or café for a game of shuffleboard. Many shuffleboard leagues formed during the Depression years.
Shuffleboard made another surge in popularity during World War II. Troops passed through East coast seaports by the hundreds of thousands. These men played shuffleboard in the taverns and USO clubs. After the war, they took the game home with them to all parts of the country.