Tuesday, September 22, 2015

The “Troubles” with Billiard Tables in 19th Century Tennessee and America

In Meredith Willson’s popular Broadway musical The Music Man, pool tables are controversial in the small town of River City, Iowa. As con man Harold Hill takes up the false occupation of an instrument dealer, he tries to convince the citizens of River City to fund his idea for a boys’ marching band instead of a pool hall. In the memorable song, “Ya Got Trouble,” Harold retorts to the townspeople “I tell you there is trouble, right here in River City! That starts with T and it rhymes with P and that stands for pool!”

The Subway Pool Hall on Union Street at 4th Street, circa 1916, showing Dominick Petrocelli and Frank Varallo, Sr. Several other men behind the pool tables, including an African American man at right rear.
TSLA Library Collection

While the controversy over having pool tables in River City presents a memorable song and delightful plot for The Music Man, the musical in some ways reflects people’s attitudes about billiard tables in the past. For many people during the 19th Century, billiard tables were associated with vices such as gambling, idleness, and drinking alcohol. Opponents of alcohol associated drinking with crime, financial problems, and physical and emotional abuse within alcoholic families.

Negative attitudes about alcohol seem to have led to higher taxes on items at places where alcohol was sold. For example, billiard tables found in taverns and saloons during the 19th Century were often charged substantially higher fees compared to other items. For example, according to the Acts of Tennessee, a billiard table had a tax of $1,000 in 1803 while owning 100 acres of land was taxed only 12 ½ cents.

An 1803 Public Act listing various taxes imposed on Tennessee citizens, including a tax on billiard tables.

The controversy surrounding billiard tables even affected President John Quincy Adams, who purchased a table for his own use in the White House. His decision to have a billiard table ultimately became an issue during his presidential reelection campaign in 1828. Adams was attacked by his opponents for encouraging the vice of gambling.

In Tennessee, the controversy over billiard tables continued throughout the 19th Century. As the Nashville American newspaper revealed in 1896, Nashville Mayor William McCarthy was adamantly against having pool rooms in the city because he believed that they corrupted young people by encouraging them to gamble and place bets on sporting events like races. As a result of his beliefs, he urged the city council to ban pool halls in the city.

Meanwhile, billiards supporters insisted that the game was an ideal recreation for city dwellers, as it was something that could be played during all seasons, day or night. Despite the controversy over billiard tables, pool halls continued to grow in popularity during the 19 Century in Tennessee and in America.

Today, according to the Billiard Congress of America, more than 200,000 pool tables are sold annually in America. In Tennessee, pool tables are taxed at the regular sales tax rate - not $1,000 per table!

To learn more about this subject of billiards tables, we encourage you to consult the following sources, held in the Tennessee State Library and Archives:

  • Acts of Tennessee. Legislative History Collection.
  • Bergeron, Paul, et al. Tennesseans and Their History (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press,1999).
  • Miles, Edwin A. “President Adam’s Billiard Table,” The New England Quarterly Vol. 45, No. 1 (March 1972): 31-43.
  • “Pool Rooms: Mayor McCarthy Asks a City Law Against Them.” Nashville American, August 28, 1896, p. 6.
  • Wiggins, David K. ed. Sport in America, Volume II: From Colonial Leisure to Celebrity Figures and Globalization (Human Kinetics, 2nd edition, 2009).

The State Library and Archives is a division of the Tennessee Department of State and Tre Hargett, Secretary of State

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