"Gothic" and similar busts

"Pacific Game Co. - Pleasantime Games - Sculptured Chess by Ganine -
No. 1475 Salon Edition"

These seem to have been popular, but they always gave me the nerdles. The set is actually very well made. Specimens I've examined are of a swirled translucent and opalescent white plastic (the black pieces are just plain ol' black). The pieces are solid, giving them a reasonable weight without metal slugs in their bases. Conventionally-weighted hollow plastic pieces, with a cardboard base with felt glued to the bottom and a metal slug glued to the top, tend to lose the cardboard (along with the felt and weight). The Pacific Game set, on the other hand, will almost certainly still have the felt stuck onto the bottoms of all the pieces. That may not sound like much of an accomplishment, but I wish more manufacturers could manage it.

The brief instruction pamphlet Pacific packaged with these sets, "Basic Rules of Chess for beginners," is admirably complete and succinct (although I can't agree that queening, in this day and age, can be used as a harmless synonym for pawn promotion). Curiously, when it briefly describes some of the pieces, it is clearly referring to Staunton-pattern pieces, not these Gothics.

The board is a folding cardboard one, nothing special, but not at all bad. It has no alphanumerics on the squares or around the edges. Most other boards have those even though they're almost always completely useless - all they do is give a board a cluttered and fussy look. The 1 5/8" squares are exactly the right size for the Gothic pieces.

The production life of plastic chess sets usually exceeds by far the life of the packaging. That is, as years go by the same pieces will typically be found in several different boxes. However, I have never seen this set in anything but the pictured box. The only variation is that the cardboard tray on the inside may be black or yellowish, rather than the red seen in the above picture.

This version, # 1475, with a 3 5/8" king, is by far the most common. There seems to have been at least one other version, with basically the same pieces (but larger - 4 1/2" king), and finished in an odd darkish beige and grayish brown. The basic design is still as ugly as the aft end of a baboon, no matter what they colored it (remember, fancy colors didn't help the baboon's image either).

In the Gothic's heyday Pacific Game had four distinct sets in their Pleasantime Crafted Game Classics series.

  • Gothic - pieces © 1947, 1957 by Peter Ganine, # 1475 box © 1961 by Pacific Game Co.
  • Classic - a vaguely Stauntonesque design, © 1961 by Peter Ganine
  • Conqueror - a figural set, © 1962 by Peter Ganine
  • Cavalier - more-or-less a Staunton pattern, no known ©.
Pacific Game Company manufactured (or at least marketed) various board games - Go, Space Chess (a 3-level 3-D chess game), roulette, Dirty Dice (renamed so they wouldn't have to put "Craps" in large letters on the box), etc. They also made magic tricks sets, Ouija boards, and the like. The most recent copyright date I know of on a Pacific Games product is 1981. The company's present status is unknown.

Wm. F. Drueke & Sons - King Arthur Chess - No. 1007

The box gives us all clear warning - "King Arthur Chess - Genuine Reproductions of Hand Carved Master Pieces - Originals by Charles A. Bendekgey." Perhaps it should say instead simply, "Danger! Do Not Open!"

This set doesn't appear as often as the Pacific Games Gothic, and I've never examined one personally. I don't think it is quite as grotesque as the Pacific Game one. But it's bad enough. It's certainly a very curious set for Wm. F. & Sons to have made, considering that they also manufactured the octagonal Staunton set, which I actually like.

Below is a photo of what may be another version. I don't know if it's factory, or if some energetic owner is to blame.

Duncan Ceramics - Ceramic Molds # DM 167 & DM 168

But that's not the end of the "Gothic" invasion.

These are plaster molds for casting ceramic chessmen. It's all very low-tech except for the kiln, which is needed to fire the ceramic. The fired pieces can then be glazed or painted. The final handiwork is as much an affront to the laws of God and man as are the factory-made Gothic-type sets.

The process is interesting, at least. The clay is supplied as "slip", basically clay particles suspended in water, and sold in cans similar to paint cans. The slip is poured into plaster molds, usually simple 2-piece cavity molds with no fancy stuff like central cores, etc. The plaster mold absorbs water from the adjacent slip, so that a layer of solid clay gradually builds up. After this layer reaches a suitable thickness (after about a day, usually), the remaining liquid slip is poured out of the mold back into its can. The neato thing about all this is that the parts automatically end up hollow, which is ideal for mugs, vases, ashtrays, teapots, hand grenades (I'll bet you think I'm kidding), spittoons, etc.

The layer of clay is then allowed to dry a bit more (initially it's pliable, resembling wet leather but without any tensile strength) until it's rigid. The mold is then opened up and the clay item removed. As it dries further the clay hardens but it can still be easily worked with knives and scrapers. The edges can be trimmed, designs can be cut into the surface, signatures carved into the base, and mystic runes inscribed wherever inappropriate. In this form it's called "greenware". After it dries completely (a matter of a few more days) it is fired in a kiln. It comes out very hard and relatively strong, like any other ceramic object. It can then be glazed. Glaze is basically powdered glass which is painted onto the ceramic. Then back into the kiln it goes. The final item is a nice durable shiny thing which can be generically lumped into the "coffee mug" family.

There are specialist stores which sell pre-molded greenware for hobbyists who don't feel like buying the mold - the mold only makes sense if one is going to make several of whatever it is. Also available are pre-fired pieces, good for those who don't own kilns. Without the kiln the piece can't be glazed, but it can be painted. Some unpainted pieces are at left. (or above, depending on how wide your browser window is set).

I believe these Duncan molds appeared in 1965, and they seem to still be in production....why, I can't imagine. It's notable that the humanesque figures for the knights and rooks were abandoned in favor of more traditional representations.

Duncan has also made a mold for a conventional Staunton set (right), but I think it's no longer produced.

Duncan's not the sole culprit behind the home-made Gothics, however. At least one other company has made similar molds. Arnel's made these (left) in the early 1970s. The complete set includes a mold for a quarter of a chessboard ('way down there at the bottom). The Arnel's set, like the Duncan set, uses the standard equine motif to represent the knight, and a crenelated tower for the rook. One of the Arnel's molds is dedicated solely to pawns, so that all eight can be poured at once. Producing a set with the Duncan molds takes longer, as two pourings are needed for each complement of sixteen pieces, or four pourings per set of 32. (The Duncan Staunton mold, above, requires ten pourings to make enough pieces to play a game - if they had swapped the positions of the queen and bishop, only eight pourings would be needed).

I don't see that the final results justify the effort. We'd all be better off if those who feel like being craftsy would confine their efforts to potpourri containers shaped like ducks, rather than weighing down the earth's crust with an ever-increasing mound of ceramic Gothic sets.

- - - More to Come - - -

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