According to Gareth Williams, the basic signatures for chess pieces were more or less standardized across Europe by the 1750s. He is referring to the king's crown, the queen's coronet, the bishop's miter, the knight's steed's head, and the rook's parapets. Nine out of ten times it is easy to look at a pre-Staunton set from this era and identify which piece is which. Several popular designs had appeared, though. English saw a different design for every chess club St. George sets with their appearance of stacked disks, Dublin sets with more rounded middles, and Northern Uprights with columns instead, as well as elaborate, easily tipped Barleycorn sets. Germany had delicate Selenus sets, beautiful beyond belief, but fragile, tippable, and problematic for play. To tell which piece is which on some of these sets one must count the stacked crown. France saw elegant Regence style sets with some of the most confusing signatures in history. As in the English sets, queen's were represented by orbs. The king's floral crown closely resembles the modern Staunton signature for the queen. Knights were always taller than bishops the old French sets. Bishops were represented as fools, not clergymen, and therefore lacked the signature miter. What was worse, the knights in these sets were sometimes simple turned designs, not the recognizable horse's head. This lead to common confusion as to which minor piece was which. The confusion of antique French knights and bishops is still a common problem today.
John Jaques, a master turner, and Nathaniel Cook, an architect, thought this needed to change. In 1849, either Cook alone or in collaboration with Jaques designed a style around both elegance and practicality. Instead of thin bases or turned beads pieces were shaped around classical columns for stability. Wooden pieces were weighted and felted. The king was given a cross atop his crown, and the queen a small orb atop her cornet. This was a thicker, heavier design made to cope with the wear and tear of play.
Jaques, who already had a well established turning firm, John Jaques and Sons, set to work making the design a reality. These original Jaques Staunton sets differ slightly from the Modern Staunton set. Jaques used the mark of a crown on the top of one knight and one rook per side to mark they were the king's knight and rook. The king's bishop, of course, needed no mark as it would always be recognizable by the color of squares it traveled on. The use of algebraic notation e.g. "1. e4 e5" as opposed to the old "Pawn to King 4," has since eliminated the need for an easy distinction between king's and queen's minor pieces. Jaques Staunton sets are highly sought-after by collectors.
Howard Staunton was the contemporary equivalent of world chess champion. His endorsement of the new design was perhaps the world's first case of celebrity endorsement. Because of this famous endorsement, people everywhere began calling the new design the "Staunton set." The endorsement, in combination with the beauty and practicality of the design worked together to take the world by storm. Chess pieces everywhere became standardized under the Staunton design. Visit a chess store today and you will see at least ten variations on the Staunton design for every non-Staunton set. I am a fan of the design itself and I believe it serves its purpose well. Staunton pieces are so common they are completely transparent to player and audience. In use, the pieces disappear allowing only the game to show through. As an artist and maker of chess sets, I do have bad feelings about the Staunton sets absolute domination. Where once the variety of chess set design was a rich tapestry now there just a few shades of the same color. The design is a great one, but I am sad for the loss of the other designs. I have nine Staunton sets (and several others for play which aren't included here:)