Here is a list of domino manufacturing materials and a description of their history, starting with the earliest used from the inception of dominoes through to the latest modern materials and methods used today.
The first Chinese dominoes made in the 12th-century were hand carved from animal bone, typically ox bones, and are called "Gwat Pai" (骨牌 meaning "bone tiles") in the North of China or "Goo Pai" in the more widespread Mandarin dialect. Some Chinese domino sets, made for the wealthier and more discerning gamer, were made from Ivory and are known as "Ngaa Pai" (牙牌 meaning "ivory tiles") in the North or "Ya Pai" in Mandarin.
The first Western dominoes that appeared in Europe during the 18th-century were originally made from animal bones (and, again, sometimes ivory for wealthier players), hence the slang term for domino pieces: "bones." The black spots were made by drilling shallow holes into the bone that were then inlaid with pieces of thin ebony.
The first dominoes that appeared in the UK were made by French prisoners-of-war who would make them from sheep and cow bones left over from their rations, and then sell them to supplement their pitiful allowances.
Later, other sets were made by sailors to pass the time while on long voyages.
So-called "vegetable ivory", made from the Tagua Nut, known as the "ivory nut", has been used for over two-hundred years by craftsmen to make dice, dominoes, and chess pieces. The "ivory nut" is close-grained and very hard, and its structure, colour, and grain is similar to that of mammal ivory, though slightly softer.
By the mid 19th-century, European dominoes were still commonly manufactured from slim narrow pieces of bone, but now with an ebony wood back which was glued and then fixed to the bone with a brass pin (known as a spinner) through the centre of the tile. This development was probably due to a lack of suitable thick pieces of animal bone, requiring the ebony layer to strengthen the tile, which made it possible to stand dominoes on their edges.
The first plastic called Bois Durci was invented in 1855 by the Frenchman Charles Lepage. He made a particular point of recommending it for the manufacture of dominoes, chessmen, etcy. Bois Durci was made from ebony or rosewood sawdust mixed with albumen taken from eggs or even blood. The sawdust was mixed and soaked in a mixture of the albumen and water, then dried and subjected to intense heat and pressure in a hydraulic press.
In 1856 came the invention of the next manmade plastic material, first called Parkesine and now known as Xylonite or Celluloid. It was originally manufactured by a company called Parkes in Birmingham and was used to make dominoes for a while, but didn't last, probably due to the fact it was highly inflammable..
In the late 19th-century cheap dominoes were commercially made from tinplate and distributed to pubs and Inns by tobacco companies either for free of for a very small fee.
In the early 20th-century a form of plastic called Bakelite was invented and used to manufacture a huge range of products including dominoes. This synthetic material was invented in 1917 by L H Bakeland who developed the process of condensing phenols and formaldehyde that produced a hard resiliant type of plastic that could be easily moulded into everyday products. Bakelite goods ceased being manufactured around the mid-1950s.
By the later part of the 20th-century modern plastic manufactured from petroleum was used for the mass manufacture of dominoes that has continued to this day..
Later 20th-Century to this Day
Today, dominoes are made from cheap materials such as cheap wood, common plastic, and sometimes even aluminium. There are also dominoes made from thick paper-card, like ordinary playing cards. Many cheap wooden dominoes aren't made from expensive ebony but of any available common wood stained black, often with a pattern or design pressed into their backs
Modern Chinese dominoes are made of cheap shiny black plastic.
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