Wooden Curling Stone
Wooden curling stone used near Lodi, Wisconsin in the 19th century.
(Museum object #1957.205)
When is a stone not a stone? When it’s wood!
This wooden curling stone was used between about 1850 and 1880 on a frozen stretch of Spring Creek in Lodi, Wisconsin, created by the dam for the Excelsior flour mill. From its condition, the stone may have been submerged for some time, perhaps having fallen through the ice at the end of the season.
In the sport of curling, members of two teams each try to slide their playing pieces, or stones, closest to a distant target drawn on the ice. The stones are allowed to knock each other out of the way, and players may change the path of a thrown stone by sweeping the ice in front if it.
Curling has been popular in southern Wisconsin for more than a century and a half. The Milwaukee Curling Club, founded in 1846, is the oldest continuously operating curling club in the United States. The second oldest in Wisconsin is the Portage club, established in 1850. In 1892 Lodi joined its Columbia County neighbors Portage, Arlington, Cambria, and Poynette as five of the eight founding Wisconsin members of the Northwestern Curling Association of America (NWCAA).
Though the sport's exact origins are unclear, Dutch genre paintings show curling being played as early as the mid-1500s. By the mid 1600s, however, the sport had become solidly identified with Scotland. Scottish immigrants brought curling to North America, probably in the late 1700s. The sport became immensely popular in Canada, and the first club in the New World was founded in Montreal in 1807. Curling got a similar foothold in the northern United States where waterways remained frozen for long stretches of the winter.
Early curling stones were anything but regular. Despite the evidence of paintings, no 16th-century stones have been found in Holland, which has caused some to conclude that the first “stones” were made of ice or frozen earth. In Scotland, the earliest stones were naturally occurring, water-worn rocks. The oldest known curling stone was recovered from a drained pond in Dunblane, Scotland. It is inscribed “Stirling, 1511” and is roughly rectangular.
Stones small enough to hold in the hand were called “loofies,” from “loof,” the Scots word for hand. In the early 18th century, loofies were replaced by larger “channel stanes,” or river stones with shaped bottoms and added handles. Throughout the 18th and early 19th centuries, players used unique sizes and shapes of stones to suit their own styles of play. Sometimes players used virtually immovable stones of seventy pounds or more. (Modern curling stones weigh about 42 pounds).
The movement to standardize curling’s rules and equipment took off with the founding of the Grand Caledonian Curling Club in Edinburgh in 1838. The club, which acted as an international governing body for the sport, championed among other things, the use of round stones and the definition of a skip (or team) as 4 players throwing 2 matched stones each, rather than 8 players each throwing a single stone. In Scotland, the game and its equipment began to assume its modern form. Finely milled granite stones from the island of Ailsa Craig became the benchmark.
But on the ponds and rivers of North America, particularly away from eastern cities, local customs prevailed for several more decades. Stones from Scotland were expensive or unavailable, and as long as curling was played on uncovered lakes and rivers under widely varying, unpredictable conditions, standardizing stones must have seemed a low priority.
Wooden curling stones appear to have been a North American invention. Wood provided the material basis for the North American economy until the late 19th century: it was readily available, inexpensive, easily shaped, and replaceable. Wooden curling stones were common in North America until the late 19th century. A history of the High Park Curling and Lawn Bowling Club of Toronto notes that the club used black maple stones in the 1850s. When soaked in water and frozen, the stones weighed about 17 pounds.
Surviving wooden curling stones in American and Canadian museums are quite diverse. Some are crude, others are decoratively turned; they feature a variety of handles, and their edge profiles range from straight to gently curved to dramatically convex.
As late as 1897, the NWCAA rules specified weight and size ranges for curling stones, but said nothing about material. By this time, however, covered or indoor rinks had made the behavior of stones much more predictable, and increasing prosperity and improved transportation had made competition more businesslike. By about 1900, stone “stones“ were the preferred material in Lodi and throughout the sport.
[Sources: White, Al. High Park: The Founding Years 1910-1917 (Toronto, 2003); United States Curling Association; Thumbnails of ancient curling stones are available on the Scottish Cultural Resources Access Network (SCRAN) website, keyword "curling stone";
The Dumfries and Galloway Museums Service has an informative online history of curling; Interesting wooden curling stones are featured at the New Brunswick Sports Hall of Fame and the Elliott Avedon Museum & Archive of Games at the University of Waterloo (Ontario, Canada); Smith, David B., Curling: An Illustrated History (Edinburgh: John Donald Publishers, Ltd., 1981).]
Posted on February 23, 2006