A brief history of bowling
Ryan Summerlin December 2, 2013
Most people think there’s only one type of bowling; the regular kind with drink holders in the scoring desk and a nearby dependable supply of beer. I figured bowling was maybe a couple hundred years old, invented in the Midwest where people had extra spare time in the winter. To verify this, I carefully perused the vast body of my original resource materials that I collectively refer to as “Wikipedia.”
It turns out bowling is much older than I thought. The new pope found a turquoise and black, flat-bottomed shirt way at the back of his closet. It had “SAINT TONY’S PIZZERIA SINCE 1043” embroidered in pink on the back.
Okay, I made that part up, but at www.catholiccompany.com you can get a 14-carat gold Saint Christopher bowling medal, reasonably priced at $1,125. Saint Chris got his head chopped off after beating Roman Emperor Decius by one pin after picking up the 6-7-10 split in the tenth frame of 452nd Annual All-Gladiator Mixed-Doubles Scratch Tournament.
Bowling is first mentioned in writing in 1366, when it was banned by King Edward III because it was interfering with archery practice. Artifacts in Egyptian tombs place the origins of ball-rolling games more than five thousand years ago.
During the 1620s, Dutch settlers brought the sport to America in a form of a game called ninepins. The game was so much fun that the Puritans expressly forbade it and offered a week locked in stocks if you were caught in a bowling shirt. Undaunted, bowlers added one pin and rearranged the layout from a diamond to today’s traditional triangle. Then they settled in for the evening to play a theoretically legal game called tenpins.
Bocce is Italian lawn bowling played using sideboards and a backstop. In France, a similar game is known as Boules except in the south where it’s called Petanque. In England, it’s simply lawn bowling with origins in the early Roman Empire.
To standardize these choices, the American Bowling Congress was established in New York City in 1895. They remained in a league of their own until 1917 when the Women’s International Congress was formed. Apparently the women were in such haste to get a grip on men’s bowling balls that they forgot the word “Bowling” in their title.
But apostates of tenpin were gathering like crows before a storm. There were breakaway advocates of six-inch balls without finger holes and smaller pins to match. The scaled-down heresy spread, leading to the foundation of The National Duckpin Bowling Congress in 1927.
Now, as riveting as this has been, the story is far from over.
There came next a heresy among Duckpinsters in the late 1930s, and, frankly, I think this is where the wheels came off, but they began wrapping their duckpins with tight rubber bands. Proponents of the “New Way” claimed far more “action” and in 1946, devotees formed The American Rubber Band Duckpin Bowling Congress with membership limited to those who could say the name three times fast.
In the early days of American bowling, children were a dime-a-dozen and pin-setting was a job for skinny, quick ones. In 1945, AMC invented the automatic pin setter and by 1950, Brunswick was installing the newfangled mechanisms throughout America, spurring popularity of the sport as they spread. Automatic scoring machines became popular in the 1990s, destroying forever the tiny brown pencil industry.
The next time you’re staring down the 7-10 split, remember that the odds of converting it are around one in 50,000 or about four times harder than a hole-in-one in golf.