Bowling is often called the king of pin games, but historically, its most ardent fans have worn blue collars rather than ones trimmed in ermine. From its development in Renaissance Europe to its embrace in the 13 Colonies, bowling and its various antecedents have been a pastime accompanied by equal parts alcohol and gambling, which evolved into its depiction as a game for dull-witted working stiffs, from Jackie Gleason’s loud-mouthed Ralph Cramden in “The Honeymooners” to everyone’s favorite animated lummox, Fred Flintstone.
Given the game’s simplicity—it’s basically the act of rolling a ball at a group of objects in order to knock them down—it shouldn’t be surprising that bowling has been around for quite some time. The earliest known version of bowling was discovered in 1900 by a University of London Egyptologist named Sir Flinders Petrie, who came upon a set of nine marble pins, three stone balls, and a trio of marble rectangles (which Petrie assumed were intended to be stacked into an simple archway for the balls to pass through on their way to the pins) at a site near Cairo that dated to 3200 B.C.
More recent forebears include the French game of quilles (which means “pins” in English) and the English game of kayles. Unlike modern bowling, in which all 10 pins are worth the same number of points when knocked over, in quilles and kayles the game’s nine pines are often set up in three rows of three pins, with the protected center pin being worth more than the eight surrounding it. The even older German game of kegelspiel gave bowling its trademark alley. Quilles and kayles could be played on just about any open, flat area, but kegelspiel required a narrow channel of packed clay or a width of smooth wood for the ball’s passage to the awaiting pins, which were set up in a diamond shape rather than a triangle, as in tenpins.
In the New World, bowling was an important enough activity to the Dutch immigrants who lived in 17th-century Manhattan that an area near the southern tip of the island was called Bowling Green when the city was still known as New Amsterdam. Bowling Green is now the oldest park in New York. In fact, bowling was a popular attraction in the basements of New York's numerous saloons and taverns. Like billiards, bowling was used by innkeepers to keep patrons in their establishments for long periods of time, which was good for business since it encouraged the consumption, and purchase, of food and drink.
New York also boasts the first indoor bowling alley in the United States, Knickerbocker’s, which opened in 1840. As would be the case for roughly the next 100 years, bowling alleys were staffed by pinboys, who would wait at the alley’s noisy end to clear fallen pins, restack them, and return balls to bowlers via gutters that often ran along the edges of alleys (the gutter was originally designed for this utilitarian purpose rather than to frustrate amateur bowlers).
Back in the early decades of the 19th century, bowling was still a game of ninepins (in Washington Irving’s 1819 short story called “Rip Van Winkle,” the hero is described as awakening to the sound of "crashing ninepins"). In addition, there was so much gambling associated with the sport that in the early 1800s, authorities around the country, particularly in New England, cracked down. Though the evidence is not universally conclusive, the shift from ninepins to tenpins appears to have been motivated by a loophole in many of the laws banning bowling, which specifically prohibited games featuring a total of nine pins. Add one more pin and change their pattern from a diamond to a triangle and you were in the clear.
The first serious attempt to codify the game in the United States came in 1887, when A.G. Spalding published his Standard Rules for Bowling. At this time, pins were lathed from m...
Meanwhile, variations of bowling persisted. In Texas, for example, ninepins remained popular, while a tenpin game called candlepins is still played in many parts of New England. The pins in candlepins are arranged as they are in regular tenpins, but they are not cleared between a player’s turns, and each player gets three throws per turn instead of two. Duckpin bowling is similar to candlepins, except the shape of the pins is different (short and squat rather than tall and lean). Scoring strikes is more difficult in both games because both balls and pins are lighter.
The construction of bowling balls in any of these games is critical because in bowling, about the only way to game the sport is via the ball one hurls at the standing pins. Accordingly, one of the casualties of a 1913 update to Spalding’s tenpin bowling standards was the so-called dodo ball, which was the name given to balls that deviated in either weight or balance from the norm. For example, prior to 1913, some bowlers were rolling 22-pound balls toward their pins, giving them an unfair advantage over players rolling 16-pound balls. Other bowlers rolled balls that were cut from two balls of unequal weight—a common dodo known as a 7-9 combination was made from half of a 14-pound ball and half of an 18-pounder, which were glued together. The additional trick was to drill only two thumb-size finger holes into the ball, which allowed a skilled bowler to work the movement of the ball depending on how he gripped and threw it. In the best cases, the result was a wicked hook. In the worst cases, though, the bowler ended up with a crippling run of what were known as dodo splits.
Eventually bowlers learned how to hook with regulation 16-pound balls, but that still did not prevent some bowlers from trying to manipulate their balls to achieve an advantage over competitors. The most famous modern example of this occurred in 1974, when a professional bowler named Don McCune bucked the trend of slick polyester balls by soaking an old-fashioned hard-rubber ball in a solvent called toluene, which softened the surface of the ball just enough to slow its path toward the pins, thus giving McCune more control. McCune won six tournaments in 1974 throwing solvent-soaked balls, and was named the professional tour’s player of the year.
Predictably, there was an overnight stampede of professional bowlers wanting to jump on the solvent bandwagon, but the governing body of professional bowling, the Professional Bowlers Association, added a regulation specifying a ball’s hardness, which stopped the would-be soakers in their tracks. Today, bowling balls cannot weigh more than 16 pounds and must have a standard diameter of 8.5 inches. In contrast, regulation duckpin balls are 5 inches in diameter and can weigh no more than 3 pounds, 12 ounces.
The other major technological development in bowling occurred in 1951, when sport-equipment manufacturer AMF secured the rights to Gottfried Schmidt's automatic pinspotter patents and began replacing pinboys with machines. This, along with the rise of women’s leagues, seemed to help clean up the formerly seedy sport.
Indeed, bowling got downright fashionable in the 1950s and ’60s. Suddenly, bowling became synonymous with two-tone shoes and shirts, the latter of which were embraced by the rockabilly crowd. Bags to carry one’s bowling ball were often made of hand-tooled leather, and by the time polychromed polyester balls caught on in the 1970s, bowlers would adjust their attire to match their balls, and vice versa. Satin, rayon, and polyester shirts became canvases for embroidered cartoon characters, Mid-Century Modern patterns, and advertising messages and logos. In the home, bowling balls and bowling pins themselves became popular motifs, used on everything from barware and ashtrays to writing instruments such as pencils and pens.