Tuesday, February 4, 2020

Bowling Pin Boy - A Teen Job That No Longer Exists

By Pamela S. Meyers

Are you a bowler? I haven't bowled for years, and back when I did give it a shot, I wasn't very good. I recall being dubbed the "gutter ball queen" or something similar. That's how bad I was.

Resource: Lake Geneva Regional News;
September 1943
The book I'm currently working on is set in 1943 in my hometown of Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, and during the story, my heroine joins a women's bowling team. The town's bowling alley at that time was in the basement level of the Hotel Clair which was at the main intersection of town. It's the same bowling alley where I made my famous gutter-ball attempts of the sport. 

By the time I was bowling, the bowling alley used automatic pinsetters, but back in the early to mid-forties pin boys still did the job. The ad at the right is from Lake Geneva's local weekly paper in 1943. Note how it encourages people to have a little fun during the stress of war days. Those alleys are long gone and people bowl at a much newer bowling alley east of downtown, but many memories remain.

The sport of bowling dates back to ancient Egypt in 5000 BC. Over the centuries, variations of the game evolved into what it is today. I'm not sure what they did for pinsetters in 5000 BC, but I do know that back in the early 1900s and likely before that, pinsetters were necessary. Pin boys were usually recruited from the streets, giving disadvantaged boys a chance to earn a bit of money. 

The boys would sit on a ledge behind the pins and after the bowler had bowled their first of two allowed turns, they'd jump down and reset all the pins if the bowler knocked them all down (called a strike), or if there were a few pins remaining (called a spare), they'd leave those standing and collect the others and drop the ball into a return track, giving it a strong shove to send it back to the bowler for their second and last turn. 

Photo Credit: Hine, Lewis Wickes, photographer. 1:00 A.M. Pin boys working in Subway Bowling Alleys, 65 South St., B'klyn, N.Y. every night. 3 smaller boys were kept out of the photo by Boss. Location: New York--Brooklyn, New York State. April. Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <www.loc.gov/item/2018674610/>.

That was how it was done up until the late forties when the first semi-automatic pin-setting machines invented by Gottfried (Fred) Schmidt, became available. The fully automatic machines wouldn't come on the scene until the 1950s and have been upgraded on a regular basis ever since. The semi-automatic machine still required a person to gather the knocked down pins and drop them into a "table" of slots in the familiar triangular arrangement. The operator manually lowered the table to the floor then pulled a lever to cause the pins to turn upright. The table was then lifted and pins were ready for the next bowler. At the same time, the operator dropped the ball into a return slot that sent it back to the bowlers. A bowling alley on Chicago's south side is the only alley around that still uses this system. Here's a link to a YouTube video taken at the bowling alley. You can skip the introductory part and go to about 1.37 to observe the process. https://youtu.be/EKBYDqKpNpU .

Being a pin-boy wasn't easy. An article by former pinsetter states he sometimes came away with broken ribs and lots of bad bruises. Getting smacked by an erratic ball or flying pins happened at times but for a young boy, the pay made it worth the aches and pains. 

By the 1960s bowling alleys began acquiring the automatic pinsetter machines and human intervention became a thing of the past until one of the machines broke down and maintenance was required. And that's how it is today. League nights are incredibly busy with all lanes running and breakdowns sometimes occur, causing the bowlers to take a timeout.

Are you a bowler? Did you ever bowl on a league? 

Pamela S. Meyers loves to set stories set in historical-rich Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, her hometown. Safe Refuge and Shelter Bay, books 1 & 2, of her historical series are available now and Tranquility Point, Book 3 is due to release in April. She is currently working on Rose Harbor, the fourth and final book of the series. She lives in Northern Illinois with her two rescue cats, a short distance from Lake Geneva where she can often be found nosing around for new story ideas.


  1. I've only ever bowled for fun, with family. It is a fun time. Nowadays the grandkids get bored waiting for others to take their turns. Thanks for posting!

  2. Great post, Pam! My husband and I used to bowl a lot, and enjoyed being on a league for a while. I wasn't a great bowler, but was pretty good. Now, I bowl once a year during my work department's annual outing.

  3. Oh how I remember those pin boys. My dad was a semi-professional bowler and competed in tournaments all over Texas in the 40's to the 70's. I have a bag with all of the patches he won as well as several trophies. He took me with him to the league games each week and when I was 6 years old, he had a bowling ball custom made for me. I loved the sounds, the smells, the fun of those league nights and was spoiled rotten by other team members. I still have his bowling ball in a bag in my closet. I bowled in leagues and even took bowling classes in P.E. in college. I did it for fun up until about 25 or so years ago when things were so busy with our boys getting married and having kids of their own. I still like to watch bowling tournaments when I can find them on T.V. My high score was 225.

  4. My first job was babysitting kids in a bowling alley's nursery. Thirty kids with one fifteen-year-old babysitter and a thirteen-inch TV. Oi! My sister and I bowled on a league during our junior high years, but I haven't bowled in ages.

  5. Oh, I forgot to add that my granddad bowled several 300-point games. I never got close to that.

  6. Very interesting. Bowling was fun for me when there was no issue with my back. :-)

  7. I know this post is a few weeks old, but I am just now reading it. I just had to comment, because I actually met my guest the bowling alley! My dad and I were bowling in a league together, and he and his brother were new to the league.

    Since we married, he has had two knee surgeries, so we haven't done much bowling lately.

  8. Oh my goodness, I didn't come back to see all the replies to my bowling article. So fun to read them now. I've been dealing with deadlines in several areas of my life these past few weeks. I sure wish I'd been a better bowler back when I gave it a shot or two. I might have kept it up. My dad was in a men's league until he took a job out of state and then he never did it again. He really enjoyed it and it helped pass the long winter months until he could get back out on the golf course.

  9. I was a pin boy in the mid-'70s at two private clubs in Doylestown, Pa. I think I was 12 or 13 years old. Really dangerous work, Every time a bowler bowled a ball, you had to hold your arms over your face and lift your legs to block the flying pins. I was paid $5 maybe $10 a night and all the Coca-Cola and pretzels I could consume. After two seasons, I had had enough and became a paper-boy.

  10. My first job was after school working at the local bowling alley.Live Oak lanes, Savannah,GA.i lived about 2 miles from the alley I rode my bike to the bowling alley after school.my job was to vacuum, empty. ask trays,trash cans, wipe off the score table, remove house balls from the ball return,put the plastic score sheets and wax pincels,on the lanes,and then I was a pin chaser,I worked the early league and part of the late league.my dad would pick me up about 9.30 and I would put my bike in the back of his pickup truck.and on Friday and Saturday nights I worked late.saturday night was moon light bowling.i never had a lesson but on Fridays the scratch leagues bowled and I got to know the best bowlers in our community.and would keep score for some late night pot games.when I was 16 I bowled in 3 leagues ,2 of them were scratch leagues.i was avg 195.and bowled for 46 years.i avg 200+ for many years.and won several tournaments.and many trophys, still keep up with the PBA.o yeah we messed around with 2 handed with a 10lb house ball.never thought it would catch on.i truly love this game and hope the PBA can get more prize money for the Ladies and men.

    1. Thanks for your comments. I wish I'd had you as a consultant when I was writing my story!

  11. I just read this post and it took me back to the late 60's when my first job, at 13 years old, was as a pin boy manually setting bowling pins for the afternoon women's 5-pin bowling league. I started looking after one lane and then as I got better, and quicker, looked after 3 lanes at a time. It was a tricky and even dangerous job, especially when impatient bowlers would fire a ball down the lane before I was finished setting the pins. At 25 cents per game, plus any tips (rare), it was a risky way to make a few dollars! You got to know the bowlers and watch out for the ones that didn't tolerate a laggard!

  12. I used to be one of those "Pin Boye". We still had those manual setting machines at our 8 lane bowling alley in New Boston Michigan in 1956. I was 11 years old when I started. It was my first job. I used to walk 4 1/2 miles each way to work several nights a week until I was seventeen.

  13. Just watched "Road House" (1948) with Ida Lupino. Shot in a Culver City studio and they used a bowling alley down the street from the studio to film bowling scenes. Looked like the semiautomatic you described. Shots of pin boys in action.