Tuesday, March 12, 2024

A Game Exclusively for the Wealthy – Bowling

By Kathy Kovach

How far back does the game of bowling go? Prehistoric times? When Fred Flintstone tippy-toed his way into a strike, clenching the championship for team Water Buffalo Lodge at the Bedrock Bowl? Maybe not that far back, but pretty close.

Fred Flintstone and his "twinkle-toes."
Evidence of the game was discovered in Egypt, dating to 3200 BC on the wall of an Egyptian tomb. Sir Flanders of Petrie, former emeritus professor of Egyptology at the University of London, also uncovered miniature pins and a ball in a child’s grave.

German historian William Pehle asserts that bowling was invented in his country around 300 AD. Perhaps he didn’t know about the Egyptian findings. Where is Google when you need it? Strong evidence also suggests some form of bowling had become popular in England in 1366 when King Edward III allegedly outlawed the game as it had become a distraction to archery practice. Apparently, the sound of pins falling reverberated throughout the land.

Love of the game could not be squelched, however, as it gained popularity during the reign of King Henry VIII. He decreed the game must only be for the wealthy and therefore banned it for the lower classes. If you think bowling fees have gotten expensive today, Henry placed a heavy levy on private lanes to assure only the elite could play.

Ancient bowling pins
Materials could vary from balls made from grain husks, bound by leather and tied with string, to porcelain orbs, clearly made to roll and not be thrown. Children often used stones. Balls could have one to three holes, or no holes at all. Plus, they could vary in size from that of a grapefruit to what we see today. Pins could be made of solid wood to alabaster, depending, I assume, on the wealth of the participant.

There have been many variations of the game. Nine Pin (or Skittles), Ten Pin, and Bocce Ball originating in Italy where the ball merely comes as close as it can to the “pin” or object. Lawn Bowling is similar to the latter, but the ball is bigger and is weighted differently. It’s also played on grass whereas Bocce is played on a sandy court. My husband learned English Lawn Bowling when he was on temporary duty (TDY) in the military at Bentwaters AFB, England, and he loved it.

Lawn Bowling in Golden Gate Park era 1901
As I’ve found in many games we use as mere entertainment today, somewhere in history the innocent sport was taken over by either pious religious leaders or occultist sects. In Germany around 400 AD, parishioners were given nine clubs (or kegels) called “Heide” that represented heathen spirits, and a ball with no holes. For each kegel knocked down, the person was cleansed of that spirit and deemed pure of heart. To this day, bowlers are referred to as keglers. In my experience, it would take me a long time to become pure of heart. I’m not a very good bowler, but I do love the game.

For years, most of the variations were played outdoors. Eventually, in 1455, Londoners roofed over their favorite game, assuring it could also be an all-weather sport. These were called kegelbahns and were attached to taverns and guest houses.

On July 18, 1588, Sir Frances Drake was playing some variation of the game on Plymouth Hoe—a scenic, public spot along the Plymouth harbor in England—when he was informed that the Spanish Armada was near. His response: "We still have time to finish the game and to thrash the Spaniards, too." That’s dedication to the sport!

Eventually, bowling made it to the Americas. The first evidence of this is in a reproduction of a painting found in New York City’s Bettimann Archives of Dutch immigrants playing the game circa 1650 on Bowling Green in New York. This area’s name was due to it being a popular gathering place and a spot to throw down some Nine Pins. The original spot was moved to Central Park in 1914 as a subway station claimed a good chunk of the property.

Bowling Green in the Financial District of Lower Manhattan, New York City
Prior to the Bowling Green relocation, New York author Washington Irving wrote a little tale you may have heard of, "Rip Van Winkle". Just before the character, Winkle, falls into a deep sleep, he and a companion comes upon a group of people bowling.

"What seemed particularly odd to Rip was, that these folks were evidently amusing themselves, yet they maintained the gravest faces, the most mysterious silence, and were, withal, the most melancholy party of pleasure he had ever witnessed. Nothing interrupted the stillness of the scene but the noise of the balls, which, whenever they were rolled, echoed along the mountains like rumbling peals of thunder." Irving, Washington. "Rip Van Winkle." In The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent, 1819.
Keeping with the previous theme established by London, England, “ten-pin alleys” sprung up in America around 1820, offering a side attraction for businesses. These were to be separate from dedicated bowling alleys.

By the end of the 19th Century, regulations had been established to standardize the ten-pin game. These included the length and width of the alley, size and weight of the ball and pins, and rules of play. The American Bowling Congress (ABC) became the paragon by which the game would forever be played.

The oldest surviving sanctioned bowling alley is in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in the basement of the Holler House Tavern. Employing human pinsetters, it’s still in use today.

Prohibition (1920-1933) changed the mindset of tavern players, no doubt mostly men, who, I imagine, swilled pints of beer while attempting to hit the tiny pins at the end of the alley. The game moved away from saloons, allowing women and families to join in the fun.

Saloon Bowling
The first ABC champion was Jimmy Smith in the early 20th Century. He won multiple awards and eventually became an exhibition bowler. The women, not to be outdone, formed the Women's International Bowling Congress (WIBC) in 1916. In 1927, Mrs. Floretta “Doty” McCutcheon challenged the world record holder Smith to a three-game set and won 704-697. She would go on to establish a school, training 500,000 women to bowl. You go, girl! The two organizations (ABC and WIBC) merged in 2005 to become the United States Bowling Congress.

Floretta McCutcheon demonstrating proper way to hold ball
Bowling turned pro when Eddie Elias founded the Professional Bowlers Association in 1958. The PBA has helped to bring the sport into our living rooms via their televised championships.

I, for one, am grateful for the game, even though I’m far from good at it. Perhaps I should employ Fred Flintstone’s technique of tippy-toeing my way to a perfect 300-score game. Now, that would be an exhibition!


A secret. A key. Much was buried on the Titanic, but now it's time for resurrection.

Follow two intertwining stories a century apart. 1912 - Matriarch Olive Stanford protects a secret after boarding the Titanic that must go to her grave. 2012 - Portland real estate agent Ember Keaton-Jones receives the key that will unlock the mystery of her past... and her distrusting heart.
To buy: Amazon

Kathleen E. Kovach is a Christian romance author published traditionally through Barbour Publishing, Inc. as well as indie. Kathleen and her husband, Jim, raised two sons while living the nomadic lifestyle for over twenty years in the Air Force. Now planted in northeast Colorado, she's a grandmother and a great-grandmother—though much too young for either. Kathleen has been a longstanding member of American Christian Fiction Writers. An award-winning author, she presents spiritual truths with a giggle, proving herself as one of God's peculiar people.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for posting today. I wonder if there is anyone who has never bowled in some form or other!