The Complete History of Bowling

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History of Bowling

For most of us, bowling has always seemed like one of those classic, old-timey sports and past-time activities since it has always felt like it’s been around since forever. American pop culture has always presented the sports as a vintage thing, so this shouldn’t really come as a surprise.

What might shock many is the fact that the history of bowling goes way further back in time. This actually makes bowling more interesting and intriguing as it feels like a modern activity. So if you’re curious about how one of America’s greatest pastimes came to be, read on as we’ll discuss it in detail below.

The History of Bowling

One of the most surprising things about bowling is that its roots are actually quite difficult to pinpoint. As it turns out, the sport has been around for a very long time. Just how long, you ask? Well, according to science, there’s evidence that traces it back to ancient Egypt. Just how ancient? Experts date the finds to be from 3200 to 5000 BC.

Bowling in Ancient Egypt

The story goes that from about 1895 to the 1930s, British anthropologist and University of London emeritus professor of Egyptology, Sir William Matthews Flinders Petrie explored a cemetery site on a town known as Naqada, located on the west bank of Nile. There they found about three thousand graves that are brimming with items that are meant for the deceased to take to the afterlife.

Some of the children’s remains came with what seems to look like bowling pins. There were nine vase-shaped stones with circular flat bottoms and a group of stone balls found. At first, they thought that the vase-shaped stones were meant for a necklace but as there were no holes for suspending them or stringing them together, this assumption is easily refuted.

The flat bottoms also suggest that they’re meant to stand on the ground. And in combination with the crude stones balls that are just the right size to knock down the vases, the likelihood that the items were used as playthings is more plausible. Because of these, it’s believed that bowling was enjoyed by ancient Egyptians.

However, other experts point out that this is just one man’s interpretation of their findings. There was no way to tell if they were actually used together. Even if the items were from the same grave, connecting them together definitively is hard. It could be that Sir Petrie just had bowling in their minds since the sport was gaining a lot of popularity as the expedition started.

Other experts believe that even if Sir Petrie’s findings weren’t exactly bowling items, there’s still a chance that the sport originated in ancient Egypt. Other anthropologists found evidence that ancient Egyptians had a game that is very similar to bowling. It involves a small lane with a hole in the middle, one small ball, one big ball, and jars filled with sand located down the hole.

The idea was that the person holding the small ball was supposed to get their ball into the hole while standing on one end of the lane. The other person will then hold a bigger ball on the other end of the lane and prevent the one with the small ball to achieve their goal. The presence of the jars is linked to the players taking turns in throwing the small ball.

Aside from this, there’s also evidence that ancient Egyptians played a game that uses what is very similar to an indoor bowling lane. Lanes were unearthed in various areas around Egypt, suggesting that the game has been widely played and enjoyed by the ancient civilization.

Bowling in the Roman Empire

Some experts believe that bowling is also somewhat related to the outdoor game ancient Roman soldiers used to play. They believe that around 5200 BC, Roman soldiers passed their time by throwing stone balls on other stone balls. Most experts believe that this was the beginning of the modern ball sport known as bocce or boccie.

Bowling in 300 AD Germany

Others also argue that today’s bowling can be connected to a religious ceremony that is commonly held in Germany since 300 AD. According to German historian William Pehle, today’s bowling is more similar to the activity held in churches in the said country around the time.

Such ceremonies involved Kegels or pin-like items that are usually carried around for protection. They used it as targets for ball throwing and represent the ‘heide’ or heathens. One parishioner will throw a ball and if they knock down a pin, it signifies that they are of pure and good character. If they didn’t hit a pin, they are required to do penance.

Bowling in the Middle Ages

Based on some writings from the Middle Ages, it can already be said that bowling is already widely enjoyed at the time in England. There were illustrations that depict people throwing balls to a feather stuck upright on the ground. It’s said that it was enjoyed widely by peasants and that, of course, the sizes and weights of balls used were not standardized.

Further confirmation of bowling being a popular pastime in England comes in the form of writing. William Fitzstephen’s ‘Survey of London’ recorded information on national games of its time. It was written by the late 11oos and confirmed that the public was already bowling at the time.

Another proof of the sport being around for centuries is the Southampton Old Bowling Green. It is said that it has been first used in 1299 and is still used as such making it the oldest bowling green in the world that is also of continuous usage.

Bowling continued to be popular over the years that it even got banned a few times. In 1366, King Henry III outlawed the game as his troops became so engrossed in it that they neglected their archery training to spend time bowling. In 1477, King Edward IV expanded the rule and included closh which is the early form of croquet, kayles which used sticks instead of bowling balls, and two other games called ‘hand in’ and ‘hand out’ for the same reasons behind King Henry III’s edict.

The sport also became a status symbol along the way. During the reign of King Henry VIII, he virtually banned commoners from playing the sport. According to the rule, it distracted craftsmen from practicing their trade, opting to spend more time in the recreational activity instead. The law had an exception, however, and allowed the commonfolk to play bowling on Christmas.

He also taxed those who kept bowling greens, requiring them to pay a hefty fee of 100 pounds and put in restrictions that they’re only to be used for private games. He then also banned folks from playing bowling in open spaces like gardens or orchards. So from being a common pastime among peasants, bowling became an activity for only the elite.

It was around this time when the sport started to become standardized. Martin Luther, an influential figure in the Protestant Reformation movement, was an avid bowler. He determined that the optimal conditions for the game through experimentation.

Before his experiments, the number of pins can vary from 3 to 17, depending on who and where one is playing. He then determined that the optimal number of pins for the sport was nine. He also recommended that balls should be rolled to the pins when playing indoors. And when playing outside, depending on the roughness of the surface, the players can either roll or throw the balls at the pins.

The Dutch Ninepins

The rules mentioned above made the sport that we know a lot similar to the ancient game of ninepins. This was historically enjoyed by the Dutch, Swiss, and Germans. It involves nine pins, as the name suggests, on beds of clay and cinder. It was updated around 1200 AD when they added a single board as a lane. Three pins were set up in three rows and the goal was to knock them down using a ball. However, the corner pins proved to be impossible to hit, so they respotted them every time a ball is thrown.

As the sport became more popular, changes and developments were made accordingly. After the addition of the boards, they thought of creating a shelter for the spectators, participants, and the individual that fixed the pins after each throw as the sport was played outdoors. They also soon carved a small trough on one side of the lane which is pretty much similar to the modern gutter. They also soon started having the individual looking after the pins to call out the number of pins knocked down for scoring.

Bowling in America

When the Europeans started to move from England to America, bowling also naturally found its way to the new land. The Dutch were greatly credited for bowling becoming a pastime in the US, however, as the English continued to limit its people’s enjoyment of the sport. In New York, they regularly played at the Old King’s Arms Tavern in the 1670s.

In 1733, the Bowling Green was created on a Dutch cattle market. It became the first public park to survive to modern times and hosted many bowling games.

It’s not known when nine-pin bowling started in the US but it was outlawed in many parts of the country in the early half of the 1800s. The sport became associated with gambling, so it was banned. Soon enough tenpin bowling became an alternative and was allowed to grow.

Tenpin bowling was then advertised and promoted in newspapers starting around 1820. They became side attractions to business establishments and properties. It was only in 1840 when the first indoor bowling alley was opened in New York City, known as the Knickerbocker Alleys. Soon enough, with the help of German immigrants, New York became the center of bowling in the country.

A few decades later in 1875, the National Bowling Association or NBA was formed. They attempted to standardize the rules for tenpin bowling. They determined the standard ball size and distance between the pins and foul line but did not agree on other things. In 1895, the American Bowling Congress was formed and took on the task of the NBA. They then established the modern rules for tenpin bowling that is the basis of today’s rules.

History of Tenpin Bowling

As mentioned above, nine-pin bowling was pretty much the standard in the US when it got big during the 1700 and 1800s. However, due to its association with gambling, the sport was banned altogether. Some say that to circumvent the rule, they added another pin to the mix which created tenpin bowling.

Many argue to the merit of this claim but some experts find it to be a reasonable enough explanation. Oddly enough, this version of the sport was allowed to grow that it even became the very commonly enjoyed type of bowling in the country.

History of Duckpin Bowling

Like the history of tenpin bowling, the history of duckpin bowling is also greatly disputed. It’s said that it has been invented in the 1890s in Boston, Massachusetts while others say that it started in Baltimore, Maryland in the early 1900s. Nonetheless, it was not considered as an organized sport until the National Duckpin Bowling Congress (NDBC) was formed in 1927.

History of Candlepin Bowling

Another kind of bowling that is enjoyed today is candlepin bowling. It’s primarily played in the Canadian Maritime provinces and uses tall, narrow pins that look like candles. It’s believed to have originated in Worcester, Massachusetts in 1880.

History of Bowling Balls

The history of bowling balls is just as murky as the history of the sport. If you’ll believe the claims that the sport was enjoyed in ancient Egypt, then the stone balls unearthed by archaeologists should be considered as the earliest bowling balls.

Sometime along the way, bowling balls were then made from Lignum vitae which is a type of hardwood. It was then modernized by the Brunswick Corporation in the late 1800s when they started making rubber bowling balls. These rubber bowling balls were used until the 1970s when hard polyester balls were created then followed by the creation of urethane balls in the 1980s. A decade later, the design of their cores was improved, giving us the different kinds of modern bowling balls that we love today.

Final Word

The history of bowling may not necessarily be as clear as one would hope but it’s not really a bad thing. It even makes the sport all the more interesting since it holds so much history and manifests great improvement. We hope this quick history lesson on the sport motivates you all the more to enjoy the sport and get better at it.

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I'm Jeffrey D. Tillman a Blogger born and raised in North Carolina. Enjoying bowling in leisure time is definitely a good habit that I have kept since 2010. With that experience, I hope you will find some interesting stuff about bowling on this website.

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