Sunday, October 5, 2008

The Bowling Alley

When I was in my late teens and early twenties I spent many Friday nights in the bowling alley. That having been said, I must confess that I have never bowled in my life. My brother, a friend, and I would go there to play pool. I suppose it could be argued that I then used the local bowling alley more as a pool hall than the original purpose for which it was intended. That having been said, as discussed below, pool halls and bowling alleys do have a good deal in common.

That having been said, I was obviously exposed to bowling while playing pool at the bowling alley. And I have many friends who have bowled, as has my brother. In fact, I would dare say that it was probably almost impossible for most Baby Boomers and older Gen Xers like myself not to be exposed to bowling in the United States while young. The sport was at the peak of its popularity with the nation's middle class from the Fifties to the Seventies. There were bowling alleys across the United States. And bowling was a sport that was frequently mentioned in television shows and movies of the era (several characters from which did bowl).

The origins of bowling are shrouded in mystery. Some form of the sport, or at least a very similar sport, existed in ancient Egypt. In the Thirties, archaeologist Sir Flinders Petrie discovered what appeared to be bowling balls and pins in the grave of an Egyptian boy dated 5200 BCE. More recently, a room similar to a bowling alley was discovered just last year in Narmoutheos, Egypt. It was part of a larger building, that may have been used as a home. The room had a sturdy limestone floor and what looked like a bowling lane. The archaeologists also discovered two stone balls. Of course, it can be argued that the sport played in Egypt was not bowling (the archaeologists who discovered the alley in Narmoutheos think a similar game was played there, not necessarily our modern sport of bowling) and the game as we know it originated elsewhere. Of course, while a form of bowling may have existed in ancient Egypt, there is nothing to have kept it from developing independently elsewhere. After all, the idea of rolling a ball at upright pins to knock them down would seem to be a fairly obvious for a sport.

Indeed, a sport similar to lawn bowling existed in ancient Rome that would evolve into the modern Italian game of bocce. Some have argued that Roman soldiers spread the sport elsewhere, hence we have bowls or lawn bowling in the English speaking world, boules in France, and so on. Of course, an obvious criticism in tracing bowling back to ancient Rome and bocce is that in bocce there are no pins. In fact, in many ways it resembles pool as much as it does bowling. Quite simply, it involves hitting a ball with another ball (called the "jack" in English).

It is for that reason that others have looked for the origins of bowling elsewhere.The Brothers Grimm offered the theory that bowling originated among the Germanic tribes as a form of religious ritual. A contemporary, German historian William Pehle took this theory and ran with it. He claimed that bowling had originated among in 100 CE when the balls were actually used in battle. English historians would also argue for the origins of bowling among Germanic tribes. They claimed that Saint Boniface (also known as Wynfrith, his Saxon name--he was born in Wessex in what would become England) had helped develop bowling when he converted the pagan Saxons on the Continent around 700 CE. According to this theory Boniface told his converts that the pin represented the Devil, so that when a ball knocked over a pin a demon was killed.

While there is little evidence to support this theory (or the theories of the Brothers Grimm or William Pehle, for that matter), there can be no doubt that bowling has been popular in Germany for centuries. In the thirteenth century monks in Germany reportedly bowled as a tribute to Saint Boniface. In the fourteenth century when a mine shaft flooded and drowned many miners, ecclesiastical authorities claimed that God had punished the miners for wasting their time on the sport of bowling instead of more worthwhile pursuits. Bowling was banned in Frankfurt in 1443 and again in 1447 in a attempt to reduce gambling. Indeed, besides starting Protestantism, Martin Luther also made changes to bowling. He set the rules for the game, including the number of pins at nine (for those of you familiar with American bowling, I will explain why we use ten pins later...). Luther loved bowling and even had his own family bowling alley. If there is little doubt of the popularity of bowling among Germans through history, keep in mind that our word "kegling (a synonym for bowling)" comes from High German kegeln.

While we may not know the exact origins of bowling, the sport seems to have existed in England for centuries. Bowling appears to have existed there in some form since at least the 1100's. By the fourteenth century several forms of the game existed, including bowls, skittles, and ninepins. In fact, the game was so popular in England by that time that King Edward III banned bowling as a distraction to his troops. There are bowling greens in use in the United Kingdom that still exist from that time, such as the lawn at Crowne Green in Southampton, England and the skittles lane at the Sheep Head Inn in Edinburgh, Scotland. It was in 1455 that the first bowling alley was built in London. Henry VIII was one of the English kings who loved bowling. He actually had his own alley built at Whitehall Palace in 1532. Of course, he also thought of the game as a sport for the wealthy and aristocrats. He decreed that one needed to make an yearly income of £1000 in order to legally bowl. Sir Francis Drake and Francis Bacon were also avid bowlers. In 1670 King Charles I standardised the rules for bowling, reputedly because he wanted to even the odds of the sport to prevent losing even more money gambling on it.

When the British and Dutch colonised North America, they brought bowling with them. In 1611, Captain James Smith returned to Jamestown in Virginia to find the colonists were starving to death, but had enough time to still enjoy bowling. He promptly banned the game, making it punishable by three weeks in the stocks. Bowling was first played in New York City before it was New York City--the Dutch were bowling in New Amsterdam as early as 1623. In the early days of the North American colonies most bowling took place outside, but it would not be long before the game moved from outdoors to indoors. The first indoor bowling alley, Knickerbockers, was built in New York City in 1840. To a small degree in the 19th century United States bowling was somewhat respectable. Outdoor bowling greens were popular at summer resorts before the War Between the States, so that even a few Southern belles would engage in the sport (and as every good Southerner knows, a belle does nothing unladylike). Some of the first bowling alleys were to be found in the upscale gentlemen's clubs such as those in New York City and Boston. Even some of the wealthy elite had their own private bowling alleys built in their homes in the late 19th century, including George Vanderbilt and R. J. Reynolds. And while Southern belles bowled before the War Between the States, during the Gilded Age high society women would often attend bowling matches and even play in them.

The popularity of bowling grew even more with the influx of German immigrants in the 1840's and 1850's. Nearly any cultural centre or gymnasium operated by German Americans was bound to include a bowling alley. In fact, it was in New York City that German Americans founded the first bowling clubs in the United States, although they were more akin to fraternal groups like the Oddfellows than modern day bowling leagues. It was also German Americans who were responsible for organising the first regional bowling association in the United States. The United Bowling Clubs of New York was founded in 1885 in New York City. It seems the German immigrants brought their love of kegling with them.

While bowling was to some degree respectable in the 19th century, played by aristocrats and held in high regard by German Americans, at the same time it would become somewhat disreputable. In the 19th century United States, the vast majority of bowling alleys were housed in saloons. While fine Southern gentlemen might bowl at a summer resort in New Orleans, the common man might be bowling in the local tavern. In Chicago the two first bowling alleys were located in saloons. These two Chicago saloons are also prime examples of how bowling was often used as encouragement for patrons to buy liquor. For every two beers a customer bought, he could bowl one free game. As late as 1918 the majority of bowling alleys in the United States were still housed in saloons. That year a survey of bowling alleys in Toledo revealed that half were housed in taverns, while the rest were situated very near taverns.

Indeed, the strong link between bowling and saloons can be seen in the evolution of the Brunswick-Balke-Collender Company (now Brunswick Corporation). Founded in 1845 in Cincinnati, Ohio with the intent of making carriages, the company soon switched to making billiards tables. Of course, like bowling, pool was generally a sport practised at saloons in 19th century North America. Because their primary customers were saloon owners, the Brunswick-Balke-Collender Company soon expanded into the manufacture of bowling balls, bowling pins, and bowling alleys. They soon not only dominated the pool table trade, but the bowling equipment trade as well. Today Brunswick Corporation remains the top in the field when it comes to both bowling and billiards equipment, although they would eventually expand into boats, boat engines, and fitness equipment.

Naturally, bowling in 19th century and early 20th century North America was primarily a man's sport. Since the vast majority of bowling alleys were located in often dark and dingy saloon, most women in the middle and lower class did not engage in the sport as they would have had to venture into a tavern do so--something no honest woman of the era would do. Since bowling alleys were generally located in taverns, bowling alleys developed a reputation quite similar to that of pool halls. They were regarded as places frequented by gamblers, criminals, and other outcasts. Naturally, then, many bookies operated out of bowling alleys, not only taking bets on the bowling and billiards games there, but also taking bets on the latest boxing matches, horse races, and other sporting events. The seedy reputation that bowling alleys developed would naturally result in regulations. Most cities required bowling alley owners to have a licence to operate their business. Other cities would even go so far as to ban minors from bowling alleys and even restrict the hours during which they could be open.

It was because of the fact that bowling alleys were most often located in taverns and associated with the seedier elements of society in 19th century America that the sport here would change forever. From its earliest days in Jamestown and New Amsterdam, ninepin bowling was the most common form played here in North America. It was in 1841 that the state of Connecticut banned ninepin bowling due to its association with bowling and criminals. The ban did not stop people from bowling, however, as they simply added a tenth pin, making the game perfectly legal under the Connecticut law. This is why Americans play tenpin bowling, even though ninepin bowling continues to be dominant in Europe. The rules of bowling would be regularised in 1895 with the organisation of the American Bowling Congress at Beethoven Hall in New York City. The American Bowling Congress would eventually establish rules for the game and encouraged both tournaments and national competitions. Eventually the rules established by the American Bowling Congress would become the nationwide standard for tenpin bowling in the United States.

It would not be either the regulations laid down by municipalities and states regarding bowling alleys that would force them to clean up their act or the American Bowling Congress's standardisation of the rules, but instead the 18th Amendment to the United States Constitution, which prohibited the sale and manufacture of alcohol in the United States. Without liquor to draw in patrons, many bowling alleys closed during Prohibition. Those that stayed in business were forced to change the very nature of their establishments. Lighting was improved considerably, a sharp contrast to the days of the dimly tavern bound alleys. Walls were painted so that they would be more attractive. Where previously water pipes and water drains might be exposed, they were now covered. Many would even go so far as to soundproof their bowling alleys. Because liquor was no longer available to draw in patrons, many owners would expand the number of lanes in their bowling alleys. Quite simply, Prohibition facilitated the development of the modern bowling alley.

That is not to say that the cleaner, more brightly lit bowling alleys of the Prohibition Era were quite the same as the ones we know today. The automatic pinsetter had not yet been invented, so that young men called pinboys were required to set the pins back up after each strike. Bowling balls had once been made from wood, but the Brunswick-Balke-Collender Company introduced balls made of vulcanised rubber in 1905 and later in 1914 the Mineralite Ball, made of a much sturdier rubber. The urethane or plastic bowling ball was a few years in the future.

Regardless, changes in bowling equipment would come very quickly in the mid-Twentieth century that would create the bowling alley as we know it. In 1936 a fellow named Gottfried Schmidt invented the automatic pinsetter in his garage. The American Machine and Foundry Company (now best known as AMF) bought the rights to Schmidt's invention. It had its first public demonstration in 1946 at the American Bowling Congress championships. It was in 1951 that the first machine for public use was installed in Michigan. In 1952 the automatic pinsetter was put into mass production. Pinboys were a thing of the past. It was around 1960 that bowling ball manufacturers introduced polyester resin bowling balls. Joseph R. Infantino of AMF would further revolutionise the bowling ball. He developed a hard plastic called Surlyn in the late Sixties to coat bowling balls and thus make them more durable. He would also develop the urethane bowling ball, which has more traction.

Between the cleaning up of bowling alleys and the many technological improvements made to the game from the Forties to the Sixties, bowling soon entered the height of its popularity, from the post-War period well into the Sixties. So popular would the sport become that the Professional Bowlers Association was founded in 1958. Bowling would also regularly be featured on network television (primarily on the American Broadcasting Company), and the Pro Bowlers Tour would be an annual television tradition for many, many years. A spate of bowling oriented shows appeared on television during the era, including Bowling for Dollars and Celebrity Bowling.

Of course, perhaps the greatest testament to the sport's popularity was that for many middle class families it became a weekly ritual. Many Americans belonged to bowling leagues and participated in the game regularly. It is for that reason that bowling figures in many of the television shows of the Fifties and Sixties. Regular viewers of The Flintstones will recall that Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble were avid bowlers. On The Andy Griffith Show, Mayberry had its own bowling league of which Andy was a member. On All in the Family Archie Bunker was also an avid bowler. Bowling figured on such varied shows as The Honeymooners, Mr. Peepers, The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet, Pete and Gladys, The Dick Van Dyke Show, Get Smart (yes, even the intelligence agency CONTROL had a bowling team...), Batman (among a jury the Mad Hatter was kidnapping was a bowling alley owner...), That Girl, Happy Days, and Cheers

Bowling has not figured quite so much in motion pictures, although it has appeared there from time to time. Those who have seen the classic, 1932 gangster movie Scarface may recall the victim who was gunned down in a bowling alley. A bowling alley also figured in the 1939 classic Angels Wash Their Faces. The 1942 Joe E. Brown comedy The Daring Young Man featured bowling. The 1942 Tom and Jerry cartoon "The Bowling Alley Cat" was set in a bowling alley. OF course, everyone probably remembers that Ralph's dad in A Christmas Story received among his gifts a bowling ball. Bowling, bowling balls, or bowling alleys would also figure in some fashion in such movies as Road House (1948), A Streetcar Named Desire, Cape Fear (1962), Five Easy Pieces, The Deer Hunter, Mystery Men, and There Will Be Blood. Curiously, despite the sport's popularity during from the late Forties to the early Seventies, movies which centre primarily upon bowling would not appear until later. Racing With the Moon came out in 1982. Ruby's Dream, a small film about a bowling alley, was released in 1992. Kingpin was released in 1996. The cult classic The Big Lebowski was released in 1998. When it came to America's love affair with bowling during the Fifties and Sixties, it would seem the movie industry entirely missed the boat.

Starting in the Seventies, bowling began to decline in popularity. Eventually bowling would no longer be seen on Saturday and Sunday afternoons on the American television networks, exiled to the netherworld of the cable sports channels. Many bowling alleys around the country closed. I myself remember that Columbia used to boast many bowling alleys when I was growing up. I am not absolutely sure, but it now boasts only one or two (keep in mind this is a city of around 90,000 people we are talking about). That is not to say that bowling does not remain a popular sport. There are still many people in the United States who still bowl--to this day the Community Lanes remains popular in Moberly. Regardless, there can be no denying that the sport is not as popular as it once was in the Fifties and Sixties.

Even though I have never bowled in my life, I have found memories of my trips to the bowling alley to play pool. There was something reassuring about watching people roll the balls at the pins while waiting for my turn at the pool table, something reassuring about the pins being knocked down. And I must confess, I watched many a bowling match on television when I was growing up in the Sixties and Seventies. It was one of the very few sports, besides hockey, soccer (as Americans seem to insist on calling football), and American football. I must confess, it looks like it would be a very fun game to play. I suppose someday I should gather up some friends and make a trip to the local bowling alley for a night of kegling. I certainly wouldn't be the first American to do so.


dennis said...

Dennis cannot recall seeing but one bowling alley in all of the five boroughs, but then he wasn't looking for them. Pool Halls, yes, many many ... but bowling alleys --just a little one in Manhattan called Bowlmore. The pool halls were tough "fighty" places, so Dennis didn't go often or without a lot of other 'backup' cats.

dennis said...

Dennis thinks Sir Flinders Petrie would be a swell name for a cat! This history was quite interesting.