Where Bowling Originated From + History
Updated: Dec 9, 2020
Bowling is a very popular leisure and sport activity that is played all around the world. In fact, it is so popular that the whole bowling industry is estimated to be worth 10 Billion USD according to Bowlers Journal. But you ever have ever wondered where has this simple yet satisfying sport originate from? I asked this question myself a few occasions, but never realised just how much rich history is associated with this sport, a sport that predates the first Olympic Games and even Jesus Christ. Let's answer this question together, and dive into the whirlpool that is bowling history!
Short Summary: The earliest forms of bowling were depicted in wall drawings in Ancient Egypt, though their variation of bowling differed from the conventional 10 pin games of today's time. Roman's adopted a similar activity to bowling, abiding more to the rules of modern day lawn bowl. Many people say that modern bowling had its roots in 300 CE Germany, while England holds the earliest known evidence of the sport the Southampton Bowling Green (still functioning to this day!). However, it was ultimately in America where the sport was commercialised.
The earliest mention of bowling in mankind were in Ancient Egypt wall paintings and hieroglyphs and in Egypt, tangible evidence was discovered by anthropologist Sir Flinders Petrie, who unearthed a grave of a child with a stone ball and other collections of items as he quoted,
“In a large grave of a child was found a group of stone balls, etc., shown in VII...Their original arrangement is quite unknown as they were found loose in the Earth...”.
The conclusion that the items in the grave were indeed bowling accessories, could be reinforced by the other items in the grave, that were “vase-shaped pieces”, with “circular flat ends”, indicative of a sort of primitive pin. If this was true, the lineage of bowing would go back as far as 3200BC.
In addition, Professor Edda Bresciani from the University of Pisa, unearthed one of, if not the oldest alleyways. The ancient hallway was discovered approximately 90km south of Cairo, and as the Professor puts it,
"We first discovered a room with a very well-built limestone floor. Then we noticed a lane and two stone balls,", clearly indicating some form of primitive bowling activity.
Sources claim that the balls of ancient games of bowling varied from country to country. Ancient Egypt commonly used stone balls, while others use balls made using husks of grain, covered by materials like leather and bound with string. Porcelain was also found to be used as a material for bowling balls, but due to their weight, practically it would be preferred to be rolled on the ground rather than thrown, with some resembling the "Jack" in modern games such as lawn bowl.
Like Ancient Egyptians, the Roman Empire, about 2000 years ago also had a taste for bowl games, believed to a form of Italian Bocce where Roman legionaries would toss stone objects as close as they could to other stone objects. Evidence lies in unearthed rounded balls in archaeological sites.
Other evidence of bowling games also appears in far flung locations such as Polynesia, ancient Aztecs and China.
Early examples of bowling also appeared in early Germany. In fact, a German historian called William Pehle, suggested that traces of modern bowling appeared in Germany around 300CE. During these times, bowling was not seen as the recreational and leisure activity it is today, but instead more of a ceremonious ritual.
In these ceremonies, monks would set up
pins known as a "Kegel" (Kegling is also another word for bowling) which were seen as evil demons and sins. The Kegel pins were wooden, but differed from the conventional pin, and looked kind of like a pepper shaker, with some having the name of the sin carved into it.
The participant, often called a parishioner, would launch a stone object at the Kegel in hopes of cleansing their spirits and cleaning their souls. If they successfully knocked down all the Kegels, they were branded non-sinners. If not, they had to attend services more often. It seems kind of cruel to punish people for their aim, but hey, times were different back then. But I'll give them this, bowling Kegel's is sure as hell more enjoyable than confessing.
Gradually over the centuries, people began to opt for the easier to work wood, instead of stone for bowling balls and pins.
Although the exact time period where bowling was introduced to England is unknown, but bowling as a sport grew very popular in England, with the oldest surviving bowling green dating to 1299. Sometime around this point, bowling broke off from the church and became a secular sport not just in England, but all throughout Europe. Popular belief says that King Edward II used to bowl, but used the rather unconventional cannonball (he must've been one strong guy!). The first official written mention of bowling in historical records was made by King Edward II in 1366, in his famous banning of the sport, when soldiers from the royal army, sources say according to the king, didn't spend enough time to practise their archery skills. Understandable, imagining the tensions that must've existed prior to the 100 year war.
Whatever the reason was, it's pretty amazing how such a simple game can make such a large impact.
When the 1400's came, the ban for bowling was lifted. Roofed bowling lanes began to appear around England, turning bowling into a sport that is able to be played regardless of weather. At this time, many variations of the sport were popping up all over Europe, including Austria, Switzerland, and the Low Countries. The number of pins varied from 3 to 17, as did the size of the ball and number of players. However, the goal was always the same; knock down as many pins as you can.
Although the game was played by everyone throughout the coming centuries, some individuals wanted to establish bowling as a sport only for the wealthy. Ridiculous if you ask me, anyone can just set up some targets in their backyard and bowl if they really wanted to. One of these individuals was none other than English king Henry VIII. An avid bowler himself, he decided to ban bowling in 1511 for lower classes, and even imposed a tax in private alleys to constrict it only for the wealthy. However, this was not enough to stop the common bowling lover to give up the game, and cases of secretly organised bowling began to show up.
Sometime in the 17th century, after bowling for lower classes got banned, settlers from Europe, namely Dutch, German and British, brought the game to America. The earliest evidence of bowling in America were depictions of Dutchmen playing some variation of bowling, specifically in an area called the "Bowling Green", that still survives to the present day. The classic 1819 Rip Van Winkle by Washington Irving was the first ever mention of bowling in American Literature. The Character Rip observed a group of ghostly Dutchmen bowling and describes the sound of "crashing nine pins". How cool is that, and did you notice that there were 9 pins instead of 10?
Well, since the sport of bowling slowly began to become more associated with gambling and drinking (flashbacks to early England anyone?), Connecticut decided to ban, not bowling itself, but "nine-pins". Kind of weird, and the bowlers had a rather humorous response to this, as they simply added an extra pin to make it "10-pin". However, a town in New York State called Perry, claimed they already passed a law to ban the game no matter the number of pins. The spirit of the bowlers were not broken, as they responded by simply organising the games outside the main parts of the city.
Some sources claimed it was the Germans that moved westward and various influences that caused, during the late 19th century, the popularity of bowling to skyrocketed. Talks of leagues to form, prompted the people to establish universal rules. 1875 saw the birth of the National Bowling Association, which created and enforced a set of standard rules. While they agreed on rules such as a 60ft distance from the foul line to the front pin, there were clashes in other rules like scoring. Standard rules also applied to bowling balls, where they decided on the size that all league bowlers have to use. It was because of some disagreements that, supposedly, splinter groups formed.
It wasn't long after this time that, in 1895, sources claim champion bowler Joe Thum worked together with the United Bowling Clubs, to eventually form the American Bowling Congress. This was a great leap in the history of bowling. A short time after this in 1917, the Women's International Bowling Congress was formed making bowling, a previously male played sport, universal. It was also the largest women's sports league in the world at that time.
The 20th century offered a large technological and popularity leap for bowling. New, advanced materials were used, specifically in the manufacture of bowling balls. Previously, bowling balls used to made predominantly of lignum vitae, an extremely hard wood product, but was upgraded to the rubber "Evertrue" ball in 1905. Around 10 years later, a new ball was introduced by the Brunswick Cooperation called the "Mineralite". Further changes were made to the sport when ,in 1952, the American Machine Foundry Company (AMF) created the first "pin spotter' called the AMF 82-10, an automatic pin setter which eliminated the use of people (previously known as "pin boys") for this job.
This time period, 1940-1960, was regarded as a type of golden age for bowling due to massive popularity and advancements for the sport never seen before. Around 1945, the bowling industry also became a billion-dollar industry, and during the mid-1950's, the first ever television broadcast of bowling was aired by NBC, called "Championship Bowling". 1954 saw the first ever world championship of bowling, which was located in the capital of Finland, and the birth of professional bowling was on 1958, when the Professional Bowlers Association (PBA) was created. During the later decades, accounting for scores manually deterred some people, especially because of the relatively complicated scoring system. However, It was sometime in the 1970's where automatic scorers were used, which only required inputting your name.
Not much has changed from now since this the golden age, apart from the general group formation here and there, and more alleys opening. Nowadays, bowling is enjoyed by nearly 100 million people all around the globe, with the most bowlers coming from USA, with nearly 65 million people bowling at least once annually. Because we don't need archery practise (I'm looking at you Kind Edwards II), we are able to enjoy bowling with our friends, and unlike lots of sports, enjoy an activity that is relaxing and practically risk-free.
The history of bowling is fascinating and is constantly being written. How awesome is it to think that every time you decide head over to your local bowling centre and knock some pins, you are throwing yourself in a ritual that has entertained humans since 3200BC. Being such a simple sport, it is kind of mind-blowing to imagine just how rich the history is.
However, despite the impossibility of obtaining data and sources of ancient games, would it be so far-fetched to suggest that some examples of crude bowling existed before ancient Egypt, dare I say, even the Stone Age? Something as simple as some boys rolling large rocks at another rock target. Perhaps examples of bowling trace back further but we just don’t know it, interesting to think about that's for sure!
Bowling is seeing a resurgence thanks to alleys opening since the lockdowns, and perhaps we'll see more people participating in the game than before!