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The first White House bowling alley was a gift given to President Harry Truman. It was two lanes installed in the basement of the White House, later moved by President Dwight Eisenhower to the old Executive Office Building. The original alley was converted into the Situation Room in 1961 by a team of Navy Seabees. In 1969, avid bowler Richard Nixon installed a one-lane bowling alley beneath the North Portico. Sharp-eyed viewers will remember the scene from The Big Lebowski, where The Dude is making a White Russian beneath a poster of Dick Nixon bowling alone in the White House basement.

Bowl

As a noun, we use the word bowl to describe a round, shallow vessel that holds liquids or foods; a low area surrounded by mountains; and annual college football events such as the grandaddy of them all, the Rose Bowl. As a verb, to bowl means to roll a ball at targets in an attempt to knock them over.

Over

In cricket, an over is defined as six legal overhand deliveries by a bowler from one end of the pitch to the batsman at the other end, 66 feet away, with the added requirment that the ball must bounce off the ground first. The goal of the batsmen is to prevent the ball from hitting the wicket. The fastest cricket bowl was thrown by Shoaib Akhtar, a Pakistani professional, and clocked at 100 miles per hour.

Bowl over

Its original meaning is to knock down, as one does the pins in any game of rolling balls at targets. When someone is knocked down by another running into them, the one on the ground is said to have been bowled over. Over time, the phrase came to mean to be overwhelmed and astonished, especially in a pleasant way. Poetically, when someone is bowled over, they are head over heels (in love). This idiom made more sense in its original form, heels over head, describing the state of being upside down, certainly the more logical version.

No one invented bowling

As is the case with so many inventions, bowling evolved gradually over the centuries and across cultures. Rules, tools, and objectives all came together in what we call bowling.

  • Egyptians bowled with stone balls 3,000 years before the birth of Christ. The targets were nine cylindrical stones, called pins because they resembled stiff pieces of wire standing on end.
  • Roman soldiers rolled stone balls toward smaller balls, attempting to get as close to them as possible. The Italian version is called bocce and the French call it pétanque.
  • in 50 AD, Germans played a form of the game as part of a religious ceremony. Parishioners tried to knock over a pin with a smooth round stone. If worshippers were successful, they were cleansed of their sins.

As the story goes . . .

King Edward III banned the game in 1361 when his troops spent so much time bowling that they neglected their archery practice. The same story is told about golf, when that game was banned by King James II for the same reason. 

The ban was reversed for a time, until Henry VIII declared that henceforth, only the wealthy would be allowed to bowl. The sole exception was Christmas day, the only time commoners could play without being arrested. Writing in MentalFloss, journalist and author Joan Vos MacDonald tells us this delightful tidbit: In 1618 King James banned bowling on Sundays but did allow dancing and archery as long as one attended a church service beforehand.

How many pins?

Bowling games in different countries were played with as many as 17 pins and as few as three. Martin Luther (1483-1546) was a bowler and the man who set the standard at nine pins. The game was played with nine pins for hundreds of years, until those pesky Americans changed it to ten pins.

Why did tenpins replace ninepins as the bowling game of choice in the U.S.?

In the mid-1800s, the game of ninepins was associated with drunkenness, roughnecks, gambling, and crime. As the legend goes, the state of Connecticut banned ninepin bowling alleys. Tenpins was invented to get around that law.

Lawn bowling on the green

Bowling had been an outdoor sport for centuries. When people bowled on smooth grass surfaces, the field became known as a bowling green. The first Bowling Green, was a small public park in Manhattan’s financial district, near Battery Park and the Staten Island Ferry. In 1733, it was developed as an open recreational space with trees, walking paths, a statue of King George,* and a bowling green.

 

Bowling’s Golden Age

Bowling’s popularity grew as balls and lane conditions were improved through the 1950s. SkilledBowlers.com says the key to rapid growth was the formation of the Professional Bowlers Association and the PBA Tour in 1958. 

Because bowling was so popular in those days, television networks aired competitions with cash prizes. Television gave us a nearly-forgotten game show called Bowling for Dollars, further promoting the game. Industry spokespeople said bowling had a resurgence in popularity when it was positioned as a family game played in clean, well-lit, suburban surroundings.

Evolution of bowling materials

  • The balls: First made of stone, then Lignum vitae, an extremely hard wood. Then rubber, plastic, urethane, and resin.
  • The pins: From stone to solid wood, laminated wood, lacquered wood, and today’s version. made of shredded wood mixed with a bonding agent and formed under pressure into the familiar bottle-shape of today.
  • The lanes: Clay, dirt, and grass gave way to laminated strips of wood with plastic overlays. Most modern lanes are made of fiberglass or urethane.

Pin boys

Also called pin spotters, pinboys (a few men, but mostly boys) cleared fallen pins, manually reset them, and returned the ball to the bowler by rolling it back in a separate channel. Pin boys sat on a ledge behind the pins and jumped down into the pit to perform their tasks. Injuries were common because there was nothing to protect them from flying pins.

Pinsetters

The first automatic pinsetter** came along in 1936, It was nine feet tall and weighed two tons. As the machines were improved, bowling alleys everywhere adopted the new technology. In the 1950s, pin setting machines were mechanical contraptions straight out of Rube Goldberg. The machines did most of the work, but still required humans to manually collect the pins and load them into the racks. As refinements were made, automatic pinsetters put the pinboys out of work. 

Have you heard about string pinsetters?

In an effort to save more money on machines and mechanics, string pinsetters were approved for league play in 2023. Rather than all the complicated mechanics associated with pinsetters, strings are attached to the top of the bowling pins to simplify the operation. Opinions are divided on whether or not the string system interferes with the game. Each shows data to support its contentions.

In the mid-1960s, there were 12,000 bowling alleys in the U.S.

Bowling has been in steady decline ever since. Today there are only half as many bowling alleys, half as many league bowlers, and half as many frequent bowlers. Association spokespeople tell us that the game is on the rise again, especially with young bowlers drawn to glow-in-the-dark alleys with glowing pins and balls, flashing lights, loud music, and a video-game feel.

*  *  *

* During the early days of the American Revolution, angry citizens knocked down the statue of King George in Bowling Green Park, melted the metal, and turned it into musket balls for the Continental Army.

** Watch a 1:43 video of the first automatic electric pin setter in action here.

Bonus

Here are a few movies that feature bowling as one of the plot devices. Click on any or all to watch the official film trailer. A League of Ordinary Gentlemen, Alley Cats, Alley Cats Strike, Dreamer, The Big Lebowski, Kingpin.

The International Bowling Museum & Hall of Fame

Located in Arlington, Texas, near the Six Flags amusement park, the Museum is open Tuesday through Friday and parking is free. Visit the gift shop for an assortment of bowling-themed shot glasses, coffee mugs, refrigerator magnets, travel mugs, and apparel.

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