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The History of Bowling: Background information when reading Bowlaway

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by Elizabeth McCracken

Bowlaway by Elizabeth McCracken X
Bowlaway by Elizabeth McCracken
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  • First Published:
    Feb 2019, 384 pages

    Nov 2019, 384 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Sarah Tomp
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About this Book

The History of Bowling

This article relates to Bowlaway

Print Review

Women bowling in dresses 1915Bowling as a sport is arguably more familiar than it is popular. Top competitors and heroes of the sport are not typically household names, yet most people have a basic understanding of how it's played. Even without famous athletes promoting it, bowling is a steady component of modern culture. However, there has been a decline in its popularity since the 1970s (having reached its peak in the 1950s-60s). From 1998-2013, the number of bowling alleys in the U.S. fell from 5,400 to 3,976 (a 26% decrease).

Accessibility has always been part of bowling's appeal. For a relatively inexpensive cost, the same venue and tools are used by competitive and casual bowlers, sometimes even side-by-side. Although it does not have the same spectator draw as other professional sports, such as football, basketball and baseball, bowling alleys are popular venues in many communities, and attract ordinary people looking for an inside activity that can entertain friends and families with a range of ages and skills. There's a certain nostalgia wrapped up in bowling, with parents remembering their own childhood experiences as they bring their children to throw a heavy ball down a long wooden lane.

Game pieces discovered in the tomb of an Egyptian child are believed to be proof that a form of bowling existed as early as 3200 BC. Ancient Polynesians also played a game called ula maika, which involved throwing balls at pins from 60 feet away. Early German Christians participated in a religious rite where participants threw a stone at a kegel—a defense club weapon—in order to cleanse themselves of sin. Their clubs evolved into pins, and even today bowlers may be called "keglers." In 1366, King Edward III outlawed bowling among his troops when the game began to distract the soldiers from archery practice. Interestingly, the evidence of bowling's popularity over the years is marked by its repeatedly being banned or outlawed, at times due to ties with gambling.

Many variations of the game were developed throughout Europe and the Netherlands, with participants using varying numbers of pins, anywhere from three all the way up to 17. By the early to mid-1800s, Nine-pins was the game in vogue. Although the origin of Ten-pin bowling is disputed, it was prevalent in America by the end of the 19th century. In 1895, the American Bowling Congress was organized in New York City. The Women's International Bowling Congress began in 1916. These organizations set the modern standards and rules for bowling as a sport.

Candlepin bowling pinsCandlepin bowling, the style of play in Bowlaway, is primarily played in New England and Canada. In this version of the sport, the pins and balls are much lighter and smaller. Each player throws three balls per frame instead of the standard two. Pins are not cleared away between throws.

References to bowling abound in culture and media. One of the earliest mentions to bowling in serious American literature was in "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" by Washington Irving, as Rip Van Winkle wakes to the sound of "crashing ninepins." Bowling is featured prominently in movies like The Big Lebowski (1988) and Kingpin (1996), and the 2000-2004 NBC show Ed, which was centered around the people working in a bowling alley. Other popular television shows such as Parks and Recreation, Modern Family, The Big Bang Theory, and more have had episodes that take place in bowling alleys. It's such a common trope, there is even a quiz you can take to match the bowling scene to the TV show.

Most bowling alleys host league play for those looking to compete, and team names are notoriously humorous. Some popular examples include: King Pins, Lucky Strikes, We Don't Give a Split, Holy Rollers, Split Personalities, Les Miserabowls, Split Happens, and X Marks the Spot.

If you're a big fan of the sport, consider visiting The International Bowling Museum and Hall of Fame in Arlington, Texas.

Women bowling, 1915, courtesy of The International Bowling Museum and Hall of Fame
Candlepin bowling pins

Filed under Cultural Curiosities

Article by Sarah Tomp

This "beyond the book article" relates to Bowlaway. It originally ran in February 2019 and has been updated for the November 2019 paperback edition. Go to magazine.

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