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History of Bowling


Bowling may authentically and truthfully trace its history back over 7000 years. Sir Flinders of Petrie, emeritus professor of Egyptology at the University of London, while examining the contents of the grave of an Egyptian child, discovered implements for playing a game decidedly similar to our modern tenpins. The date of this Egyptian child’s burial has been authentically placed at 5200BC.

This is the oldest accurately known form of bowling.

Research by Dr. Malcolm Rogers, hear curator of the San Diego museum, divulges that the Polynesians (inhabitants of the South Sea Islands), participated in an ancient game of bowling, in which small elliptical balls and round, flat discs, about 3.5” to 4” diameter, of stone were used. One rule of this game, called ‘ULA MAIKA’, set the distance, the stones were to be bowled, at 60 feet; the identical specification used in Tenpin Bowling.


It is absolutely impossible to secure, even though careful research, accurate data of the ancient game of bowling or ‘bowls’. Some hazard the gesture that the men and boys of the Stone Age started one form of bowling by rolling large pebbles and rocks at a row of painted stones or cones which had a flat base.

According to some authorities, its place of origin in Europe can quite definitely be placed in what is today Northern Italy. The Helvetii, living in the Alpine regions during Caesar’s time (50BC) were said to have played a game similar to the present day Italian game called ‘BOCCIE’.


The ancient chronicles of Paderborn reveal that the first bowling was done in cloisters of cathedrals. It was the custom of the canons to have parishioners, in turn, place their pins at one end of the cloister. This represented the ‘Heide’ meaning heathen. The parishioner then was given a ball, and asked to throw it at the ‘Heide’. If a hit was scored, it indicated that the thrower was leading a clean and pure life and was capable of slaying the heathen; if he missed, it meant that a more faithful attendance at services would help his aim. At the conclusion of all such tests a dinner was given and the successful ‘Kegelers’ were praised and toasted. The failures were encouraged to try a little later on. All of this, according to the findings of Pehle, had its origins as early as the third or fourth centuries AD.

400 to 1500AD

Whilst some authorities have only been able to trace the game back to the 12th century, Strutt, in his ‘Sports and Pastimes of the People of England’, hold that the game probably originated during the Middle Ages (400 to 1500AD). In 1300 only 3 pins were used in some parts of Germany: in others the number scaled as high as 17, which was the rule on Silesia for many generations.

William Fitzstephen in his ‘Survey of London’, a work written in Latin at about the end of the 12th Century, is the first authority that we have on the subject of the national games, as played in England at this period, and although it is possible that similar games have been played by other nations, both east and west, and throughout all ages, even the hieroglyphics of the ancient Babylonians and Egyptians depict games with balls, yet so far as the English game of bowls is concerned, this constitutes the first possible reference to the game.

Martin Luther was an enthusiastic bowler. Experiments convinced him that nine pins made an ideal game and this finally settled upon as the standard for the game in Germany. When played indoors, the ball was rolled at the pins; when played outdoors, if the surface was rough, a player was permitted to choose between rolling and throwing at the pins.

Although all these games had their part in the development of the modern game, it is probable that the one to which the sport of today is most closely allied is the ancient game of ninepins. This game, originally played by the Dutch as well as the Germans and the Swiss, was bowled upon beds of clay cinders. It is certain that originally all these games were outdoor pastimes, played in the open air. Later about 1200 AD as the game became more popular, a single board about 12 to 18 inches wide and about twenty or thirty yards in length was used as the lane bed. Pins were set up, three pins in each of three rows, on a board platform from 36 to 48 inches square. It was naturally impossible to hit any of the corner pins, so the pins were respotted after each ball was delivered. From time to time various improvements were made, such as providing a shelter over each end of the lane for the participants and spectators on one end, and for the individual or boy who stood by the frame to set up the pins which were bowled down. Later a small trough was placed on one side of the lane with a gradual descent from the pins to the bowlers. The pin-boy called out the number of pins beaten down which was credited to the score of the bowler. Here we find the origin of the ball return.

Finally many decided to enclose the entire lane, so here we have the origin of the indoor bowling lane, the first of which is understood to have opened in London in 1455 AD.


Whilst the game, through its different forms, continued to be developed in many in many countries the first evidence of bowling in the Americas is c1650 by the findings of a reproduction of a painting in the Bettimann Archives in New York City which depicts the Dutch bowling at pins on Bowling Green, New York. In British North America bowls first saw the light in Novia Scotia. In 1734 an enclosure was reserved as a green for the officers if the garrison of Annapolis (Port Royal).

The first appearance of ninepins in America is unknown but by about 1820 it had become generally acceptable to those who were interested in bowling. According to sports writers and sports historians, gamblers had control of the game by about 1850. Before this, in 1841, ninepin was banned by the state of Connecticut and this action also followed in many states until ninepin was illegal everywhere in the United States.

The actual origins of Tenpin are unknown, although it is thought to have come into being between 1820 and 1830. The legislators of Connecticut, Massachusetts and New York, for some reason permitted, Tenpin to grow.

From the Western Bowlers Journal Bowling Encyclopaedia the game was at its zenith in America in the 1840’s, and in New York, bowling lanes existed on nearly every block on Broadway. During the 1860’s, and through the persistence of the German population, the game continued to flourish. At the same time finger holes were cut in the 9” balls and popularity grew with bowling clubs and tournaments being organised.

First uniform specifications and rules were attempted in 1875 when 27 delegates. Chosen from nine bowling clubs, met in Germania Hall in the Bowery and organised the National Bowling Association. This body realised the necessity for a revision of the rules of the game of bowling and immediately appointed three of their number, gentlemen who were considered expert bowlers of that time, and who were known as great jurists of the laws of the game. These gentlemen were duly authorised by the main body to revise the rules of the game, draft new laws, and to submit their action to the larger body at a future meeting of the then new ‘National Bowling Association’. The results of this expert committee’s action were to place restrictions on the length of the lanes, or rather the distance from the centre of the head pin spot to the bowler’s end of the lane, so the bowlers when delivering the ball be restrained under penalty from going beyond a definite point or deadline; restrictions in the size of the balls; require dead wood to be removed from the lanes, and to declare all balls bowled in the gutter to be dead. The deadline was made to measure 60’ from the centre of the head pin spot to the bowlers’ end of the lane or foul line as it is now called. The pins which were in common use at this time measured 17” in length, 161/2” in circumference at the thickest part, and 2” at the bottom. Great vredit is due to this first Association: the revision of rules and specifications are responsible for the advancement and popularity of American Tenpins. The National Bowling Association was limited in scope, lacked appeal and failed to make good. It was followed in 1890 by the ‘American Amateur Bowling Union’. This organisation likewise soon disintegrated because of limitations, lack of initiative and foresight.


Despite the dissolution of the National Bowling Association and the American Amateur Bowling Union, there remained a definite need for a governing organisation for the bowling game known then as American Tenpins. In September 1895, a group of men met at the Beethoven Hall in New York City to form such an organisation. This group voted to call itself the ‘American Bowling Congress’ and the foresight and leadership of these pioneers is reflected today as the ABC has grown into one of the sports world’s most respected organisations.

Having established rules for Tenpins, these men remained firm in seeing that these rules were enforced. By dealing in a strict but fair manner with problems the ABC quickly earned the respect of all those who enjoyed the tenpin sport. In those early days bowlers banded together into clubs. The met for weekly intra-club competition and then there were many exciting matches between rival clubs. While the heaviest concentration of such clubs was again among the German settlement in New York, the game also had its devotees in other leading cities across the nation. Leaders of the game in these other cities adopted the rules of the American Bowling Congress and came to the ABC conventions to lend support and pass along their ideas to improve the game and the organisation.

The popularity of the game continued to grow and the founding fathers of the congress realised their role as governing body of the game, but also recognised the value of freedom of operation at the club or league level and their basic philosophy remains today. ABC leagues have a great deal of freedom of operation as long as they do not violate any playing rules of the ABC. Also the value of local organisations was recognised by the national body and today there are 3,000 such local ABC associations throughout the United States.