Rolling a ball to knock down targets has been the object of a number of games, at various times and in various parts of the world. The implements for such a game have been found in an Egyptian tomb that's more than 7,000 years old, and a sort of bowling has been popular among Polynesian Islanders for at least several centuries.
But the modern sport of bowling, which seems distinctly American and very secular, probably grew out of a German religious ceremony.
In the 3rd century AD, every German peasant carried a Kegel, a club similar to the Irish shillelagh, for protection. It became a customary test of faith in many churches for the parishioner to set up his Kegel as a target, representing the heathen, and then roll a stone in an attempt to knock it down. If he succeeded, he was considered free of sin.
Bowling eventually moved out of the church and became a popular secular sport, with a wooden ball replacing the stone, replacing the single Kegel.
There are several references to bowling in Germany during the Middle Ages. Berlin and Cologne in 1325 set a limit on the amount that could be bet on a bowling match. A 1463 feast in Frankfurt featured bowling, along with a venison dinner. And the winner of a 1518 competition in Breslau was awarded an ox.
From Germany, the sport spread into Austria, Spain, Switzerland, and the Low Countries. Bowling also moved indoors, into covered sheds with lanes made of wood or sun-baked clay. These Kegelbahns, as they were called in Germany, were often associated with inns or taverns.
Bowling in America
Dutch in New Amsterdam were bowling at ninepins by 1650. In that form of bowling, which was widespread in Europe, the nine pins were arranged in a diamond, 1-2-3-2-1 pattern. The "alley" was frequently a plank, about a foot and a half wide and up to 90 feet long, so it took some skill simply to avoid what we would call a gutter ball.
Although English settlers brought lawn bowling (which doesn't use pins) and skittles, a form of ninepins, to the colonies, it seems likely that tenpins evolved from the Dutch sport.Connecticut banned ninepins in 1841 because of the gambling associated with the game. The story has often been written that a tenth pin was added to get around that law, but there's no substance to it. Actually, a town in New York had earlier prohibited tenpin bowling, also because it led to gambling.
The pins used during this period were tall and slender, much like modern candlepins. About 1850, the heavier, bottle-shaped pins were substituted to make scores higher. That eventually created a different sort of game, in which strikes and spares became paramount for the best bowlers.
Bowling was a very popular sport in New York City in the middle of the nineteenth century. A newspaper said there were more than 400 alleys in the city in 1850. It then declined for a time. One reason may have been that the larger pins made it too easy. The prevalence of gambling was another factor. Bowling, like billiards, was considered semi-respectable, at best.
When nine clubs from New York City and Brooklyn formed the National Bowling Association (NBA) in 1875, one of its purposes was to standardize rules. Just as important, though, the clubs wanted to eliminate gambling among their members.
The NBA didn't last long, but the rules its member clubs established are still the basic rules of bowling. A similar New York-based organization, the American Amateur Bowling Union, established in 1890, was also short-lived.
Meanwhile, German immigrants helped to popularize the sport in the Midwest, especially in Chicago, Cincinnati, Detroit, St. Louis, and Milwaukee. With inter-club and inter-league bowling on the increase, equipment and rules had to be standardized nationally.
As a result, the American Bowling Congress (ABC) was founded as a genuine national federation of clubs at Beethoven Hall in New York City on September 9, 1895. In 1901, 41 teams from 17 cities in 9 states competed in the ABC's first National Bowling Championships in Chicago. There were also 155 singles and 78 doubles competitors.
Under the leadership of the ABC, bowling quickly became both popular and respectable. Gambling was virtually eliminated—partly because of prize money offered not only by member leagues, but also in ABC-sanctioned regional and national competition.
As a result, women were attracted to bowling in large numbers. The Women's National Bowling Association, founded in 1916, conducted its first national championship the following year. The association was renamed the Women's International Bowling Congress (WIBC) in 1971.
Approximately 60 million people in the U.S. go bowling at least once a year. More important, about 7 million of them compete in league play sanctioned by the ABC and/or WIBC.
A steady stream of young bowlers has been a major reason for the sport's continuing popularity throughout this century. Bowlers of high school age and younger originally came under the jurisdiction of the American Junior Bowling Congress, an ABC affiliate. That organization was replaced in 1982 by the autonomous Young American Bowling Alliance (YABA), which sanctions league and tournament play of bowlers through college age.
Sweden was the first European country to take up American tenpin bowling, in 1909. The sport gradually spread through northern Europe. In 1926, the International Bowling Association was organized by teams from Denmark, Finland, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, and the United States. International tournaments were held in Sweden that year, in New York City in 1934, and in Berlin in 1936.
Bowling became popular in Great Britain during and after World War II, mainly because many alleys had been built on U.S. military bases. Beginning in the 1960s, the ABC worked with equipment manufacturers to promote the sport in Australia, Mexico and other Latin-American countries, and then in the Orient.
The Fédération Internationale des Quilleurs (FIQ), founded in 1952, now has more than 70 member nations. Headquartered in Helsinki, Finland, the FIQ has conducted world championship tournaments every four years since 1967.
Bowling was an exhibition sport at the 1988 Olympic Games in South Korea.
There was not always a clear distinction between amateur and professional bowlers, especially since amateurs are allowed to collect prize money. Most acknowledged professionals were instructors, but there were a few who toured the country, giving exhibitions or playing matches for money.
Three professionals were pretty well known to the public. Andy Varipapa, spent thirty years entertaining crowds throughout North America. He also won two consecutive All-Star tournaments, in 1946 and 1947.
Floretta McCutcheon was the sport's leading woman ambassador from 1927 through 1939, giving thousands of clinics, lessons, and exhibitions.
Best known of all was Ned Day, who not only toured but also did a very popular series of movie shorts during the 1940s. Millions of people saw the films in theaters and, later, in television reruns.
Day retired in 1958, the very year the Professional Bowlers Association (PBA) was founded. Under the leadership of Eddie Elias, the PBA set out to establish a regular tour of sponsored tournaments similar to the Professional Golf Association tour.
For several years, there were only three or four tournaments on the PBA tour, but the number grew rapidly during the 1960s, mainly because of television. To fit tournaments into TV time slots, Elias created the "stepladder" format that's still used in almost all PBA events.
Competitors first roll a series of qualifying games, with the top five finishers advancing into the stepladder round. The fifth- and fourth-place qualifiers bowl a match, with the winner advancing to bowl against the third-place qualifier.
And so it goes up the stepladder, until the survivor meets the first-place qualifier in the final match.
There are four major men's tournaments, the BPAA U.S. Open, the PBA National Championship, the Tournament of Champions, and the ABC Masters. Women have three majors, the BPAA U.S. Women's Open, the Sam's Town Invitational, and the WIBC Queens. A fourth major tournament, the WPBA National Championship, was discontinued after 1980.