History of bowling

Fact. More than 67 million people in the United States bowl during a year.

Fact. More than 1.2 million people compete regularly in league play certified by the United States Bowling Congress. Staff at USBC Headquarters in Arlington works closely with its more than 1,600 local and state associations to serve league bowlers.

Bowling has soared into the upper echelon of sports, setting a steady pace by blending strong organization with modern centers in which to participate. Although the sport now appeals to people from all walks of life, entering a bowling center today would give few clues to its origin.

Bowling has been traced to articles found in the tomb of an Egyptian child buried in 5200 B.C. The primitive implements included nine pieces of stone at which a stone "ball" was rolled, the ball having first to roll through an archway made of three pieces of marble.

Another ancient discovery was the Polynesian game of ula maika, also utilizing pins and balls of stone. The stones were to be rolled at targets 60 feet away, a distance which today still is one of the basic regulations of tenpins.

Bowling at pins probably originated in ancient Germany, not as a sport but as a religious ceremony. Martin Luther is credited with settling on nine as the ideal number of pins.

The game moved throughout Europe, the Scandinavian countries, and finally to the United States, with the earliest known reference to bowling at pins in America made by author Washington Irving about 1818 in "Rip Van Winkle."

The game was being played throughout the world and rules were different almost everywhere. Even basic equipment was not the same. In fact, why and when the extra pin was added from the European game of ninepins to the American game of tenpins still is a mystery.

Regardless of how the game came into being, it became so popular by mid-19th century indoor lanes were being built throughout Manhattan and the Bronx and on westward, in Syracuse, Buffalo, Cincinnati, Chicago, Milwaukee and other cities with large German populations.

In 1875, delegates from nine bowling clubs in New York and Brooklyn met in Germania Hall in the Bowery and organized the National Bowling Association. This was the first attempt to bring order out of chaos.

Disagreement raged between East and West, principally the alignment of New York State bowlers against everyone else to the west. On Sept. 9, 1895, the American Bowling Congress was organized in Beethoven Hall in New York City.

A group of 40 women, encouraged by proprietor Dennis J. Sweeney of St. Louis, met at Sweeney's establishment in 1916 and formed what was known as the Women's International Bowling Congress.


ABC's roots can be traced to many people. One was Thomas Curtis, who became ABC's first president and chaired several historic meetings that produced an organization that succeeded where others had failed.

The adoption of rules at the Sept. 9, 1895 meeting in New York's Beethoven Hall, and most important, the distribution of nearly 1,000 copies by mail to bowling groups in many parts of the United States, was the move which created interest and trust in the fledgling group. Within a few months, there were members in Buffalo, New York; Cincinnati; Lowell, Massachusetts; Boston; Chicago; St. Louis; Wheeling, West Virginia; Kansas City and Quebec.

After that, representatives of local, state and provincial associations like these have annually met in convention to review rules and consider proposed changes. Also elected were officers and directors, all of whom serve voluntarily and without pay. The only exceptions were the executive director and assistant director, who oversaw the home office staff.

Service was ABC's aim since its early days. Service began when a league formed and applied for sanction. The sanction, with membership cards distributed to each bowler, gives ABC a record of its membership and entitled the league and its members to the following services:

• Automatic bonding to protect bowler funds from theft, burglary and misuse.
• Awards for every level of achievement from 300 games to 700 and 800 series to league champions, most improved league bowlers and those who bowl a game of 100 and a series of 150 or more pins above or more pins above average
• Essential tools for league officers including rulebooks, schedules, handicap charts, average calculators and other aids
• Rules advice and counseling
• Free tournament sanctioning
• Equally important in maintaining standard bowling conditions are the programs of lane certification and equipment testing and research. Every lane is checked and measured each season to assure it meets ABC/Women's International Bowling Congress specifications. Pins, automatic pinsetting machines, scoring devices and other allied equipment undergo thorough and lengthy testing before receiving approval for use in ABC sanctioned league or tournament competition
• Publicizing the inner workings of the Congress, as well as the feats of bowlers coast to coast, is the role of the Public Relations department. Bowlers were as well informed as any sports group in the world through ABC's membership publication, American Bowler, and through news releases, pamphlets, brochures and other publications.

Although the service programs have been thorough, new groups created special attention. In 1963, ABC added a Seniors program and designed a complete set of services for the nation's senior citizens. The ABC National Seniors Tournament for men 55 and older was initiated in 1964 and expanded to reach every state in 1982.

In 1966, a Collegiate Division was initiated by the Congress to provide a program for the nation's college men while at the same time bridging the service gap between junior and adult competition.

With the formation of the Young American Bowling Alliance in 1982, the Collegiate Division became a part of that organization. It was returned to the ABC/WIBC in 1998 and renamed College Bowling USA.

The most spectacular of ABC's many services was the national championship tournament, the oldest bowling event in the nation. A fixture on the sports scene since 1901, it is unrivaled as a participant spectacle. Held in America's major cities, the ABC Tournament runs 12 to 16 hours daily for more than 100 consecutive days.

On lanes specially-installed in public arenas, as many as 17,000 teams and 92,000 individuals participate each year. The prize fund exceeds $4 million.

ABCs glamour event was the Masters, which matched the world's greatest bowlers in head-to-head double elimination competition following qualifying round play. Each match consists of three games throughout the competition untip the televised stepladder finals.

Whether through leagues or tournaments, ABC provided its members options, all with the aim of having fun.

There are many colorful stories about when women began bowling in the United States. Seniors reminisce about the turn of the century, when their mothers or grandmothers sneaked in with (or without) their husbands to try out the bowling game. Often they did so at the risk of their reputations.

Tales are told about women bowlers being screened off from view behind partitions or drapes or being allowed to bowl only when men were not using the alleys. Those were the days of high button shoes, skirts to the ankles, cumbersome apparel and tenpin accommodations that were hardly appealing.

Old photos document scenes of women bowling as early as the 1880s. The first recorded formalized bowling for women began in 1907 in St. Louis, when Dennis J. Sweeney, a bowling proprietor and sportswriter, organized a women's league.

Inklings of national interest also were being shown. That same year, many women accompanied their husbands to the American Bowling Congress Tournament in St. Louis, as they had been doing for several years. In St. Louis, the women laid plans to hold their own tournament, the following year, on ABC Tournament lanes in Cincinnati after the annual men's event had concluded. A second women's tournament in 1909 followed the ABC event in Pittsburgh.

Records show little activity until 1915, when Ellen Kelly, an avid bowler, formed the St. Louis Women's Bowling Association. Buoyed by her success, she wrote to proprietors across the country asking for names of women who might be interested in a national organization of their own. She followed with letters to those women, urging the organization of local associations and offering advice on rules and establishing an organization.

By the fall of 1916 in St. Louis, Sweeney was there to help Mrs. Kelly stage the first "national tournament." There were eight teams entered and champions were decided in team, doubles, singles and all events. The prize fund was $225.

Following the tournament, those 40 women from 11 cities met at Sweeney's Washington Recreation Parlor and created the national organization that became, after several name changes, the Women's International Bowling Congress. Fifty years later, a charter member described the initial tournament as "frankly plain, there were eight alleys and four rows of benches for visitors a small counter square in back of the benches was used to sell soda pop, popcorn, peanuts, etc." She also recalled that the "meeting was more of a social gathering, and we gave little thought that it would develop into such a big organization."

The 40 pioneers elected their first national officers and adopted a constitution and bylaws that included the following purposes: To provide, adopt and enforce uniform rules and regulations governing the play of American tenpins; to provide and enforce uniform qualifications for tournaments and their participants; to hold a national tournament, and to encourage good feeling and create interest in the bowling game.

Those original precepts became the foundation of WIBC, which developed into the largest sports organization in the world for women. The 40 pioneers set the pattern for 1.2 million WIBC members, who bowled in more than 60,000 sanctioned leagues in approximately 2,700 local associations in every state and several foreign countries.

That humble national tournament – with its eight-team entry – was the forerunner of what is now the largest women's sports event in the world. In fact, the 1997 WIBC Championship tournament held in Reno, Nev. attracted 14,872 five-woman teams, the largest entry for any team tournament in history. There were 88,279 individuals, a women’s world record. The tournament celebrated its 100th tournament in 2019.

That first tentative gathering on the benches in Washington Recreation Parlor evolved into a model of bowling democracy, the WIBC annual meeting. More than 3,000 delegates representing local and state associations attended the WIBC annual meeting to adopt rules and select national leaders. Similar annual meetings at local, state and provincial levels assured the self-government concept. Nationally, WIBC was governed by a board of directors elected by the delegates. Administrative policies and procedures were implemented by a staff at WIBC headquarters in suburban Milwaukee.

Along with growth and development came a multiplicity of services. Leagues received a wealth of rulebooks, record-keeping materials and prepackaged kits to keep them functioning smoothly. Local, state and provincial associations benefited from a variety of materials to help them conduct their affairs more efficiently, ranging from handbooks, information sheets and forms to educational seminars, workshops and counseling from staff members and field representatives. A bonding and insurance program provided by WIBC covered association and league funds. A tournament sanctioning program was another important service.

A description of WIBC's awards for members would fill a chapter in itself. They recognized achievements within the realm of every bowler, from the beginner to the world champion.

From its humble beginnings, WIBC stood for tradition, friendship, fun, competition, leadership and success. It has meant this and more to the millions of women who proudly called WIBC my organization.