Modern bowling may not have the noble reputation of other sports. Yet, it has a long and noble history. Let’s have a look…
Bowling is viewed by many as just a way for overweight, beer-drinking guys working dead-end nine to five jobs to blow off steam. This has caused it to be the butt of jokes and an object of satire on television and in movies. Of course, for those who enjoy bowling, the basis for this reputation might be part of its appeal. Although some might argue otherwise, bowling is a sport in that it involves physical exertion and competition. Yet, it is a sport that is very accessible to a wide range of body types and pocketbooks. In addition, since it is an indoor sport, it can be played year round. The fact that many bowling alleys sell refreshments, including beer, doesn’t hurt its popularity either. Taken together, these factors make it the ideal working man’s (or woman’s) sport.
In spite of its current reputation, bowling actually has a long and noble history. In 2007, archeologists working in Cairo, Egypt, unearthed what some feel may be the world’s oldest indoor bowling alley. The site is around 2,000 years old, and is part of a residential building. It contained a shallow lane running into a pit and two heavy stone balls.
Of course, an outdoor version of the sport is said to be even older. In the 1930s, when excavating a child’s tomb, an Egyptologist found the equipment for a game that he believed was an early version of skittles, a lawn bowling game that is still played in England. In fact, wherever it started, over the centuries, lawn bowling, or bowls, spread around the world, assuming a variety of forms. It became bocce in Italy, boules in France, bolle in Denmark, and ula miaka in the Polynesian islands. A site in Southampton England claims to be the oldest lawn bowling site in the world still in operation, with records showing that the green there has been in use since 1299. Even in the United States and other countries where lawn bowling has fallen in popularity, towns and neighborhoods with the name bowling green give evidence that the game was once played there.
Bowling, at least the lawn variety, was once the sport of kings and noblemen. According to a famous story, on a warm summer day during a time when England was at war with Spain, Englishman Sir Francis Drake was in the middle of a game of bowls, when the news was brought to him that the Spanish armada had been sighted heading toward England. Not wanting to interrupt the game, he supposedly said, “There is plenty of time to win the game and beat the Spaniards too!”
In fact, bowling became so popular, that King Henry VIII banned the game for all but the wealthy, because so many workingmen and soldiers were neglecting their trades. Even King James, who condemned soccer and golf, encouraged lawn bowls.
It seems that the first mention of bowling in the U.S. was in 1819-1820, in a book called The Sketch Book by Washington Irving. In it, he tells the story of Rip Van Winkle, who sees and hears a mysterious group of men playing a game of nine pins in New York’s Catskill Mountains.
Modern American ten-pin bowling apparently got its start around the same time. Because it is very similar to the German nine-pin game of kegelspiel, German immigrants were instrumental in popularizing it. They even began opening bowling clubs around the time of the U.S. Civil War. The first U.S. bowling alley was built in New York City in 1840. By the mid 1960s, there were around 12,000, mostly in blue-collar, urban areas. However, because of lifestyle changes, by 1998, this number had dwindled to 6,542 certified bowling centers. Even so, in 1997, statistics showed that 53.3 million Americans had visited a bowling alley at least once that year. This makes bowling the most popular indoor sport in the United States.
Do you enjoy bowling? There is much to recommend it as a sport or recreational activity. Ironically, these are the same things that have contributed to its working class image. It can be enjoyed by all age groups and skill levels. This makes it the ideal game for a family to participate in together. Since it is played indoors, it is a year round sport. And it is relatively inexpensive to play.
Of course, the history of bowling is also interesting. It’s fascinating to know that it was once the sport of kings. Yet, that’s not why we go bowling. We bowl because it’s enjoyable, and gives us the chance to relax and spend time with our family and friends. Really, that’s all the reason that we of the working class need.