The history of bowling in the United States reaches back to European expansion in to North America. A popular game with the British, French, and Dutch variations of bowling probably landed in the United States with the first settlers. However, the first evidence of bowling in the region is the 17th century depictions of Dutchmen bowling in what is now Manhattan.
Evidence of the importance Dutch settlers placed on their recreational activity is the naming of the “Bowling Green” park, the oldest in Manhattan. This illustration by E A Abbey of the glass windows at the Bowling Green offices in New York depict Dutchmen bowling circa 1670 on Old King’s Arms Tavern on land now 2nd and Broadway in New York. The connection between bowling and Dutchmen in the United States continues into Washington Irving’s 1819 work Rip Van Winkle. Irving’s work is the first literary mention of bowling in the United States. He wrote: That his father had once seen them in their old Dutch dresses playing at nine-pins in a hollow of the mountain; and that he himself had heard, one summer afternoon, the sound of their balls, distant peals of thunder.
The rapid popularization of bowling in the United States is often attributed to German influence. German immigration into New York in the late 19th century made it the hub of bowling in the United States. This illustration “German Skittle Ground” by unknown artist circa 1840 features the bowling game of skittles one of the many varieties of bowling played in the United States before the standardization of bowling in the late 19th and early 20th century.
With a wide variety of games and rules it became clear by the late 19th century that bowling in the United States needed a universal set of rules for the formation of leagues. Proprietor Joe Thum led the way in developing unified standards with the United Bowling Clubs in New York. Although many previous attempts at national standardization had failed, in 1895 the American Bowling Congress was formed at Beethoven Hall in New York City. Thomas Curtis served as the organization’s first president.
The first national tournament for the American Bowling Congress occurred January 8-11, 1901 in Chicago, Illinois. There were events for five-man teams, two-man teams, and individuals. Six lanes were constructed for the event. Frank Brill was named the first Individual Champion. The two-man team championship was won by J. Voorhies and C.K. Starr. The five-man team championship was won by the Standard team of Chicago.
Women began to become more involved with the sport of bowling during the mid-nineteenth century as outdoor alleys moved indoors and bowling began to become more socially acceptable. Although the American Bowling Congress was officially founded in 1895 women were left without any type of formal organization. In 1907, St. Louis proprietor Dennis J. Sweeney developed the first women’s leagues and held the first informal national women’s tournament. In 1917, the Women’s International Bowling Congress (WIBC) was formed and the first official tournament was held in Cincinnati in 1918. The WIBC grew to become the world’s largest women’s sports organization.
The above illustration illustrates a woman bowler in the 1880s as men and women look on. During this period, women bowlers often dressed formerly for a game of bowling. The black and white photograph of two women bowlers was taken in 1915 in Ben Arbor, Michigan.
During the 20th century bowling gained rapidly in popularity. In the early 1930s after the end of prohibition, beer companies were looking for new venues of advertisement. Many teamed up with the Bowling Proprietor’s Association (BPAA) to promote their brand through the sport of bowling. Companies like Pabst, Hamm’s, Stroh’s, Meister Brau, Falstaff, and Anheuser-Busch sponsored semi-professional teams. The height of popularity for the beer teams was reached in the 1950s when bowling became televised regularly. Names like Dick Weber, Don Carter, and Ned Day became household names as these bowlers reached stardom.