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Wendy Woloson
Bowling, the sport of throwing a heavy ball down a lane and knocking over pins, has been around for centuries, and has become one of America's most democratic pastimes. Often referred to as the "great cultural leveler," bowling is affordable, allows for the participation of both genders, all ages, skill levels, and classes, and encourages a social camaraderie rare in other competitive sports. In fact, an instructional book written in 1987 said that "one of the greatest benefits of bowling is the development of friendships."

Bowling became widely popular almost as soon as it reached the shores of America, in the early 1800s. The Dutch, Germans, and English helped establish the sport in American colonies. English bowls, or lawn bowling, a sport for blue-bloods, was played outdoors on a bowling green. But the modern form of American bowling derives mainly from the German game of Kegelspiel, or kegeling, which used nine pins set in a diamond formation. By the 1800s, kegeling Germans established New York as the country's "bowling capital." Kegeling, unlike lawn bowling, was enjoyed by German peasants; this reputation as a common-man's sport has characterized bowling throughout its American history. The first indoor alley, Knickerbocker's in New York City, was built in 1840; soon after this, various establishments attracted the lower classes and genteel alike. By the mid-1800s nine-pins became a widely played sport, and even reached the midwest.

After the Civil War, more Germans began their own clubs with bowling lanes, and tried to establish these as clean and family-oriented places. Their efforts at constructing wholesome reputations for their alleys were largely in vain, as most remained dark places located in saloon basements alongside alcohol consumption, gambling, and prostitution. Reformers' attempts to outlaw nine-pins at the end of the nineteenth century, it is fabled, caused alley owners to add an extra pin.

John Brunswick founded the Brunswick Corporation in 1845, which manufactured billiard tables and fine bar fixtures. In 1884 Brunswick added bowling equipment to his line, becoming the first manufacturer of his kind in America. In 1914, he introduced the Mineralite ball made of hard rubber and organized a world tour with which to promote it; considered so revolutionary, the ball was put on display at the Century of Progress Exposition in 1934.

At the turn of the century most bowling alleys were small establishments that provided the working classes with much needed, if less than wholesome, recreation. The cultural impetus toward rationalization and organization at the end of the nineteenth century also influenced bowling. By the 1880s and 1890s people attempted to standardize the rules and the play, and to improve the reputation of individual alleys and of the sport as a whole. Bowling associations were formed in order to attract more female bowlers. In 1887 A.G. Spalding, who was instrumental in forming baseball's National League, wrote Standard Rules for Bowling in the United States.

It was Joe Thum, however, who created what most resembled twentieth-century lanes, and therefore became known as the "father of bowling." In 1886 he opened his first successful alley in the basement of his Bavarian restaurant in New York City. In 1891 he built six lanes in Germania Hall, and in 1901 he opened the world's most elegant alley, "The White Elephant," which featured state-of-the-art lanes, electric lighting, and extravagant interior design in order to redefine bowling as a genteel sport, and to compete with other upper-class recreational areas of the time, like theaters and opera houses.

Thum also encouraged other smaller alley owners to adopt standard rules. By the mid-1890s the United Bowling Clubs (UBC) was organized and had 120 members. The American Bowling Congress (ABC), bowling's official governing body, was established in 1895, and held its first tournament in 1901. Women's bowling evolved alongside men's, with the first women's leagues appearing in 1907, and the Women's International Bowling Congress (WIBC) instituted in the 1910s. These bodies continued to push for standardized rules and regulations for the sport, and also maintained the quest to improve the image of the sport, which was still considered a dirty and tawdry pastime chiefly for lower-class gamblers and drinkers.

The various bowling organizations were successful in determining standards for bowling play and the alleys themselves, which have remained constant throughout the twentieth century. Each lane consists of a pin area, the lane itself, and the approach. Ten pins, each 15 inches high and 5 inches at their widest point and made of wood covered with hard plastic, are arranged twelve inches apart in an equilateral triangle at the far end of the lane. Each lane is 41 1/2 inches wide, 62 5/6 feet long, made of maple and pine, and bordered by two gutters. The balls themselves, which are rolled at the pins, are of hard rubber or plastic, at most 27 inches in circumference, and between eight and sixteen pounds. Each player's turn consists of a "frame"--two chances to knock down all of the pins. Knocking down all ten pins on the first try is a strike, while succeeding with two balls is a spare. Because the scores for strikes and spares are compounded, a perfect game in bowling is 300 points.

Wendy Woloson

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