American Bowling Club Hosts Its First Tournament

In 1901, the American Bowling Congress held its first tournament, which led to the game’s increasing popularity. The establishment of the American Bowling Congress’s rules and tournament standards propelled bowling from its slightly disreputable beginnings in pubs and drinking establishments to its position in mainstream American culture.

Summary of Event

Bowling is considered to be one of the oldest sports in world history. Its roots reach back as far as ancient Egypt, and the first written record of a sport similar to modern bowling occurred in 1366, when King Edward III reportedly made playing the game illegal so that his troops would concentrate on skills such as archery. Bowling was, however, well established in England by the reign of Henry VIII. The game first entered written culture in the United States when author Washington Irving had his character Rip Van Winkle wake from his long nap to the sounds of the traditional British game of ninepins. By the end of the nineteenth century, Americans had added a pin, giving birth to the American version of the game initially known as tenpin, which developed into modern bowling. Sports;bowling
American Bowling Congress
[kw]American Bowling Club Hosts Its First Tournament (Jan., 1901)
[kw]Bowling Club Hosts Its First Tournament, American (Jan., 1901)
[kw]First Tournament, American Bowling Club Hosts Its (Jan., 1901)
[kw]Tournament, American Bowling Club Hosts Its First (Jan., 1901)
American Bowling Congress
[g]United States;Jan., 1901: American Bowling Club Hosts Its First Tournament[00120]
[c]Sports;Jan., 1901: American Bowling Club Hosts Its First Tournament[00120]
[c]Organizations and institutions;Jan., 1901: American Bowling Club Hosts Its First Tournament[00120]
Curtis, Thomas
Thum, Joseph
Briell, Frank
Spalding, Albert Goodwill
Brunswick, John

Bowlers participate in an American Bowling Congress tournament in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in 1905.

(Library of Congress)

By the middle of the nineteenth century, bowling had acquired a reputation as a workingman’s sport, and it was linked to taverns, drinking, immorality, and gambling. Because of its reputation, New York and Connecticut outlawed the game of ninepins in the early years of the nineteenth century, and tradition held that American bowling’s tenth pin was added in an attempt to circumvent the law. After the American Civil War, many club owners, especially German immigrants, attempted to rehabilitate bowling’s image and establish clean and honest clubs with bowling lanes. They hoped to attract families to the sport and to discourage its association with gambling and drinking.

These attempts, however, were not successful until late in the nineteenth century, when a new ideology became associated with the game. Encouraged by Joseph Thum, owner of one of the first modern bowling alleys in the United States, members of the bowling community first attempted to standardize bowling rules and regulations in organizations such as the United Bowling Clubs and the National Bowling Association. Albert Goodwill Spalding also added to these efforts by writing a set of standards for bowling rules in the United States. With the sport’s growing popularity and widespread influence, the number of bowling clubs increased significantly; there were more than four hundred clubs in New York alone.

Because of the number of bowlers involved in the sport, however, it was difficult for the differing factions within the bowling community to reach an agreement on all aspects of the rules and regulations, and several attempts to organize the nation’s bowlers failed. On September 9, 1895, at New York City’s Beethoven Hall, the American Bowling Congress was born, and it brought not only rules and regulations but also a more respectable reputation to the sport. As a result of Thum’s influence, the establishment of the American Bowling Congress, and the leadership of the organization’s first president, Thomas Curtis, standardized rules of the game and regulation lanes and equipment were ready to be implemented in sanctioned, national tournaments by 1901. Curtis was the first to suggest introducing the tournament concept to the sport, and his influence eventually led to the first organized bowling tournament in the United States. Because there was now a governing body that standardized the sport’s rules and offered prize money to tournament winners, the gambling industry’s grip on the sport also diminished, and bowling’s reputation was redeemed.

The National Bowling Championship tournament, held in Chicago, Illinois, in January, 1901, was so successful that it became an annual event: The first tournament in Chicago was followed by tournaments in Buffalo, New York, in 1902; in Indianapolis, Indiana, in 1903; and in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1904. Even though the sport had been popular for many years and companies such as John Brunswick’s Brunswick Corporation were working to develop superior bowling equipment, records from the first of these tournaments show that the competitors were still using older equipment, such as wooden balls or “loaded” (off-balance) balls. However, after the first years of tournaments, this situation changed and better equipment became widely available.

The first tournament was particularly successful in its attempts to gain significant numbers of participants. It hosted both amateur and professional competitors, and this tradition continued. More than forty teams, representing nine states and seventeen cities, competed in the first tournament, and organizers opened the competition to both singles and doubles competitions. More than 100 singles players and 78 doubles participants sought the first national title. Frank Briell became the first national bowling champion after he won the 1901 National Bowling Championship tournament’s singles events and numerous other competitions. Since their inception, American Bowling Congress tournaments have typically lasted from twelve to sixteen hours a day and have extended through more than one hundred consecutive days.


Bowling’s popularity increased rapidly following its first successful tournament, and gambling, the main drawback to the sport’s credibility, was all but banished by serious bowlers and leagues when the American Bowling Congress became the official sanctioning body. The congress took over efforts to run the major competitions, gain sponsors and prize money, and standardize rules and regulations.

Following the success of the American Bowling Congress, other groups formed their own organizations. African American and women’s organizations soon joined the ranks of professional and competitive bowling, and women’s teams were added to the competitive bowling community shortly after the 1901 tournament. This breakthrough was largely due to the sport’s new “clean” reputation, which grew with each tournament. Although women had been actively bowling since the late nineteenth century, their first organized association was not recognized until 1917, when the Women’s National Bowling Association was established in St. Louis, Missouri. This association for women bowlers held its first tournament in 1918. Although bowling’s golden age took place largely from the 1940’s through the 1960’s, the popularity of bowling as both a participant sport and a spectator sport continued into the twenty-first century. Sports;bowling
American Bowling Congress

Further Reading

  • Baker, William J. Sports in the Western World. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988. Discusses the influence of a variety of sports, including bowling, on the development of Western cultures.
  • Luby, Mort. The History of Bowling. Chicago: Luby, 1983. Gives a thorough overview of the development of bowling from its origins through the twentieth century.
  • Mitchell, Elmer D., ed. Sports for Recreation and How to Play Them. New York: A. S. Barnes, 1952. Contains a chapter on bowling that recounts a brief history of bowling as a sport as well as a detailed discussion of the rules of bowling.
  • Pendergast, Tom, and Sara Pendergast, eds. St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture. 5 vols. Farmington Hills, Mich.: St. James Press, 2000. An A-Z reference work that includes an excellent, concise discussion of the history and significance of bowling.

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