March 8, 2012

Early 20th Century Bowling Alleys

It is no secret that I love history. So much so, in fact, that I kind of made it my job. One thing I wanted to include on this blog was articles about the history of bowling, primarily in Pittsburgh and western Pennsylvania. Recently, while doing some research on a non-bowling related interest, I came across the following information on early 20th century bowling alleys from articles originally posted online in 2009.  While these alleys are not located in Pittsburgh, there are some local ties:

Henry Clay Frick was a steel tycoon from western Pennsylvania. He is probably most notorious for his strike breaking tactics at the Carnegie Steel mill in Homestead and most famous for his extensive art collection. His first mansion, Clayton, still stands in Pittsburgh a few blocks away from my office, but as it turns out, his mansion in New York City is of a bit more interest to us. As you will see, in addition to being an industrialist and art collector, Frick was also a bowler.

In 1912, Frick was scheduled to take the Titanic back to the United States from his European vacation; however, his wife twisted her ankle in France, forcing them to cancel their reservations. After cheating death and arriving safely back in the U.S., Frick purchased land in New York City to build an extensive mansion between 70th and 71st Streets across from Central Park. In the basement of this mansion, which now houses the Frick art collection, sits one of the most exquisite bowling alleys I have ever seen.

Frick bowling alley, New York City.

Built in 1914 by the Brunswick-Balke-Collender Company (an early version of the still very much active Brunswick Corporation), this two lane alley cost Frick $850, a large sum at the time. There are pine-and-maple lane beds featuring wooden gutters and a gravity-driven ball return. A Brunswick representative at the time stated that this was the finest alley possible. For an additional $100, Frick also purchased a set of bowling balls which had two finger holes instead of the standard three and were heavier than those used today. After Frick’s death in 1919, his daughter Helen housed an entire library in the bowling alley before she could build one next door. Shelves were placed over the gutters and the lanes themselves served as the aisles. The bowling alley was restored in 1997 and is currently closed to the public due to fire code regulations (there is only one exit).

Gravity-driven ball return and padded backstop.

If you have the time, I encourage you to check out an interactive panorama of the bowling alley posted by the New York Times and spin around a few times.  The entire room is breathtaking. Notice that on the scoreboard, frames are called "innings".  Looking at the lanes themselves, the change from pine to maple appears to occur about where the arrows are on today's lanes and then change back to pine where the pins are located. I don't have much knowledge about different types of wood, but my guess is that the pine is more durable than the maple and so it is used in the areas that would take the biggest beatings.
Ball return.

Between the lanes near the pins, it looks like there are small platforms for a pinsetter to stand on while the ball is thrown.  The pinsetter would then roll the ball down the ball return and reset the pins for the next bowler. The ball return has two levels: the bottom level held the balls while not in use and the top level caught the balls being returned to the bowlers.  A semi-circle at the back of the return would slow the returning ball and place it in the bottom rack. It also appears as though the ramp leading from the return to the top rack comes off so that balls could be rolled directly into the bottom level.
Prohibition-era alley.

To put things into perspective, let's also take a look at how the other half bowled during this same time period. In sticking with the New York theme, the blog had a post about a bowling alley found in the remnants an old factory, the basement of which served as a Prohibition-era night club. Even without the benefits of restoration like the Frick alley, the similarities are apparent. The differences, though, are what make this noteworthy. There is no separate ball return, so most likely the pinsetter rolled the balls back to the bowlers using the gutter. The gutters themselves are squared, whereas the Frick gutters are rounded like modern lanes. The overall openness of the Frick bowling/billiard room is a stark contrast to the necessary closeness of the bowling alley in an illegal speakeasy. But from now on, if someone ever hassles you about drinking at bowling, you have historical evidence to back up your actions.  People have been doing this for at least 90 years.

It brings to mind the Simpsons episode "Homer vs. the Eighteenth Amendment" in which Homer supplies alcohol to Springfield while under Prohibition by filling bowling balls with beer and sending them to Moe's Tavern using tubes connected to the bowling alley. If you have never seen this, do so immediately.

I hope this has been interesting for you, it was fun to research.  Please leave comments as to whether you would like more posts on the history of bowling.


  1. by the way, Pittsburgh native A.W. Mellon was Secretary of the Treasury during Prohibition and technically oversaw the enforcement of the 18th amendment, so there is a Burgh connection there

  2. Great post, Zach. Keep 'em coming!