As the days grow colder in autumn's inexorable march toward winter, a lady's fancy turns to... bowling. Or mine does, anyway, because my bowling league's season is winding down, and I'll have just a few more chances to hurl my trusty ten pound ball before we adjourn for the holidays. Ours is a co-ed league, and every week I'm impressed at the grace and skill of my fellow female pin-toppers. It leads me to wonder: How long have women been bowling? A trip to our Brooklyn Daily Eagle clippings files turned up some interesting answers.
Lady of the lanes -- Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 1946
The first mention of ladies taking up ten pins in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle dates back to January 1891, when the all-male Hanover Club announced it would begin inviting female friends of the membership to make use of its bowling alleys in the afternoons. While the men were away, the ladies could play. The same article mentions that the Carleton Club, at St. Mark's Ave and Sixth Ave, was considering opening its alleys to women during the afternoons as well. Gaining such entry was no small feat, considering the ongoing debates in the late 19th century as to what privileges women should and should not be extended. Although it would be nearly 30 years before women got the vote, the right to bowl was one of many early steps down the road to gender equality.
Perhaps there was something cathartic in the act of tossing heavy balls down wooden lanes, something satisfying in the sharp crack as turbulent ball met inert pin and sent it flying, because the hitherto genteel ladies of Brooklyn seem to have taken to the sport with a passion. By 1894, the Eagle was regularly posting scores of several active ladies' bowling teams throughout the borough alongside the scores of their male counterparts. Teams with such monikers as the Monograms faced off against the ABC Bowling Club, the Independents, the Welcome Club, and the Lady Equals. In the fall of 1896, these industrious bowlers held a "bowling tea" to embark on the project of forming their own women's bowling league, which would eventually be called (not surprisingly) the Women's Bowling League.
Image from an 1897 Brooklyn Daily Eagle article announcing members of the new Women's Bowling League.
When the league held its first tournament in January 1897, the Eagle's reporters couldn't help but notice the marked difference between these "fair bowlers" and their bowling brethren:
"When a strike or spare was recorded they gave vent to feminine 'Ohs!' and 'Ahs!' and 'Goody, Goody' instead of the masculine, 'Every feather' and 'Never known to miss it,' so familiar to bowlers."
There were further differences to be noted between men's and women's leagues, namely in the kinds of booty brought home by the victorious. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle was quick to point out that winners of the ladies tournaments walked home with posh prizes like "pieces of furniture, articles of decoration and silverware, which will be of considerable use to the winners as opposed to the trinkets usually purchased by the men."
A second wave of bowling fever appears to have hit Brooklyn in 1938, when the Brooklyn Daily Eagle itself began sponsoring a league, which it touted as the second-largest in the nation. The ladies contingent began bowling games in November of 1938, with 30 competitors bowling in the Flatbush, Borough Hall, and Bay Ridge areas. A regular column on the bowling scene, "Down Your Alley" by Lou E. Cohen, was also inaugurated at this time to serve up juicy bits of gossip and insider information on the borough's pin-toppers. The Brooklyn Eagle leagues continued well into the 1950s, although the Eagle ceased operations in 1955. In our photo collection we have several examples of the handsome trophies awarded by the Eagle to its league bowlers:
It's hard to say exactly when the tradition of punny bowling team names was founded, but here's a cute one from the 1950s:
P.S. Brooklyn Public Library's Annual Gala fete is coming up soon, and this year it will feature an after-party thrown by The Desk Set, a Brooklyn-based group of savvy librarians who have proven tremendously adept at putting together great fundraisers. Usually a black-tie and strapless-gown affair, this year's gala is going down in slightly less high-brow digs... a bowling alley. Yes, a bowling alley! It's a bit more luxe than your grandfather's bowling alley, perhaps, with live bands, leather couches, gourmet eats, and, of couse, a twitter feed, but it is a bowling alley, nonetheless. Bowl on, BPL!