Bowling may seem like a wholesome pastime today, but the game once had an unsavory reputation, prompting laws that not only regulated bets on the game but who could play and when. During one especially dark period for the game’s fans, the only day common people could legally go bowling was Christmas.
The origins of bowling go way back: Artifacts found in an ancient Egyptian tomb suggest the game, or something like it, may have been played as early as 3200 B.C.E. However, the first laws apparently known to have regulated bowling were passed in 14th century Germany amid concerns over gambling. At the time, peasants were placing such large bets they would go into debt over the game, and so in 1325 the German cities of Berlin and Cologne legislated how much a person could bet on a bowling match—limiting the stakes to the equivalent of about a dollar today.
A few decades later, in 1361, bowling was banned altogether in England—King Edward III considered the game a distraction from archery practice, which male citizens needed to keep their skills sharp for war. Henry VI reversed the ban in 1455, and 15th century London briefly became home to several all-weather bowling alleys, but Henry VIII felt compelled to legislate against the sport again in the 16th century. In 1541, he declared that only the wealthy could bowl—convenient for him, since London’s Whitehall Palace had recently been rebuilt with outdoor bowling lanes.
However, the law did allow workers to play on one day each year. According to the statute, “Artificers, labourers, apprentices, servants and the like” were prohibited “from playing bowls except in their masters’ house and presence at Christmas.” The sport would have been played as part of the 12 Days of Christmas enjoyed during Tudor England, which provided the working class with opportunities for rare pleasures such as visiting the zoo, watching plays, and jousting matches.
Henry VIII’s 1541 law, although rarely enforced, was not officially repealed until 1845. (Unfortunately, in 1555 Queen Mary even outlawed the Christmas games, saying they provided cover for “unlawful assemblies, conventiclers, seditions, and conspiracies.”) But English subjects continued to play, and sometimes did so instead of attending church. In 1618 King James issued the Declaration of Sports, which banned bowling on Sundays but did allow dancing and archery as long as one first attended a church service.
Bowling was subject to less legislation in other countries. Dutch settlers and explorers brought a version of bowling known as ninepins to New Amsterdam, later known as New York City. The early settlers played at a lower Manhattan site now known as Bowling Green. When large numbers of German settlers emigrated to the U.S. in the late 19th century, they also brought their love of bowling, and it soon became a popular sport.
These days, bowling’s not quite as popular as it once was. After reaching a height in the mid-20th century, during which 2.3 million Americans joined bowling leagues and a bowling alley was installed in the White House, participation plummeted—between 1998 and 2012, the number of bowling centers in the U.S. dropped by almost 25 percent. But while there might be fewer enjoying the game today, there is a bright side: It has been a long time since anyone was arrested for bowling.