Remembering the Tough Jobs of Pin Boys

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Photo: Pin Boys working in Arcade Bowling Alley, Trenton, N.J. Courtesy: Library of Congress
Photo: Pin Boys working in Arcade Bowling Alley, Trenton, N.J.
Courtesy: Library of Congress

Believe it or not, but the game of bowling is one of the oldest sports still being played today.

Dating back more than 3,000 years before Christ, the ancient Romans and Egyptians both played games we would immediately recognize as “bowling”.  Early bowling balls were made using the husks of grains, covered in leather and bound with string. Other balls made of porcelain have also been found, indicating that these were rolled along the ground rather than thrown due to their size and weight.

About 400 AD bowling began in Germany as a religious ritual to cleanse oneself from sin by rolling a rock into a club representing the heathen, over the next thousand years, the ceremony would evolve into sport and in 1325 laws were passed in Berlin and Cologne limiting bets on bowling to five shillings.

In 1366 the first official mention of bowling in England was made when King Edward III banned it as a distraction to archery practice.

Over the next several centuries, the game’s popularity remained fairly stagnant until an influx of German immigrants introduced the age-old game to a new generation of Americans and in 1840, the first indoor bowling alley opened in New York City.

In September 1895 the modern standardized rules for ten-pin bowling were established in New York City and soon bowling alleys began popping up around the country.

In an era before the many mechanical advancements bowling alleys now enjoy, fallen pins had to be removed and stood back up entirely by hand and in the opening days of the 20th century, child labor provided just the workforce to do this.

With space between the pins and the back wall being limited, small boys, often no older than nine-years-old, would squeeze themselves into position in order to stand pins and lift the heavy bowling balls into the return chute.

In May 1907, Marion, Ohio’s The Marion Mirror, documented the work of “pin boys”:

Bowling Alley
PHOTO: Department of Commerce and Labor, Children’s Bureau: February 1910

“The regulation pin weights a little more than three pounds and the whole set weighs approximately 35 pounds… The largest number of balls a player can roll in a ten-inning game is 21, and the smallest eleven. Splitting the difference, a good blower may be said to average sixteen balls weighing 716 pounds…  for a five-men team, the boy lifts balls weighing 3,580 pounds and adding the amount lifted in pins and balls, the much-abused pin setter lifts in one evening 9,174 pounds…. He lifts almost five tons in one night.”

Sadly, the job of the pin boy was among the most thankless jobs in the nation in the early 1900s.

Working in the smoke-filled, alcohol flowing, profanity-laced underworld of yesteryear, pin boys were often blamed by bowlers for “interfering” with “wobbling pins” too soon, thus preventing strikes.

Working in the bar room atmosphere until midnight or later, in no time, the industry came under the careful scrutiny of the United States Children’s Bureau.

1:00 A.M. Pin boys working in Subway Bowling Alleys, 65 South St., B'klyn, N.Y. every night. 3 smaller boys were kept out of the photo by Boss. Location: New York--Brooklyn, New York (State).
1:00 A.M. Pin boys working in Subway Bowling Alleys, 65 South St., B’klyn, N.Y. every night. 3 smaller boys were kept out of the photo by Boss. Location: New York–Brooklyn, New York (State).

On January 18, 1914, The Washington Times, published an article entitled, “Pin Boy’s Path is Not Flowerly One”, in which they showcased the plight of the child-laborers:

“No matter how many pins fly up and caress him on the forehead, he must stick to his post.  being able to withstand the attack of tall ten of the pins in his alley and half-dozen or so from that of his neighbors’ is part of his business.”

According to the report, pin boys were paid, “One dollar a day on the days that he works the curses and slanders of an indiscriminating bowling public, and a body full of black and blue bruises which can’t always be seen, for most of our pin boys in Washington are of such a hue that the black and blue marks cannot always be discerned from the rest of the surface.”

The 1930s brought considerable child labor crackdowns, the Great Depression and the invention of the mechanical pinsetter, all of which worked together to eliminate the jobs of pin boys.

So the next time you go bowling, take a moment and silently thank the hundreds of pin boys who endured bruises, cursings and deplorable working conditions in order to make bowling popular in America!

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