Retro Roadmap: Duckpins? Candlepins? Let's Go Bowling!
Depending on where you live, you may have different images that come to mind when someone says, "Let's go bowling!" For most Americans it's Big Lebowski-style bowling (officially known as ten-pin) with hefty bowling balls and big pear-shaped pins. But dig a little deeper and you'll find regionally distinctive strains of this popular sport—candlepin and duckpin—that are little known outside of the northeastern United States.
And while many contemporary bowling alleys are being updated an alarming rate, there are still a handful of lanes across the country that harken back to the golden age of bowling, no matter what style you prefer. These are the kind that Mod Betty likes best, so here are three examples of where you can step back in time while you're stepping out on the lanes.
The least familiar of all of the bowling styles in the U.S., duckpins are mainly played in Connecticut, Maryland, Rhode Island, and a handful of other states. There is some controversy surrounding the true year and location of where it was invented. Earlier documentation indicated that around 1900 two Baltimore Orioles, Wilbert Robinson and John McGraw, originated both the term and the sport in Baltimore. But recently available online archives of The Boston Globe have shown reference to duckpins as far back as 1893.
Upon first glance duckpin bowling appears to be a scaled-down version of ten-pins with a few slight differences. The game is played on a standard-sized bowling alley and scored the same as ten-pin, but the player rolls three balls per turn instead of two. The balls are roughly the size of a softball and have no holes in them, and the pins, while similar in silhouette to ten pins, are smaller too.
The duckpin ball's small scale is a bonus when looking for an activity that the entire family can enjoy, says Bob Nugent, owner of Woodlawn Duckpins in West Haven, Connecticut: "The balls are the perfect size for small children." He adds, "Since they are much lighter (than ten-pin balls) grandparents can join right in and have fun alongside the kids."
Nugent, who grew up bowling at Woodlawn, has owned the lanes for the last 10 years. Established in 1954, they still use the sturdy but antiquated automatic pinsetting machinery that was installed 60 years ago. While durable, this machinery is considered one of the reasons why this style of bowling isn't more well-known.
According to "Duckpin," a documentary about the history of the sport that was partially filmed at Woodlawn, inventor Ken Sherman refused to sell the patent to his machine to the Brunswick Corporation, who held the patent for the automatic ten-pin pinsetter. Without the corporate investment and ability to scale production of the duckpin equipment, the sport remained in the alleys where it had originated, and was never was able to grow much past there.
Since parts for these machines have not been made since 1973, owners like Nugent will often travel to duckpin lanes that have closed in order to source parts for their machines, warehousing what they might need in the future.
240 Platt Ave.
West Haven, Connecticut 06516
In the majority of the New England states, candlepin bowling is "real" bowling, while what the rest of the country does is referred to as "big ball bowling." Invented in Worcester, Massachusetts, in 1880, the sport takes its name from the oblong shape of the pin. A columnar shape with a slight convex curve in the middle, the pin—resembling a candle—is the same size at the top as the bottom.
The bowling balls in candlepins are the smallest and lightest of all three styles of bowling, weighing in at just under 3 pounds. Like duckpins, the bowling ball has no holes, and the bowler is given three rolls per frame. In a characteristic unique to candlepin bowling, the fallen pins (often referred to as "dead wood" ) are not cleared between rolls on the same turn, and how the pins fall and stay can affect the score greatly.
To get a taste of what good old-fashioned candlepin bowling is like, look no further than the Bowladrome in Wakefield, Massachusetts. Operated since 1952 by the same family, this 20-lane house was a bowling alley prior to that, with live pin-boys setting up the pins before the invention of automatic pinsetters.
Owner Tom Giordano continues to ensure that the Bowladrome stays true to history; while they do have automatic pinsetters, many other modern touches are avoided. No glow-bowling, no bumper-bowling, no website. Plus, you score by hand on paper—and cash only, please.
92 Water St.
Wakefield, Massachusetts 01880
The style of bowling most familiar to Americans is ten-pin bowling—or to most folks, just "bowling."
From the replacement of pin-setting boys with automatic pinsetters, to computerized scoring, the sport strives to remain relevant in an ever-changing landscape of entertainment options. Bowling centers that have been around for decades are encouraged to upgrade and reinvent themselves as "Family Entertainment Centers" with bowling only a segment of the options offered to appeal to today's increasingly online youth.
Luckily, there are still some charming holdouts to this hyper and hyped-up trend that offer a pleasant bowling experience sans fluorescent bells and whistles. Until 2014, Papp's Bowling Center in Bordentown, New Jersey, was one of them.
Owned by husband and wife team Andy and Betty Papp, Papp's Bowling Center was a family affair. They opened the lanes in 1964 along with his parents, and celebrated their 50th year of operation before closing. Betty was the charming face behind the counter and voice on the phone. Andy ran the pro shop where you could get measured for your own bowling ball, and their son Ron was a bowling instructor.
There was no automatic scoring at Papp's, which gave the kids (and adults) practice with their math skills. Even on New Year's Eve, Betty and Andy would stay open so families could have an affordable place to have fun and ring in the new year together.
So now you know you have some options the next time someone says, "Let's go bowling!". Hopefully, there's a vintage bowling alley near you so you can take them up on the offer.
This story was originally published January 23, 2014.