History of Bingo Part One: Early Origins 1530 – 1945
Today, bingo is regarded as a traditional game in the United Kingdom. So it is often assumed that the playing of the game goes back deep into history, as if it is part of a shared national heritage. In fact, bingo was little played in this country before 1945. It was known about, but did not become the mass participation pastime we enjoy today until the post-war period. The classic era of the game was the 1960s, when play in bingo halls reached a peak. So what is the truth about the history of one of our favourite games?
While Bingo is not as old as often thought in this country, its origins are quite distant, if not exactly ancient. The most credible account of the birth of the game is described by Roger Snowden in his Guide to Bingo, published in 1986. He recounts how the game as we know it today is a direct descendant of a National Lottery game “Lo Giuoco del Lotto d’ Italia”, which was organised to celebrate and indeed provide funds for the newly united Italy. The first such lottery was held in the 1530s. The Italian State Lottery has continued virtually uninterrupted since that time.
Bingo may have undergone considerable changes since its medieval birth, but the game as we know it today is widely understood to have been based on this Italian idea. It seems as if this is yet another example of something we must thank the Romans for. The story of the development of bingo therefore becomes a European, then a worldwide tale: a story of gradual development, punctuated by occasional explosive increases in popularity.
Snowden describes how the game began to take off in France. In the eighteenth Century, French intellectuals popularised a new form of Lotto which more closely resembles today’s version of the game. A playing card was developed with three rows and nine columns. Each horizontal row consisted of five numbers and four spaces, while the columns were ranked in ascending order, with 1 – 10 on the top row all the way to 81 to 90 along the bottom. Each player was given a unique card, while the “caller” would remove one of the 90 wooden chips out of a cloth bag, one at a time. The first player to cover a horizontal row could claim the prize. Although this is clearly a description of a kind of bingo, It also sounds a bit like the modern day FA Cup draw, but without the home and away teams and the replays.
Later on, the ever resourceful Germans customised the game for educational purposes. They used it to teach multiplication tables to their offspring. Lotto is still used to try to add some fun to what can seem like dry subjects to younger children.
Meanwhile, in the United Kingdom, various lottery based games were in use from the 18th Century, but these don’t seem to have any link with the continental versions described above. They were also actively discouraged by the governments of the day, who saw gambling as leading to lawlessness and encouraging criminal activity. As far as the story of Bingo goes, these early British games seem to be a dead end.
But it is at this point that the history of Bingo gets really interesting, and perhaps a little controversial. Because from here, there are two different compelling, but competing versions of where the story goes from here…
The more widely held version of events is that during the 1930s, a travelling salesman called Edwin S Lowe developed a variation of the European Lotto game for entertainment in fairs and carnivals across the United States. It appears that he had stumbled across the game on one of his sales trips across America. The “caller” he met had apparently himself discovered the game on a visit to Germany and had brought it across the pond, renaming it “Beano”.
Lowe made a few minor technical adjustments and then set about popularising it across the nation. The story goes that when he was trying out the new game amongst some friends, an ecstatic winner mistakenly blurted out “Bingo” instead of “Beano”, and the new name for the game was born.
The game became increasingly popular, and was particularly popular with charities and churches, which used the game to raise funds. Bingo remains a popular way of raising money from church goers across America to this day, although legal restrictions aimed at discouraging gambling prevent its use in some States.
The final step in the development of the game which enabled the game to achieve its current popularity was automation. To become the phenomenon it is today, there was a need to find a way of making the cards more quickly. The hard part was making each card different, so that every player had a unique card. Eventually, Lowe commissioned a professor of Mathematics called Carl Leffler to devise a method to produce thousands of cards with unique combinations of numbers. Professor Carl was reputedly driven to the verge of insanity by the challenge, but he eventually succeeded. The rest, as they say, is history.
Or is it? Recent times have been littered with examples of the British and Americans offering competing versions of history. Complaints are loud whenever the latest World War Two Hollywood blockbuster movie is released, where the Yanks have played fast and loose with the facts. Could the history of the great game of bingo be another example of American cultural imperialism?
Ironically, the British view of the game’s development also features a link to the Americas.
According to social historian and Bingo expert Carolyn Downs of the University of Lancaster, the earliest reliable description of a game which bears a real resemblance to modern day Bingo was in fact in Mexico. The archaeologist John Stephens described a popular game, played by hundreds at a time, called “La Lotteria” in 1838. His depiction certainly sounds much the same as contemporary bingo. Indeed, a similar game was being played across continental Europe around that time. It was certainly being played in Italy and Spain, from where it was likely to have been imported into Mexico. It was also a very popular game on the tiny Mediterranean island of Malta.
And it is this that provides the link back to the UK, because the British Navy had a well-established base on the island, with a permanent garrison. This had been in place since 1814, and it seems likely that it had picked up the game from the local Maltese. In any event, the game soon spread like wildfire, and became more and more popular across the British armed forces as the century progressed. Originally called Tombola by British seamen, it was encouraged by naval top brass as entertainment and as a distraction from the boredom, homesickness and occasional danger of overseas postings. So much so, that the game became officially sanctioned by the British Navy around 1880. By the dawn of the 20th Century it had spread to the army, where it was referred to as “House”. By the outbreak of the Great War, the game was established throughout the army and navy. It seemed to be popular with all ranks too, which was unusual an era where the socialising of “officers” and “men” was generally discouraged. Thus it is most likely from this link, via troops returning from overseas postings, that the game was first imported into the United Kingdom, rather than from our own home grown proto-lotteries.
In fact, the act of gambling was being actively discouraged at home. The 1906 Street Betting Act made any kind of betting with cash away from a racecourse illegal. The Act was not particularly effective: wealthier punters tended to have bank accounts, and later, telephones. It was easy for them to use bookmakers to circumvent the law. Poorer people faced greater difficulties. But it is ironic that while the domestic market was being restricted, in the armed forces, proto-Bingo games like Tombola and House were being positively encouraged as a way of raising mess funds for the troops, and also as a lesser evil compared with more virulent forms of gambling.
When troops were demobbed after the armistice in 1918, these early forms of bingo became established back in the communities of their homeland. Indeed, the term “bingo” is reliably reported to have been in use in the 1930s in the UK. A Metropolitan Police report of 1937 refers specifically to the game as being called “Bingo” in Peckham and other areas of working class London. The report even refers to the traditional “rhyming calls” of the bingo caller.
Now, bear in mind that the internet was more than fifty years away, the telephone was a new invention, and television and the modern day movie did not yet exist. It took years, decades even, for cultural influences to spread across the Atlantic. So verifiable descriptions such as this must surely call into question the widely held story that the term “bingo” was coined by the Americans in the 1930s. It is unlikely that there was much inter-continental travel between Peckham and New York at that time, so it is unlikely the term could have made it across the Atlantic to become part of the regular banter on the housing estates of South-East London in such a short time. On the other hand, maybe Peckham’s most famous resident, Del Boy had something to do with it. Trotter’s Independent Traders boasted of a New York office. Maybe Del Boy’s Grandad brought it back from one of his overseas trips.
In fact there are even earlier reports. A fairground in Morecambe, Lancashire was reported to be offering a game of “Housey Housey” which the promoter referred to as “Bingo” in 1928. These stories are difficult to substantiate, but are certainly not entirely consistent with the American version of Bingo history.
So who to believe? The brash Americans, who like to believe the whole world revolves around them? Or the haughty British, who thought they ruled the world in the 19th Century, and think the world would be a better place if they still did? Who would have though the humble game of bingo could play a part in this age-old ideological battle?
Whatever the truth of this story, the game of bingo would see phenomenal development at this point. The end of the Second World War in 1945 was a turning point in so many ways, not least in the growth in popularity of the game of bingo…