This Nostalgic Trip Through A 1960s Bowling Alley Is A Strike

Bowling alleys are not what they used to be, which is a darn shame! Sure, there are still bowling alleys, but the ones I see are in gigantic amusement complexes that overshadow the alley itself. Are these mega complexes still fun? Of course! However, I notice that kids are not as into the bowling experience (yes, it is an experience) and are more interested in everything else to see and do. Bowling was such an integral part of growing up in the 1960s, and to honor this timeless tradition, I invite you to take a walk down memory lane as we re-visit the bowling alleys of old:

Bowling in the 1960s 

Bowling alley, Portland, Oregon digital file from original color transparency
John Margolies Roadside America photograph archive (1972-2008), Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

The 1950s and 60s were pivotal for the sport of bowling, as the game caught on with the middle class and caused a boom of sorts. Thanks to its newfound popularity, the number of alleys and lanes also skyrocketed, with 11,000 alleys across the country by 1963 (significantly up from “just” 6,600 in 1955). It became America’s unofficial favorite sport, as it was one that could be enjoyed by the entire family.

In addition to it being a wholesome family sport, bowling became a favorite for high rollers, thanks to the introduction of “action bowling” (perfectly summed up by the New York Times as “a high-stakes form of gambling in which bowlers faced off for thousands of dollars”). When the teenagers and families went home, the adults came out to play, often betting and bowling until the early morning hours.

It was also in the 1960s when professional bowling took off, with the creation of both the Professional Women’s Bowling Association and the National Bowling League. What was formerly an anomaly was now being broadcast on television, making household names out of professional bowlers like Billy Welu and Buzz Fazio.

The 1960s bowling experience

Century Bowling Alley, Wall St., Huntington, Long Island, New York. General view of alley intermediary roll film
Gottscho-Schleisner Collection, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

If you visit an older bowling alley today (you can often find these in small towns!), you can get an idea of what these original alleys were like. However, there are still some key components missing from the 1960s alleys:

Scoring

Did anyone else actually enjoy paying close attention to each game, jotting down scores, and then doing the math to determine the winner? Automated scoreboards have their advantages, but there was something about the feel of writing down scores during the game that made it that much more fun! (It kept our hands busy – after all, these were pre-smartphone days!).

Food

While bowling alley fare today is similar to what it was in the 1960s, it just isn’t as tasty as the old-time popcorn, hot dogs, and burgers we used to enjoy. Now that I think about it, even the Coca-Cola from the old bowling alley tasted better…

Smells

Bowling alleys have a particular aroma that has remained the same, minus one essential ingredient: cigarette smoke. Not only was smoking allowed in bowling alleys in the 1960s, but it was actually weird to see an adult without a cigarette in their hand!

Ambiance

The ambiance from retro bowling alleys to now is night and day, as alleys in the 1960s were dimly lit and required squinting to see your scoresheet. Midcentury bowling alleys also seemed much louder, thanks, in part, to the larger crowds. 

Bowling alleys today

Liberty Lanes Bowling sign, Broadway & Russell Street, Missoula, Montana digital file from original color transparency
John Margolies Roadside America photograph archive (1972-2008), Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

As we discussed in the intro, the majority of today’s bowling alleys are part of bigger sports and entertainment complexes. However, stand-alone alleys DO still exist, though they are not nearly as common as they were several decades ago. While the sport remained popular through the 1970s and 80s, the number of alleys around the U.S. continued to drop, with only a few thousand of these nostalgic businesses remaining. 

Fun facts about bowling alleys

Bantam, Connecticut. In the basement of the town firehouse is the bowling alley, revenue from which helps to support the town's volunteer fire companies. Each night is alloted to a specific group, and there are several hot rivalries. Among the women shown here is Mrs. Winfield Peterson whose husband is foreman of the Warren McArthur experimental shop digital file from original neg.
Hollem, Howard R. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.
  • Every year, bowling is played by 120 million people in 90+ countries.
  • The game of bowling dates back to Ancient Egypt, as drawings depicting a similarly played game were discovered in an Egyptian royal’s tomb dated 5200 BC.
  • Prohibition in the U.S. caused the separation of bowling alleys from saloons, in turn making it a family-friendly sport. 
  • The resin covers on bowling balls were not created until the 1990s. Before resin, the balls were made with Lignum vitae (hardwood), hard rubber, and/or polyester. 
  • Former President (and avid bowler) Richard Nixon had a one-lane bowling alley installed in an underground space of the White House.

Final thoughts

While bowling is nowhere near as popular today as it was in the 1960s, you can still find these nostalgic spaces hiding out in the most unexpected places! I hope this little walk down memory lane brought back as many fond memories for you as it did for me!

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