History of Bingo

The History of Bingo

When you think of bingo you may think of grannies huddled around a table in a bingo hall marking off cards as they chase an elusive win, but bingo has in fact gathered somewhat of a resurgence in the past 20 years or so with the introduction of online bingo sites that offer the tempting chance to win cash while also keeping your street cred. This has led to a revolution in the bingo halls where it is common to see younger people flock to the halls in search of a cheap night’s entertainment and the chance to win big.

A Humble Beginning

But while the new-found youth movement in bingo has been a recent development, the game of bingo is anything but young. It may surprise you to learn that the game was first played in its original form in 1530, where it derived from Lo Giuoco del Lotto d’Italia, a traditional lottery-type game. The game rose in popularity until it transitioned across borders to France in the late 1770s, where its name was simplified to ‘Le Lotto’ and was the game of aristocrats and the wealthy. This version consisted of 27 squares which were divided into three rows and nine columns which were filled with numbers between 1-90, much like our game today. There would even be a caller who would choose a wooden number token and read the number out loud to the players. Unlike players today, the players of 18th century France only needed to cover a horizontal line to win, so games were much swifter.

Bingo: The educator

In the 19th century, the game took on a more serious, educational role and was used as an aid to teach children essential information such as animal names, times tables and spelling. If you venture into a children’s toy shop today, you may well see variations of bingo designed for this very purpose, so obviously, those canny Germans were onto something.

The Game We Know and Love

It wasn’t until 1929 that the game was renamed Bingo and was created in the vision we see today with bingo cards for multiplayer games. It was thanks to a New York man called Edwin S. Lowe, a toymaker, who visited a carnival in the US state of Georgia and saw a group of people playing a game called ‘Beano.’ It resembled the French game ‘Le Lotto’ where a caller would take wooden disks and call them aloud. Rather than the pens and dabbers we use today, players would mark their cards using beans, hence the name ‘Beano.’ The game would be won when someone filled in a vertical, horizontal or diagonal line with beans and yelled out ‘Beano.’

When Lowe returned to New York he was filled with excitement. Never before had he seen such frantic playing of a game before, and wanted to show his friends what he had discovered in Georgia. He created boards from cardboard and used rubber stamps to number them. In the pantry, he found dried beans to mark off the cards. He and his friends collected themselves and began playing, and he found that they enjoyed the game just as much as the people he had seen at the carnival. It is believed that when one of his friends won the game, instead of yelling ‘Beano’ as the people at the carnival had done, he yelled ‘Bingo’ in his joy, and Lowe decided that this was catchier, and it stuck.

The Professor

There was one thing Lowe needed though to market this game on a larger scale and make it stick – and that was maths. You see, it’s all very well and good printing cards using stamps and cardboard, but this poses problems with number probability and repeat patterns. He sold cards for $1 for 12 and $2 for 24, but he found that there were too many winners each time. He searched for someone who could help, and he found his match at the University of Columbia, a maths professor called Carl Leffler. Between the two, they decided that it would be better to increase the number of squares on the board and Leffler was left to the daunting task of mulling over the matter of probabilities. After a huge amount of effort, he came up with 6,000 unique bingo cards to solve the winning problem. The game also featured the numbers 1-75, unlike the French game of the past. Bingo went into mass production, and soon found an unlikely market.

Religion and Bingo

Once the game became ready to market, Lowe was approached by a member of the Catholic church, who asked if he could use the game to raise funds for his parish. Lowe, being a kindly gentleman agreed and before he knew it, the game was played in churches all over the US. In fact, by 1934 there were over 10,000 games played weekly by US citizens!

Across the Pond

Not long after this, the game came across to our shores in the UK, where it was an overnight success. Unlike the US game, the UK bingo game was played between the numbers of 1-90. Bingo callers would use popular references when calling out the numbers, drawing from music hall songs, celebrities and military terms for inspiration. Here it continued to grow and grow, reaching peak popularity in the 60’s where bingo halls could be found in near enough every town and seaside resort in the country, bolstered by the repeal of the Entertainment Tax that was first levied to provide war funds for WWI. The gaming act was also opened up in 1960, which aided the introduction of bingo halls, who were taking the places of struggling cinemas to fill the entertainment void. In 1968, slot machines could also be introduced into bingo halls, appealing to even more punters.

70’s Onwards

By the time the 70’s rolled around, bingo was big money, and it would not be unreasonable for a player to hope that maybe, just maybe their numbers would come up and change their life forever. The introduction of the ‘Link’ game, a game played by all clubs nationwide allowed players to complete for the chance to win thousands – sometimes hundreds of thousands – of pounds, adding to the popularity of the game. These games continue today, and in 2007 the first Bingo Millionaire was created.

Recently, playing bingo in clubs has been on a decline, partly because of online bingo playing (the first site was set up in 1996 called Cyberbingo.com) and in the UK it has also been affected by Health Act of 2005, which banned smoking in enclosed places; something which has also had a detrimental effect on pubs and nightclubs too. For some though, the social aspects of a bingo hall far outweigh playing online, and will always be king.

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