History of Bingo - The Bingo.Games Official Guide

Chapter 1

Contents

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Introduction

The First Bingo Games

The American Revolution

The War-Time Boom

The Online Revolution

Introduction

Bingo is said to have originated in Italy during the 16th century, where it began life as a type of lottery. However, lotteries had actually been around for over 1600 years at that point. (4) In this section of our guide, we look in detail at the different stages of bingo's journey over the ages. 

Versions of this numbers game were used by the Chinese during the Han Dynasty, where they helped to fund government projects, including infrastructure and warfare. In fact, the Great Wall of China was being stitched together during this time (it had existed as multiple separate walls for over 400 years) so early lotteries 'may' have funded its creation.

Raffles and lotteries were also used during the Roman Empire, beginning as a novelty form of entertainment during lavish dinner parties and eventually helping to fund city repairs during the reign of Augustus Caesar.

Roman citizens purchased tickets with real silver and if their numbers came in, they were given prizes in return. It was a stroke of genius from one of history’s greatest leaders, as it essentially served as an additional tax, but one that would appease and not anger the heavily-taxed populace.

In the middle ages, lotteries were used in Flemish, Dutch, and Spanish towns, helping to fund the age of warfare. The Spanish were particularly adept at these games and launched their first national lottery in 1763 under the reign of King Carlos III. Spanish lotteries have changed a little over the years, but they still exist to this day, making the Spanish state lottery system one of the oldest in the world.

Around the same time, we began to see fully-formed games that closely resembled modern bingo. It entered a world that was already obsessed with games of chance, and it flourished as a result.

The First Bingo Games

Bingo took on its modern form during the height of lottery fever in Europe. An Italian game known as Il Gioco del Lotto d’Italia (“the lotto game of Italy”) and a French game known as Le Lotto, became popular across the continent and morphed into something we’d recognise as bingo. (5)

In this ancient form of bingo, the “caller” would place a number of wooden pieces into a bag or box and then retrieve them one by one. Players would mark their cards accordingly and the one that matched a full line was the winner. (6)

These games were simple enough to be played and enjoyed by all, but adaptable enough to work on a small scale. It meant they could be played in homes, town halls, pubs, palaces, and anywhere else that people gathered. Everyone purchased a ticket, all funds were pooled together, and a small share was retained for the organisers.

However, the real bingo revolution was several centuries away, and just like blackjack, poker, and countless European bands and entertainers, its big break came in the United States of America.

The American Revolution

At this point in our story, the game we known as bingo had yet to be coined as such. It went by different names in different countries, although there is reason to believe that “Bingo” was being used in the United Kingdom during the 19th century.

In the 1920s, bingo had made its way across the Atlantic and was a common feature at fairs and carnivals. Players would mark their cards with beans instead of pens, referring to the game as “Beano”. (7)

It’s believed that Edwin S. Lowe, a toymaker and salesman, witnessed one of these games and decided to commercialise it. According to legend, he hosted his own “Beano” party to see how his friends would react. After misunderstanding the rules, one of his friends shouted “Bingo” instead of “Beano”, giving Lowe his eureka moment and leading to the creation of Lowe’s Bingo.

In truth, and as noted above, the name was already in use by this time. The story is often attributed to marketer Hugh J. Ward, who likely knew of its history in the United Kingdom and simply liked the name.

Lowe would later file the first patent for a bingo card and made a lot of money from the game.

While Lowe is often credited as the person who popularised bingo and brought it to a massive audience, he was far from a one-hit-wonder.

Lowe is credited with bringing the game Yahtzee to a wider audience, having purchased the rights from its Canadian owners and filing a trademark in 1956. He also created a chess set that is very popular with collectors and even had a role in producing Broadway plays (8) (9).

Surprisingly for the man who created bingo, Lowe opened the first non-casino hotel on the Las Vegas Strip. He believed that many visitors to Sin City weren’t interested in gambling and hoped that the 450-room Tallyho Hotel would serve as their haven. Unsurprisingly, however, he was wrong in his assumptions and the hotel soon went out of business.

Today, that prime piece of Las Vegas real estate is occupied by the Planet Hollywood Las Vegas resort (which does, incidentally, have a casino) (10).

The War-Time Boom

Bingo was played extensively on both sides of the Atlantic during the First and Second World Wars and it experienced a massive boom once these conflicts were over.

The 40s and 50s are considered to be the Golden Age of Bingo. Not only did globetrotting soldiers introduce it to their friends, families, and communities, but it became a great way of raising funds to rebuild after the devastation of global conflict.

Bingo halls popped up across the United Kingdom and the game gathered steam, generating a following across all age groups. The reason bingo was popular with so many seniors during the 80s and 90s is that many of them played the game during its heyday and fell in love with old-school bingo halls.

Many famous number nicknames were coined during this period. Bingo callers used these to add some extra flair to proceedings, turning them from simple number callers to all-round entertainers. Some of the most creative callouts included:

  • Legs Eleven = 11. A reference to how the number “11” looks like a pair of spindly legs. Often referred to as “chicken legs”.
  • Unlucky for Some = 13. Said to be the unluckiest number, except for players who have the number on their cards.
  • Dancing Queen = 17. A homage to ABBA’s song of the same name, where the number 17 is mentioned several times. It also rhymes, which is always a bonus.
  • Two Little Ducks = 22. The number “22” is said to resemble two little ducks in profile.
  • The Lord is my Shepherd = 23. A less-obvious one that refers to the first verse in Psalm 23 of the Old Testament.
  • A to Z = 26. There are 26 letters in the alphabet. “Two and Six” is also used.
  • Burlington Bertie = 30. Although it sounds like a random rhyme, it’s actually a reference to a music hall song first penned in 1900. The rhyme is also used in the song, “I’m Burlington Bertie, I rise at ten-thirty”.
  • Gandhi’s Breakfast = 80. An ingenious reference to Gandhi’s prolonged fasting rituals. For breakfast, he “ate nothing”.

Many of the other numbers use simple rhymes, such as “Buckle My Shoe” for 32 and “Garden Gate” for 8 (11).

The Online Revolution

As noted at the outset of this guide, bingo hit a roadblock in the early 2000s and was effectively destroyed by the introduction of the smoking ban. However, it had been on a steady decline for years.

Younger generations were turning to other games and numbers were falling. In the 1980s, it hit its peak, with countless bingo halls opening across the UK and shows like the bingo-based Bob’s Full House airing over 109 episodes. But in the 1990s, the decline began (12).

Today, bingo is a £1.3 billion industry in the UK and is experiencing a resurgence, with popularity not seen for half a century. All of that has been attributed to the rise of online bingo, turning this game from something played in stuffy, smoky, cacophonous bingo halls, to something you can enjoy in the comfort of your own home. (13)

Numbers are up and players have more choice than ever. Online developers have created a wealth of different bingo games based around classic formats like 75-Ball, 80-Ball, and 90-Ball Bingo, and these can be enjoyed across a range of platforms and devices.

Online bingo has brought this historic game back to the forefront and given it a new lease of life. 

References:

4. “Industry Statistics”. UK Gambling Commission. 2019.

5. “8 Notable Lotteries from History”. History.com. August 22, 2018.

6. “LotteryBritannica.

7. “History of Bingo”. Senior Advisor.

8. “Yahtzee from the E.S. Lowe Company”. ToyTales. August 7, 2017.

9. “Edwin Lowe, Bingo Developer, Dies at 75: Entrepreneur Reworked Game He Discovered at Georgia Carnival”. Los Angeles Times. February 27, 1986.

10. “On This Date: November 25, 1997, the Aladdin Hotel and Casino Closed”. Las Vegas 360. November 25, 2018.

11. “Bingo Number Nicknames. Street Directory.

12. “Bob’s Full House. IMDB.

13. “Bingo Revenue in the Gambling Industry in the United Kingdom from 2009 to 2019”. Statista. 2019.