Birth of Bingo

November 8, 2009

Bingo Players

The true origin of bingo dates back as far as the mid 16th century and is connected, strangely enough to the unification of Italy in 1530. This unification saw the introduction of a National lottery system, known as “Lo Giuoco del Lotto d’Italia” held each week. Interestingly, this lottery is today a major source of income to the government, contributing over 75 million dollars each year to the budget.

It was the French who developed a passion for “Le Lotto”, as it became known and they adapted their own version of the game that strikes a strong resemblance with today’s version of bingo. Three horizontal and nine vertical rows formed the basis of the card and players would cover their numbers as they were drawn until an entire horizontal row was covered – hence the winner.

Lotto continued to flourish throughout Europe. It was used as an educational tool in Germany to teach children their multiplication tables and even formed the basis of many other games and toys still noticeable in toy stores today. But where and when did Lotto somehow morph into Bingo? Well, the answer lies in what could be described as a compromise – Beano!

Picture the scene. It’s 1929 and a weary and stressed toy salesman by the name of Edwin S. Lowe is driving to Jacksonville, Georgia to prepare for some appointments. Soon after starting his own toy company a year earlier, the market crashed and Mr. Lowe’s prospects were looking very bleak indeed.

Before arriving in Jacksonville, Lowe decided to cheer himself up by stopping off at a country carnival, being a night early for his appointments. Only one carnival booth was open and very crowded. The excitement seemed to be generated by a game that was a variation of Lotto, known as Beano. A horseshoe table was covered with numbered cards and beans. Every time a pitchman pulled a wooden disk from an old cigar box and called the number on it, the players reached for a bean and covered the corresponding number on their card, if they had it. When they had totally covered a line, either diagonally, vertically or horizontally, they had to shout Beano! They then received a doll.

Lowe wanted to play, but the game was too popular and no seats were available. What he did notice though was that all the players seemed to be addicted to the game. The pitchman was not able to close and had to eventually chase the players away at 3:00am. The pitchman had apparently picked the game of Lotto in Germany and decided to adapt and bring it to the United States and to rename it Beano. The success of the game on the carnival circuit proved to be highly lucrative.

Back in New York, Lowe invited some friends to his apartment and introduced them to the game. The tension seemed palpable. One time, a player became close to winning and was getting more and more excited. When her final number was called she jumped up in a fit of ecstasy and in all her excitement got herself tongue-tied. Instead of shouting Beano she spat out “Bingo!” Lowe would later describe the “sense of elation” he experienced when he heard her cry. He knew from that moment he was going to introduce this game to the public and name it “Bingo”.

What a success it proved to be for Lowe and his company! As the game came out of the public domain it was hard for it to be trademarked. Entreponeurs emerged from all sides and began their own versions. Lowe graciously asked them to pay just one dollar a year and call their games “Bingo” as well. To avoid litigation, this seemed a small price to pay and hence the massive spread and popular interest in bingo.

Lowe became aware of the fundraising possibilities of bingo after he was approached by a parishioner who wanted to use the game to raise funds. However, there seemed to be a problem when he discovered that each game tended to produce at least a half a dozen winners. Lowe knew that in order for bingo to succeed and a larger scale he needed to develop a greater number of combinations for his cards. So he approached a mathematics professor at Columbia University by the name of Carl Leffler. Lowe wanted 6,000 new cards with different combinations. The professor agreed. What he may not have conceptualized was how much harder each card became to develop than the card before. The fee per card rose to $100 and the task was finally completed, much to Lowe’s delight and at a cost to the professor of his sanity! (Or so many people have speculated).

After that, bingo really began to take off. People started to approach Lowe in droves, asking him to help them develop bingo games. Newsletters and even a book were published. The stakes and prizes got higher and pretty soon bingo took its place in popular American culture along with sports and other forms of gambling and general entertainment.

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