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The Origins of Bingo

Bingo history begins in Italy, better known for its delicious dishes, leaning architecture and Julius Caesar. 

Ashley Hughes delves deep into the nether-regions of Britain’s favourite past-time and answers the all important question on everybody’s lips: Just where does bingo come from?

Who invented bingo?

Bingo, as we recognise today, stems from the Italian national lotto – Lo Giucco del Lotto d’Italia, or The Clearance of The Lot of Italy, founded in 1530. It is now known as Lo Guccio d’Italia and has carried through to the 21st century, being the longest running national lottery in the world. It involved calling 5 numbers from a box of 90, with the person matching five numbers winning the main cash prize. Essentially, this was the original calling and matching numbers game and the foundation for all the lottery games that recognise today. The Italian state lottery is now crucially important to the Government’s budget, generating funds of up to 75 million dollars every year.

There are some who believe that bingo games are for the regular folks, especially in the 18th century where Classicism was rampant; but you couldn’t be more wrong. In 1778, reports in the French press suggest that Le Lotto – France’s version of the Italian bingo-lotto – had very much captured the imagination of France’s intelligentsia. In this rudimentary version of bingo, the playing cards were divided into three horizontal and nine vertical rows, each with five numbered and four blank squares in random alignment. Each rows contained a specific set of numbers; the first contained numbers 1 to 10, the next contained numbers 11 to 20 and so on, until the last row which was home to the numbers 81 to 90. No two lotto cards were the same, ensuring only one winner. The numbers were then revealed from a cloth bag – essentially the birth of the bingo caller – and the first person to cover a horizontal line won.

Moving through to the 1800s and bingo games were now being used as educational tools. A German lotto game was designed to teach children their multiples, and others that were used to teach children how to spell. Then there was ‘animal lotto’ and ‘history lotto’. Even today, with our forever advancing technology, bingo games for children still prove popular. Milton Bradley, for example, sells a lotto game featuring the lovable characters from Sesame Street and adults from around the world will still remember the little bingo set they had as children.

Beano

Beano – and not the comic book featuring Dennis the Menace that was born in 1938 – was the game that threw ‘bingo’ into the limelight over in the US. The story goes that Edwin S. Lowe, New York toy salesman, decided in December 1929 to drive into Jacksonville, Georgia so he would have an early start for his next day’s appointments.

Like the shining light at the end of the tunnel, Lowe came across a well-lit country carnival on the outskirts of Jacksonville. Being so late, only one extremely busy stall was open. Out of curiosity, Lowe went over for a look and to his surprise the game looked rather basic; it was beano. The pitchman, or beano caller, removed small wooden numbered disks from a cigar box and called the numbers out to the crowed. The players responded by looking at their cards on the table and covering the numbers with a bean if they had been called. Once a line – either horizontally, vertically or diagonally – was fully covered they shouted out ‘beano.’ The winner bagged themselves a small
teddy – not the thousands we’re used to today.

Edwin Lowe himself playing the incredibly popular 'beano.'

Edwin Lowe himself playing the incredibly popular ‘beano.’

Lowe caught a minute with the stall owner at the end – once the crowds were chased off at 3am – and was informed that the idea came to him when playing a German-variant of lottery while travelling with the carnival. He made a few changes and beano was born, and it was so popular through Europe that he brought it over to the USA. Lowe’s eyes light up and made his way home with the game beano at the front of his mind.

Bingo

Returning to New York, Lowe brought with him some dried beans, a rubber stamp for numbering and a piece of cardboard. He then recruited his friends around to his apartment to try his new beano game, with Lowe acting as the caller. All of a sudden, before his very eyes, his friends were hooked on bingo; all playing with the same excitement he witnessed at the carnival. Lowe, during one session, realised that one of his friends was only a couple of numbers away from winning. He could see how excited she was by the look on her face, and as she placed her final bean down she stuttered and tongue tied and instead of ‘beano’, she shouted out, ‘bingo.’

Speaking on this moment, Lowe said: “I cannot describe the strange sense of elation which that girl’s cry brought to me!”

“All I could think of was that I was going to come out with this game, and it was going to be called Bingo!”

Lowe sold his first bingo cards in two styles – a twelve card collection for a dollar and a twenty-four card selection for two dollars. Bingo picked up instant following and threw Lowe into financial and popular acclaim. Bingo couldn’t be trademarked though, and soon everybody with any sense was replicating Lowe’s game. He took this graciously though, and was pleased that the game took on so well and quickly.

Church bingo and beyond!

Some time later after bingo polarized the gaming market, a priest by the name of Wilkes-Barre approached Lowe and inquired about his game. The Father’s church was financially strained and had hoped to use Lowe’s game as a means of raising funds. Wilkes-Barre had purchased a large number of Lowe’s game, but unfortunately it was producing multiple winners. Lowe, with his entrepreneurial gifts, saw what bingo could become. He recognised that there could be multiple cards and a single winner, but this would require numerical combinations beyond the ability of a man and one stamp. He needed to consult a mathematician; and he did just that in the form of Carl Leffler, from Columbia University. The agreement was that the professor must produce 6000 unique cards and that he would be paid on a per card basis. As the difficulty rose, so did the price, and eventually Lowe was paying the professor $100 per card. Soon enough, the task was completed. The E. S Lowe company had the 6000 cards it required and was ready to do business.

The game went ahead in Wilkes-Barre’s church, and soon word spread around town of this church-saving wonder game called bingo. By 1934 the were an estimated 10,000 bingo games a week, and Lowe’s company now had thousands of employees and 64 presses printing 24 hours a day.

And that’s pretty much that. The British nicked it off the Americans sometime during this process, and just like overseas, it’s exploded with millions now enjoying the beautiful game of bingo.

Now you have the complete lowdown on Britain’s most popular past-time, take your knowledge of bingo history to Coral and bag those big wins.