A History of Bingo

We may think of bingo as being stereotypically British, but its origins are Italian and French mixed with a good dollop of American.

history of bingo
Photo by Thomas Kelley / Unsplash

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We think of bingo as being stereotypically British, but in fact, its origins are Italian and French mixed with a good dollop of American.

From 16th century Europe to draughty English church halls, we take a look at how the nation's favourite game came to be.

How bingo began

So where did it all start? The truth is, no-one’s really sure.

What we do know is that a similar game, lo giuoco del lotto d’Italia, started in Italy in 1530 as a form of national lottery – which is still going strong today.

Bingo starts to travel

By the late 1700s, the Italian game had appeared in France, gaining the name le lotto in the process and becoming popular among the aristocracy.

It was during this time that the ‘classic’ playing board developed, with 27 squares arranged in three rows and nine columns.

Each row of nine had four blank and five numbered squares, marked with numbers between 1 and 90. This meant that the chances of two different cards being marked in the same way were relatively low.

Numbers were drawn at random from a bag and called out, and if players had that number on their board they’d cover it up with a wooden disc. The aim was to complete a horizontal line. Sounding familiar yet?

Bingo goes international

By the 19th century, versions of the game were being played in several European countries, including Germany, where it was also used as an education tool for children.

Bingo’s big break, however, came in the 1920s. A version of the game was already touring country fairs in North America, where players would listen to the numbers being called out and cover the square with a bean if it was a match.

Winners with a complete horizontal line would leap to their feet, shouting ‘beano’ in excitement.

One day, New York toy salesman Edwin S. Lowe, widely credited with being the ‘father of modern bingo’, happened to be passing. Intrigued by the players’ enthusiasm, he went home and created his own version with cardboard and dried beans.

The trial sessions he organised with his friends were such a hit that he began to market the game commercially.

It was during this period that it acquired the name ‘bingo’ – apparently, a friend of Lowe’s was so excited by her win that she couldn’t get the word ‘beano’ out.

Bingo and fundraising

Bingo has always been popular as a way of fundraising, as it requires little equipment or specialist knowledge to set up a game. Did you know that the association goes right back to the 1920s, though?

Soon after Edwin Lowe had launched his Bingo! game, he was approached by a resourceful Catholic priest from Pennsylvania who had introduced social bingo games as a way of raising money for his church.

He’d bought several boxes of Edwin’s game, each of which contained six different playing cards. However, the boxes between them contained several duplicate cards – and there were more winners per game than the priest thought ideal!

To help solve the problem, Edwin brought in the help of Carl Leffer, a mathematics professor from Columbia University. After a long and taxing few months, the professor eventually came up with 6,000 different cards, making the game playable on a massive scale.

The fundraising potential proved so instantly popular that Edwin had to bring out an instruction manual on how to set up large-scale games, followed by a monthly newsletter.

By the mid-1930s, an estimated 10,000 bingo games were being played across the States every week, and Edwin was employing around 1,000 people in his factory to help keep up with demand.

The largest historical game took place in New York, with 60,000 people competing for ten prizes of new cars. A further 10,000 wannabe players had to be turned away.

Edwin eventually sold his company in the 1970s for $26 million.

Bingo in the UK

By the 1940s, bingo had hit our shores and enjoyed an instant success. Its association with church fundraising meant that it was considered respectable and even praiseworthy to attend group games, and it was a social event that was suitable for single women to attend on their own.

In 1960, the UK Betting and Gaming Act allowed the forming of commercial lotto clubs, giving bingo a huge boost.

Bingo halls are still popular today, with several million players a year, and the game has continued to evolve with the availability of online bingo sites.

Now, it seems like the whole world is playing (it’s even popular in Japan!) – in fact, there are around 100 million players a year.

From its humble origins in Italy and 1920s America to a high-tech, online game, bingo has already been on quite a journey – and who knows where it will go next?

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