[Retro Roadmap] Duckpins? Candlepins? Let's Go Bowling!

Posted on: January 23rd, 2014 by Beth Lennon 6 Comments

Papps Bowling Center Bordentown NJ RetroRoadmap
Papp's Bowling Center in Bordentown, N.J.

Depending on where you live, you may have different images that come to mind when someone says, "Let's go bowling!" For most Americans it's Big Lebowski-style bowling (officially known as ten-pin) with hefty bowling balls and big pear-shaped pins. But dig a little deeper and you'll find regionally distinctive strains of this popular sport -- candlepin and duckpin -- that are little known outside of the northeastern United States.

And while many contemporary bowling alleys are being updated an alarming rate, there are still a handful of lanes across the country that harken back to the golden age of bowling, no matter what style you prefer. These are the kind that Mod Betty likes best, so here are three examples of where you can step back in time while you're stepping out on the lanes.

Duckpin Bowling

The least familiar of all of the bowling styles in the U.S., duckpins are mainly played in Connecticut, Maryland, Rhode Island, and a handful of other states. There is some controversy surrounding the true year and location of where it was invented. Earlier documentation indicated that around 1900 two Baltimore Orioles, Wilbert Robinson and John McGraw, originated both the term and the sport in Baltimore. But recently available online archives of The Boston Globe have shown reference to duckpins as far back as 1893.

Woodlawn Duckpin Bowling West Haven CT - Nick Tronsky - RetroRoadmap
Duckpin bowling legend Nick Tronsky keeps a watchful eye on the lanes at Woodlawn Duckpin Lanes.

Upon first glance duckpin bowling appears to be a scaled-down version of ten-pins with a few slight differences. The game is played on a standard-sized bowling alley and scored the same as ten-pin, but the player rolls three balls per turn instead of two. The balls are roughly the size of a softball and have no holes in them, and the pins, while similar in silhouette to ten pins, are smaller too.

Woodlawn Duckpin Bowling West Haven CT - Duckpins RetroRoadmap
According to legend, the sport got its name because the small pins resemble the bodies of ducks in flight.

The duckpin ball's small scale is a bonus when looking for an activity that the entire family can enjoy, says Bob Nugent, owner of Woodlawn Duckpins in West Haven, Connecticut: "The balls are the perfect size for small children." He adds, "Since they are much lighter (than ten-pin balls) grandparents can join right in and have fun alongside the kids."

Woodlawn Duckpin Bowling West Haven CT - Duckpin Bowling Balls Retro Roadmap
Duckpin bowling balls are just the right size for small hands.

Nugent, who grew up bowling at Woodlawn, has owned the lanes for the last 10 years. Established in 1954, they still use the sturdy but antiquated automatic pinsetting machinery that was installed 60 years ago. While durable, this machinery is considered one of the reasons why this style of bowling isn't more well-known.

Woodlawn Duckpin Bowling West Haven CT - Duckpin Bowling Pinsetter Retro Roadmap
The inner workings of the Sherman pinsetter -- a marvel of industrial ingenuity.

According to "Duckpin," a documentary about the history of the sport that was partially filmed at Woodlawn, inventor Ken Sherman refused to sell the patent to his machine to the Brunswick Corporation, who held the patent for the automatic ten-pin pinsetter. Without the corporate investment and ability to scale production of the duckpin equipment, the sport remained in the alleys where it had originated, and was never was able to grow much past there.

Since parts for these machines have not been made since 1973, owners like Nugent will often travel to duckpin lanes that have closed in order to source parts for their machines, warehousing what they might need in the future.

Visit Woodlawn Duckpins

240 Platt Ave
West Haven, CT 06516
(203) 932-3202

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Candlepin Bowling

In the majority of the New England states, candlepin bowling is "real" bowling, while what the rest of the country does is referred to as "big ball bowling." Invented in Worcester, Mass., in 1880, the sport takes its name from the oblong shape of the pin. A columnar shape with a slight convex curve in the middle, the pin -- resembling a candle -- is the same size at the top as the bottom.

Candlepin Wakefield Bowladrome Wakefield MA Scoring By Hand RetroRoadmap
Scoring of Candlepin bowling is done in a vertical column.

The bowling balls in candelpins are the smallest and lightest of all three styles of bowling, weighing in at just under 3 lbs. Like duckpins the bowling ball has no holes, and the bowler is given three rolls per frame. In a characteristic unique to candlepin bowling, the fallen pins (often referred to as "dead wood" ) are not cleared between rolls on the same turn, and how the pins fall and stay can affect the score greatly.

Candlepin Wakefield Bowladrome Wakefield MA Exterior and Sign RetroRoadmap
Step into the Wakefield Bowladrome and step back in time.

To get a taste of what good old-fashioned candlepin bowling is like, look no further than the Bowladrome in Wakefield, Mass. Operated since 1952 by the same family, this 20-lane house was a bowling alley prior to that, with live pin-boys setting up the pins before the invention of automatic pinsetters.

Owner Tom Giordano continues to ensure that the Bowladrome stays true to history; while they do have automatic pinsetters, many other modern touches are avoided. No glow-bowling, no bumper-bowling, no website. Plus, you score by hand on paper -- and cash only, please.

Visit Wakefield Bowladrome

92 Water St.
Wakefield, MA 01880
(781) 245-7062

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Ten-Pin Bowling

The style of bowling most familiar to Americans is ten-pin bowling -- or to most folks, just "bowling."

Papp's Bowling Center Bordentown NJ - Alley - RetroRoadmap
Bowling -- fun for all ages.

From the replacement of pin-setting boys with automatic pinsetters, to computerized scoring, the sport strives to remain relevant in an ever-changing landscape of entertainment options. Bowling centers that have been around for decades are encouraged to upgrade and reinvent themselves as "Family Entertainment Centers" with bowling only a segment of the options offered to appeal to today's increasingly online youth.

Luckily there are still some charming holdouts to this hyper and hyped-up trend that offer a pleasant bowling experience sans fluorescent bells and whistles, such as Papp's Bowling Center in Bordentown, N.J.

Papp's Bowling Center Bordentown NJ - Vintage Neon Sign Retro Roadmap
Papp's Bowling vintage neon sign as seen from busy Route 130

Owned by husband and wife team Andy and Betty Papp, Papp's Bowling Center is a family affair. They opened the lanes in 1964 along with his parents, and are celebrating their 50th year of being open this year. Betty is the charming face behind the counter and voice on the phone. Andy runs the pro shop where you can get measured for your own bowling ball, and their son Ron is a bowling instructor.

Papps Bowling Center Bordentown NJ Pro Shop RetroRoadmap
Get your grip measured for your very own bowling ball.

This is also a place where the community gathers for league play, birthday parties and even wedding parties, as well as where the Bordentown Regional High School bowling team plays and practices. No automatic scoring here, which gives the kids (and adults) practice with their math skills. Even on New Year's Eve, Betty and Andy stay open so families can have an affordable place to have fun and ring in the new year together.

Papp's Bowling Center

244 U.S. 130
Bordentown, NJ 08505
(609) 298-1317

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So now you know you have three options the next time someone says, "Let's go bowling!" Hopefully there's a vintage bowling alley near you so you can take them up on the offer.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

Beth Lennon

Beth Lennon is the creator of the website RetroRoadmap.com. As "Mod Betty," she delights as the retro travel "hostess with the mostess," scouting out cool vintage places and sharing them with the world.

Sports, Travel

6 Responses

  1. Anna Borg

    January 23, 2014

    Growing up in California, I actually had no idea there were three types of bowling! This was a great article, thanks!

  2. Debra Jane Seltzer

    January 23, 2014

    Great piece, Beth! There’s also rubberband duckpins or, as the French call it, “quilles”. Same as duckpins but the pins have a thick rubber band around the middle which creates more rebounding action. Only two balls per frame. A super quick video here:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R5XZmb4yiow

  3. Candi

    January 23, 2014

    Always have some interesting places to check out !!

  4. Jen

    January 24, 2014

    This was fun to read—I’ve never seen duckpin bowling before, and it sounds really fun! Next you’ll have to check out Feather Bowling, which can only be done at a few places in the States—including my hometown of Detroit. :) http://youtu.be/E94gb18YJKA

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