According to the radio, it is, it seems, the anniversary of the game Bingo. On this day in 1929, it is alleged the American toy manufacturer Edwin S. Lowe rebranded the game Beano that he had encountered in Georgia and launched a worldwide phenomenon.
The claim that Bingo was only ninety-two years old seemed dubious and an online search revealed the origins of the game to be of far greater antiquity, its roots being in Italy in around 1530.
The name of Sixteenth Century game Il Gioco del Lotto d’Italia is closer to the game of Lotto that used to appear in compendiums of children’s games that would be received as Christmas presents in the 1960s. Sometimes, it would be called, Housey, Housey.
Whatever the name, the game is similar and was hugely popular for a time. Its adherents would maintain that its popularity has returned in an online form, but that seems similar to churches claiming that their number of worshippers has risen because people follow live streams.
Bingo seems to fill in that period of history between the decline of cinema and the rise of multi-channel television. Vast buildings that were once cinemas were filled with people with their eyes down.
People? Women, rather. Bingo seemed a game overwhelmingly played by women. The men in the bingo halls were generally the caller and the staff. There were few men seated among the many players.
There is undoubtedly some social psychological explanation for the gender split. Betting shops were the preserve of men and bingo halls the preserve of women. Why did men prefer to bet on horses and greyhounds while women preferred to take their chances with numbered balls from a machine? Both had an equally miniscule chance of becoming rich.
The gender split has persisted. Well, the fact of most betting shop customers being male has certainly persisted. Pass a branch of Ladbrokes, Paddy Power or William Hill and it is unusual to see women going in or coming out of the premises.
The other division that has continued is that of social class.
The women who filled the bingo halls were overwhelmingly from working class communities. The halls were to be found in big cities and industrial towns. A bingo venue in the suburbs or in a shire town was an unusual sight. Where bingo persists, it is where similar demographic patterns have continued.
The great achievement of Edwin S. Lowe was to give countless people countless hours of entertainment (while, incidentally, transferring large amounts of money from many poorer people to a few rich people).
I remember when they put on coaches to go to bingo. They were big business once. Probably the Lotto knocked the wind out of them. But they had 500+ people in a hall of a Tuesday Wednesday and Thursday. Even the parish halls would have 100 or so.
I had forgotten the bingo buses! When I worked in rural Co Down there was a coach owned by the local GAA club that was know affectionately as the “bingo bus” because of its Sunday evening round of the local townlands to collect the bingo players.