A Brief History of Bingo


The history of bingo is a long and colourful one, harking back as far as the 16th century (c. 1530) in Italy where a lottery game called Il Gioco del Lotto d'Italia (The Lottery Game in Italy) was first introduced to the masses. The game was hugely popular, driving significant revenues into the arms of the ruling classes, and even to this day Italians partake in the same lotto every Saturday.

Although Il Gioco del Lotto doesn’t resemble bingo as we now know it, there are enough similarities between the two games for it to be a legitimate precursor to modern-day bingo.

A more nuanced version of the lottery and a much closer cousin to bingo came about near the end of the 18th century in France. Known as Le Lotto (The Lottery), discs numbered 1-90 would be drawn from a bag and read out while players would fill out a card – which was divided into three rows and nine columns – that contained all 90 numbers. The winner would be the first person to cover one full row.

Only five squares from nine in each row contained numbers, which subsquently led to the design of how a bingo card looks nowadays. This style of lottery-bingo soon took off across Europe and by the 19th century the game was even being used for educational purposes in Germany to teach children how to spell and remember their multiplication tables.

Bingo Moves West

The first recorded instance of standarised bingo in the English-speaking world took place at select carnivals in Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvania in the US during the 1920s. The ‘bingo carnival game’, for want of a better phrase, was run by a man named Hugh J. Ward who later went on to copyright the word bingo and author an official rule book on the topic in 1933. 

However, it was due to the influence of a struggling but ingenious toy salesman by the name of Edwin Lowe that the game of bingo went viral in the States. Lowe, a native of New York, came across the game – than called Beano - at a travelling carnival in Atlanta, Georgia in December 1929.  He noticed how engaged players were with the game, which was based on Ward’s rules and used beans to cover up the allotted numbers on the cards.

Lowe took the game back to New York and introduced it to his friends who loved it. Received wisdom is that one of his friends got so excited when she won that she inadvertedly cried out “Bingo!” instead of the usual “Beano!” .

Whether this explanation of how the game got to be called bingo is true is hard to prove. It certainly sounds to good to be true when you consider that the word bingo had been used in Great Britain since the 1770s and migrated to the area of Pittsburgh at least 50 years before Lowe’s claim.

Either way, Lowe used the name bingo to create a commerical verison of the carnival game, which he sold for $1 (12 cards) and $2 (24 cards) respectively. It was a smash hit. Before long bingo had become a sweeping success across the US and by the mid 1930s it was popping up all over America, in part because churches and social clubs quickly realised its fund-raising potential. By the 1940s it was effectively everywhere.

Bingo in the UK

Around the same time in the UK, bingo was taking off under its own steam. Thanks to the popularity of lottery style games and Housey Housey – a previous name for bingo in Britain – by the early 1950s the game was widespread across all sections of society. The game was particularly popular with ex-servicemen and women who had played it during downtime in the First and Second World Wars. Religion also had a large role to play in bingo’s rise in the UK as Irish immigrants’ love for the game soon expanded beyond the walls of the Catholic Church where it was used to raise church funds.

On January 3rd 1961 the first commercial bingo club opened to great fanfare in the UK. By June 1961 Mecca (a subset of The Rank Group) were selling half a million bingo books per week and the average attendance at Mecca bingo games was 150,000 players per day. By 1963 there were over 14 million individual members of commercial bingo clubs. In 1966 a Gallup poll found that 24% of respondents had played bingo at least once in the previous twelve months. Bingo had quite simply exploded onto the British national consciousness.

In 1968 the Labour government at the time introduced a gaming bill that imposed a powerful regime of controls on the burgeoning bingo industry. The effect was to bankrupt a lot of the independent bingo halls and allowed Mecca and the other big chains to further dominate the market.

Bingo had its first major technological breakthrough in the UK in 1986 when the National Bingo Game was introduced. It allowed bingo clubs to connect remotely to a game control centre to receive a pre-selected list of numbers which were then called out at the same time in bingo clubs across the country. This paved the way for huge prizes to be won because of the network effect, cementing bingo’s popularity among regulars.

Brave New World

The next big change in bingo – some would say a paradigm shift – came in 1996 when the first bingo game appeared online called Bingo Zone. The site failed to capture the public’s imagination, but looking back it ushered in a new dawn where bingo could be played in the comfort of one’s home. By 2003 internet speeds and usage had increased signficantly and a wave of online bingo sites began to crop up to meet the high demand for online bingo.

With this brave new world came new ways of playing bingo. Chat rooms moderated by chat monitors replaced the community feel of bingo halls and in them an entirely new bingo language was formed, such as WTG (Way To Go) and GL (Good Luck).

Online bingo continued to boom in the late noughties as land-based bingo giants such as Gala jumped on board the bandwagon and established online bingo sites. Major bookmakers such as William Hill and Ladbrokes also entered the marketplace, lending legitimacy and scope to the lucrative online bingo industry.

By 2012 there were estimated to be over 1,000 online bingo sites globally and the overall market for playing bingo online is said to be worth over £2 billion.

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