Bowling alley construction and signage of the 1930s – early 1960s represent some of the most elegant and exuberant design in American history.
After struggling through the Great Depression, bowling alleys enjoyed a resurgence of popularity in the 1930s, motivated primarily by the repeal of Prohibition and a bevy of savvy breweries looking for a readymade market for their wares. Pabst, Schlitz, Stroh’s, Hamm’s, and Budweiser all jumped on the bowling wagon, sponsoring men’s and women’s teams along with tournaments, exhibitions, and promotional giveaways. Bowling alleys again became a place for families to socialize, grab a beer, and put the deprivations of the Depression behind them.
With the resurgence of interest in bowling, new alleys began popping up across the country. One of the most elegant, Tower Bowl, was built by S. Charles Lee, the influential architect of many of southern California’s art deco theatres. Tower Bowl featured an 80-foot curved steel sign stacked with seven bowling balls measuring five feet in diameter. To the delight of passerby, the neon wrapped balls revolved, spelling out “Bowling” on one side and “Tower Bowl” on the other. Inside, bowlers were greeted by a Streamline Moderne dream: terrazzo floors, colorful murals, an elegant cocktail lounge, and 32-lanes illuminated with special lighting to reduce shadows. One can imagine Nick and Nora Charles dropping by after wrapping up their latest adventure!
With the onset of WWII, bowling continued as the most popular participation sport in the country. Bowling alleys became centers for morale and patriotic fund-raising, with the sport cutting across economic and social lines. Families, servicemen, factory workers – all enjoyed the atmosphere and camaraderie to be found.
In the 1950s, bowling was revolutionized and gained even more popularity through the happy convergence of three innovations: the mechanical pinsetter which sped up the game and did away with the need for manual pin setting by unruly pin boys; the spotlight of television broadcasting bringing bowling into the home with shows like Championship Bowling, Bowling Stars, and Jackpot Bowling; and finally, the rise of Mid-Century modern architecture and Googie design.
Influenced by car culture and space age design, Googie architecture of the 1950s and 60s is uniquely and wonderfully American. Boomerangs, starbursts, flashing neon, gravity defying roofs, and cosmic arrows pointing the way to fun – all worked together to catch the eye of the roadside traveler while making a statement about the hope for the future and a new modern age.
Although many of the signs and buildings have been demolished with the advent of supercenters and commercial high rises, a few of these roadside relics still exist to remind us of a time when manned space flights captured the imagination of the masses and the future held the promise of a society revolutionized by modern invention.
Check out the Vintage Roadside gift shop and our range of products featuring wonderful graphics from bowling’s golden age!