Bingo History

Today the game of bingo is viewed by many as representing a bygone era in American culture, but in all actuality bingo has been enjoyed for several centuries by players all around the world. Beginning in 1530 with the organization of Italy’s National Lottery – known as Lo Giuoco del Lotto d'Italia – bingo’s ancestor was a number game known as Lotto.

Using a playing card divided into three horizontal rows and nine vertical columns, Lotto played similarly to the bingo we know today. The horizontal rows were filled with five random numbers and four blank squares, while each vertical column was filled with numbers from a set, starting with 1-10, 11-20, and so on.

Players were given a single playing card and tokens to cover their spaces with, while a caller drew numbers from a bag and read them aloud. Whenever a player heard a number called that appeared on their playing card, they covered it with a token, and the player to cover an entire horizontal row first won the game.

Variations of Lotto were adopted throughout Europe over the years, and by the time an American carnival barker traveled to Germany in 1928, the popular game was still being played. Inspired, that carnival worker returned to the U.S. and began hosting his own game under tent tops in the South.

Calling his adaptation beano, the carnival worker was running a game near Jacksonville, Georgia in 1929 when the large group of players huddling beneath his tent attracted the attention of New York toy salesman Edwin S. Lowe.

Lowe watched as dozens of beano players sat for hours, enraptured by the entertainment to the point that they wouldn’t let the game end until well past midnight. Inspired by what he witnessed, and desperately in need of a big idea to support his fledgling toy business after the market crash, Lowe returned to New York City and began working on his own version of beano.

As legend has it, beano was transformed into bingo due to a simple slip of the tongue, during a demonstration of the game Lowe hosted in his home. While his friends and family became increasingly absorbed by the game’s building tension, one woman could barely contain her excitement as she completed her board. When she heard the final number she needed called out, the woman stammered “B-b-bingo!” while declaring victory – much to the delight of Lowe.

“I cannot describe the strange sense of elation which that girl’s cry brought to me,” Lowe said later about the life-changing moment. “All I could think of was that I was going to come out with this game, and it was going to be called Bingo!”

Lowe began selling his bingo sets in two packages, one with 12 cards for $1 and another with 24 cards for $2, and the game became an instant hit. While he couldn’t trademark the game itself, as it had originated centuries before and long since entered the public domain, the word “bingo” was distinct to Lowe’s version.

Soon enough churches, parishes, and other community organizations were using bingo games as a fundraising tool. The increased scale of the game forced Lowe to hire Columbia University mathematics professor Carl Leffler, as thousands of additional cards with non-repeating number sequences were needed.

Bingo immediately soared in popularity, and by 1934 there were 10,000 games being played every week throughout the country. Today, bingo is played in Elks lodges, community centers, and casinos all across America, and dozens of variants have been invented over the years to keep the game fresh for new generations of players.