The History of Bingo in the United States

One would think that bingo has been around forever, but in fact, it was only introduced to the United States in 1929. At the time, the game of bingo was known as “beano,” because players marked their cards with beans.The game of bingo was first played at a county fair in Jacksonville, Georgia. It was a struggling traveling toy salesman from New York named Edwin Lowe who made the game famous. Lowe was early for a sales appointment in December, 1929, and decided to stop in on the county fair. It was late at night and only one tent remained open at the fair. That tent was the “beano” tent.

The pitchman in the crowded tent pulled small wooden disks from an old cigar box and then called the number out loud to those seated around him in a horseshoe fashion. The players eagerly checked their cards and placed a bean on the appropriate numbers. This sequence continued until one of the players completed a horizontal, vertical, or diagonal line on the card with beans. When a player shouted “Beano,” the card was checked and the winner received a kewpie doll.

“The pitchman wanted to close up, but every time he said, ‘This is the last game,’ nobody moved. When he finally closed at 3 AM, he had to chase them out,” said Lowe. “I couldn’t get a seat (to play). But while I was waiting around, I noticed that the players were practically addicted to the game.”

Based on the excitement shown by players at the fair, Lowe knew that there was something special to this new numbers game. Being in the toy business, he also realized that Americans wanted something to entertain them—an inexpensive activity to be played during the Depression era.

Lowe began hosting weekly games at his apartment in New York City. He designed the first game using dried beans, cardboard, and a rubber number stamp. He invited friends over to the play the game and saw the same excitement that he experienced in the south. During one game at his apartment, one woman excitedly got tongue-tied when she won and instead of shouting “beano,” she shouted “bingo!”

“All I could think of was that I was going to come out with this game and it was going to be called Bingo,” said Lowe. The initial Bingo game retailed for $1.00 and had twelve different cards in it. There also was a larger edition of the game that sold for $2.00 that had 24 cards in it.

Unfortunately for Lowe, he was not able to trademark the name Bingo since it was already determined to be in the public domain. Hence, he immediately had a swarm of competitors.

Soon after, a Catholic priest in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania saw the opportunity to use bingo as a fundraising tool for his church. At the time, churches were struggling for donations as the economy was at an all-time low. The priest bought several of the $2.00 versions of the game, but with the large crowds playing in the church, he found that there were several winners per game that had to share the winnings. The priest approached Lowe about the possibility of offering more numerical combinations for the cards.

Lowe, together with Carl Leffler, a mathematician from Columbia University, worked to expand the new game of bingo. Leffler helped increase the number of cards available to players by creating more bingo card number combinations. By 1930, there were over 6000 different bingo card combinations and the game was beginning to catch on in a big way.

By 1934, over 10,000 locations in the United States were sponsoring weekly bingo games. Lowe’s once struggling company had over 1000 employees. His company was said to be using more newsprint than the New York Times!

Whether playing bingo in a bingo hall or church, or playing internet bingo, this game has become an American staple, just like baseball and apple pie. And, it’s all thanks to a once struggling toy salesman from New York who, by chance, walked in on a beano game in Georgia.