The oldest bowling ball in the United States knows not the tawdry grace of neon lights nor Tuesday drink specials. Archaeologists retrieved it from the seventeenth-century privy of a Boston dig, where it had nestled for several hundred years alongside discarded shells, crockery, and other refuse.[1] A long way from The Big Lebowski and—perhaps unexpectedly—much closer to God than The Dude ever got.

The ball dates from a hostile milieu. As the historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich has noted, a series of statues forbade bowling in seventeenth-century Boston. Lawmakers lumped it in with dancing and the observance of Christmas as something alien to Puritan religious practice. As period songs and legal proceedings alike suggest, folks got drunk and gambled while bowling. The sport became a flashpoint in debates about Puritanism in urban New England, a dangerous game that tarnished the players—to paraphrase Ulrich—by association. And yet it was more.

A sport lives on many levels, making different meanings wherever it goes, and bowling was no exception even in Puritan Massachusetts. When the minister Edward Taylor (1642-1729) wrote the preface to his poem “God’s Determinations Touching His Elect,” he turned to bowling as a reference for his expansive updating of Genesis. “Who in this Bowling Alley bowld the Sun?” he asked (rhetorically, for of course The Almighty set the sun in motion).[2] Here, as literary historian Keith Polette puts it, Taylor’s “rough-handed God” got physical with Creation.[3]

For Taylor, the sport was more than an anti-Puritan vice. The act of bowling with its movement and swing and its deliberate concentration spoke to something significant about how the world came into being. Some of the differences in how his contemporaries played the game probably attracted the pastor-cum-poet. The ball found in Boston was made of oak and squashed into a doughnut shape. Bowling it required pressing a weight into the side then rolling it towards a jack. The player did battle with gravity, struggling to keep the ball upright as well as on an even course. When Taylor wrote elsewhere “Make me, O Lord, thy Spinning Wheele compleat,” he hinted at the ways in which a bowled ball became a model for the godly.[4] Balance, turn, triumph.

When it comes to bowling, I’m far from an expert or enthusiast. I’ve never even bowled two hundred, and most of my time in the lanes came during the three months I interned at a tiny museum in a New York village that time and money forgot. Even there, the temporary tattoo machines were a bigger draw. Uncovering the sport’s lost histories, however, in the intersection between balance and archaeology, I grow more sympathetic to the rough-handed grace of strikes and gutterballs. Spinning compleat. Bowling for gravity.

[1] The majority of my research is taken from Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, “Big Dig, Little Dig, Hidden Worlds: Boston,” Common-Place 3.4 (July 2003), I thank Jason D. LaFountain for bringing the ball to my attention.
[2] Quoted in Roy Harvey Pearce, “Edward Taylor: The Poet as Puritan,” The New England Quarterly 23.1 (March 1950), 36.
[3] Keith Polette, “Taylor’s ‘The Preface’ and Borges’s ‘John 1:14’,” The Explicator 51.3 (1993), 151.
[4] From the poem “Huswifery,” quoted in Pearce, “Edward Taylor,” 32.

Luke A. Fidler is an art historian based in Chicago, IL. His writing has appeared in or is forthcoming from publications including The Economy, TriQuarterly, and Vestnik. He has presented papers on topics such as Soviet film, nineteenth-century Canadian photography, and the polaroids of Andy Warhol.