The origins of the game known today as Bingo can be found in 16th-century Italy. A national lottery known as “Lo Giuoco del Lotto D’Italia” was launched in 1530, and it has been played every Saturday ever since.
In the late 1770s, the game was introduced to France, where it took a new form called “Le Lotto.” The playing card that was used for this game had three horizontal rows and nine vertical columns of boxes. Within each horizontal row were five boxes containing numbers and four blanks, randomly arranged. Vertical columns might have numbers from 1 to 10 in the first row, 11 to 20 in the second row, ad so on, up to the last column of numbers 81 to 90. No two Lotto cards were the same.
Ninety numbered chips were placed in a cloth bag, from which the Lotto callers would draw them one by one. When the number on each chip was called out loud, players would cover the corresponding number on their card if it appeared. The first player to cover all five numbered boxes in one of the horizontal rows won the game and the prize money. Stakes were too high for common folk to participate, and initially at least, play was limited only to the very wealthy.
Meanwhile, a very different version of “Lotto” was developed in Germany. During the 19th century, it was primarily a game for children, aimed at helping students learn math, such as multiplication tables. Variations were later created to help teach spelling and history, too. Such educational games are still marketed, even today.
However, it was a variation of the French game that made it to Britain, where it became popular among the Armed Forces. During World War II, soldiers passed time in barracks and trenches playing what they called “Housey-Housey.” The original numbered “tickets” featured nine columns and three lines with five numbers each—identical to the game their French allies enjoyed.
No doubt U.S troops were exposed to the game as well, but by the time it crossed the ocean in the 1920s, some changes had been made, not the least of which was a new layout of five rows and five columns. Only 75 numbers were used, and every box except the central “free” space contained a unique number. The game, which was played mainly at country fairs, was called “Beano,” because uncooked beans were used as markers to cover numbers on the cards when they were called.
In 1929, a New York toy salesman named Edwin Lowe happened to be at a carnival near Atlanta, Georgia when a Beano session was being played. A player with a winning card mispronounced the game and excitedly shouted “Bingo!” That gave Lowe the idea to rename and market it as Bingo. Soon Catholic churches adopted it as a social event for fundraising.
Back in England, Housey-Housey was going through a name change, too, as small liberal churches attempted to disassociate the game from gambling by offering prizes instead of cash and calling it “Tombola.” Their intention, however, was the same as their U.S. counterparts—to draw crowds and raise funds—and the pastime soon became a hit with women.
When the British Betting and Gaming Act legitimised existing social gaming in 1960, clubs soon formed. They adopted the U.S. name “Bingo” for their games, but retained the original 90-number format. Many of the early Bingo clubs were housed in cinemas, which had seen their audiences decimated by competition with television and were happy to have the space occupied.
Today, Bingo Halls can be found all over the United Kingdom and the United States. Bingo also has a strong presence in countries where it was spread by Christian missionaries and churches, such as the Philippines. And with the advent of online gaming via the Internet, Bingo’s fan base continues to grow worldwide. Both the 75-ball and 90-ball games are typically offered by most Bingo web sites, and a variant called 80-ball Bingo is becoming popular, too.