Bowling the American Dream

Bowling the American Dream

Bowling The American Dream

Bowling is quintessentially American. The rise and fall of social bowling as a past time, and of the bowling alley as an American meeting place, may shine light on fundamental truths about American society. This paper outlines the basis for this belief, and suggests a photographic exploration of the American bowling alley as a mirror to the American dream.

By the mid-1900’s, bowling was already a firmly entrenched American past time.1 Its popularity accelerated in the early 1950’s with the commercial introduction of the “automatic pinsetter” and the start of national television coverage.2,3 By the mid-1960’s, there were approximately 12,000 bowling alleys – “the blue-collar country club” – throughout the United States. 4,5 Bowling was a dominant social activity for many Americans, in particular, middle class Americans.6 Since then, the number of bowling alleys has steadily declined, dipping to roughly 5,000 as of 2007 and just under 4,700 in 2017.7,8 Despite the shrinking numbers, bowling and bowling alleys remain quintessentially American. Films such as “Kingpin” by the Farrelly Brothers (1996), “Bowling for Columbine” by Michael Moore (2002), and “The Big Lebowski” by the Coen Brothers (1998) have perpetuated the notion of bowling-as-Americana, and the bowling alley as a fundamentally American place.

Beyond the literal and symbolic relevance of bowling alleys, the rise and fall of the American bowling alley may also provide a window into broader American social norms and cast light on the “American Dream” itself, that is, the belief in inter-generational economic upward mobility, the belief that life for one’s children will be better than for one self.

Perhaps the first to identify the deeper significance of the bowling alley was Robert D. Putnam, a professor of political science at Harvard. In 1995 he published a short journal article, followed in 2001 by a book, entitled “Bowling Alone.” These works “made the case that Americans were no longer the energetic joiners” in civic and social organizations as “they had been as recently as the 1950's.”9 Putnam’s title hinted neatly at his basic premise: that the demise of American “social capital” – the social activity and involvement of the American people, and their concomitant benefits to society – was reflected directly in the decreasing participation in the quintessentially American bowling league.10 According to Putnam, while the number of bowlers, primarily solitary bowlers, was higher in the immediately preceding year than in years prior, the marked decline in group bowling – in the form of the once ubiquitous bowling league – was not just economically damaging to bowling alleys but revelatory of important American social trends. He noted that

the rise of solo bowling threatens the livelihood of bowling-lane proprietors because those who bowl as members of leagues consume three times as much beer and pizza as solo bowlers, and the money in bowling is in the beer and pizza, not the balls and shoes. The broader social significance, however, lies in the social interaction and even occasionally civic conversations over beer and pizza that solo bowlers forgo. Whether or not bowling beats balloting in the eyes of most Americans, bowling teams illustrate yet another vanishing form of social capital.11

Putnam concluded that the decline in the American bowling alley as an institution correlated with the decline of American social capital.

More recently, MacArthur Genius Award winner and professor of economics at Stanford University Raj Chetty returned in thought to Putnam’s bowling alleys. Chetty is a leading researcher and expert in inter-generational economic upward mobility – he studies the “American Dream.”12,13 Chetty’s rigorous research revealed five factors that most affected upward mobility. The fourth of these five factors was the presence or absence of social capital – the same social capital reflected in Putnam’s Bowling Alleys.14 According to Chetty, “the number of bowling alleys is actually very highly correlated with the rates of upward mobility in our own data.”15 In other words, more bowling alleys in an area correlated to more upward mobility, fewer to less. In Chetty’s analysis, the bowling alley was the bellwether of the American Dream.

From a photo journalistic standpoint, one is left wondering what these bellwethers of the American Dream might reveal visually. What environments do the remaining bowling alleys inhabit, and who inhabits these bowling alleys? What visual clues about the American Dream – lost or found – can be found in the communities that lost bowling alleys? Bowling the American Dream seeks to answer these questions.

1History of Bowling, International Bowling Museum & Hall of Fame, (retrieved January 31, 2017)

2What’s Happening to Bowling? White Hutchinson Leisure & Learning Group, Inc., (retrieved January 30, 2017).

3America’s Vanishing Bowling Alleys, Patrick Clark, Bloomberg L.P. (July 11, 2014).


5What’s Happening to Bowling? White Hutchinson Leisure & Learning Group, Inc., (retrieved January 30, 2017).



8Overview of the Bowling Industry, Sandy Hansell & Associates, Inc. (January, 2017)

9Who Wants to be a Legionnaire? Margaret Talbot, New York Times (June 25, 2000).

10Bowling Alone: America's Declining Social Capital, Journal of Democracy 6:1 (Jan 1995)


12See, e.g., The American Dream, Quantified at Last, David Leonhardt, New York Times (December 8, 2016).

13The American Dream What is the American Dream?, Library of Congress, (retrieved January 30, 2017).

14Is the American Dream Really Dead​? Stephen J. Dubner, Freakonomics podcast, (retrieved January 30, 2017).