The Hole Story: A History of Skee-Ball

iStock
iStock

In the early 1900s, the thing Joseph Fourestier Simpson desired most was to create something people respected. A career hustler—real estate agent, cash register salesman, and railroad clerk were just a few of the many jobs he held—Simpson longed to invent something he could patent that would have lasting appeal.

A handful of his inventions made minor waves: He perfected an egg crate that could protect shells during bumpy transportation routes, and created a new kind of trunk clasp that kept luggage tightly shut. None of it made him rich, but one invention in particular would at least gain him some national recognition. It was a ramp that could be set up in arcades and amusement parks, a kind of modified form of bowling that allowed players to lob a wooden ball over a bump and into a hole with a pre-assigned point value. He dubbed it Skee-Ball after the skee (ski) hills—and especially the ski jumps—that were then becoming popular in American culture.

Simpson filed for a patent in 1907 and received it in 1908. Later, he would see his Skee-Ball become a popular and pervasive attraction along the Atlantic City Boardwalk, in Philadelphia, and across the country. But Simpson wouldn’t see any profit from it. In fact, he'd suffer financial ruin. Even worse, history would become muddled to the point where most people wouldn’t even realize it was Simpson who had invented it.

Historic Images - Lancashire via Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Up until recently, it was common for accounts of Skee-Ball’s history to name Princeton University alumnus J. Dickinson Este as the man behind the game. As the story goes, Este was motivated to find an inventive birthday gift for his son in 1909 and decided to craft an alley for a small, handheld ball using lumber he had obtained from his father’s successful wood business, and Skee-Ball was born.

The problem? Virtually none of it appears to be true. According to Thaddeus Cooper and Kevin Kreitman, co-authors of the recently-released Seeking Redemption: The Real Story of the Beautiful Game of Skee-Ball, Este was the beneficiary of Simpson’s innovation, but not the innovator. The authors cite their five years of research into the game’s origins and a key discovery at New Jersey's Vineland Historical and Antiquarian Society, where, among other papers, Simpson’s 1908 patent for the machine resides.

“The history has become really muddled, at least on the internet,” Cooper tells Mental Floss. “Este, for one thing, didn’t have a son in 1909. He had twin daughters, much later on.”

Accounts seem to have conflated two different events: Simpson’s invention and Este’s later acquisition of the Skee-Ball business. After Simpson noticed the amusements industry taking off, he invented and patented the device; he and his partners, John Harper and William Nice, started marketing it to potential operators. None of the men were marketers, however, and they were never quite able to adopt the kind of salesmanship nor the resources needed to make Skee-Ball a household term. “It was your typical start-up problem,” Kreitman says. “They had the idea but not the money.”


iStock

Simpson’s pockets ran dry; by 1911, he had even lost his house and was staying with friends. Este, who had been playing and enjoying the game in Philadelphia, rented some space near Princeton and installed a handful of alleys. When he saw that students were tripping over themselves to play, he decided to make a substantial investment—about $30,000 to $50,000 in today’s dollars—in the game. By 1914, he owned all rights and began an aggressive marketing effort using his wealthy family’s connections in the Pennsylvania news media.

“It was aggressive,” Cooper says. “You’d see ads with actual photographs, which was rare for amusement ads at the time. The copy would say something like, ‘Everybody is playing. Where have you been?’”

The hard sell worked. Soon, outlets like The New York Times were taking notice of the Skee-Ball craze spreading from the east coast. Co-ed tournaments sprung up; in Atlantic City, people seemed to be enjoying it a little too much, with the city clamping down on “noisy amusements” operating on Sundays.

Still, Skee-Ball was becoming a hit, thanks in part to a key design change prompted during the Depression. Originally built with a 32- to 36-foot-long ramp, the machines were cleaved in half so operators could fit the alleys into smaller, more affordable venues (10 feet is now the standard length). Not having to launch the ball such a long distance helped attract more kids to the game, who—along with adults—were plunking down an endless stream of nickels so they could get their nine balls and attempt to sink them. Prizes or tickets redeemable for prizes would be awarded to winners.

By this point, Este had exited the amusements business, selling his interest to his partners. By 1935, Skee-Ball was under the Wurlitzer umbrella. The jukebox maker had realized that Simpson’s device was outperforming their music libraries in several locations.

“They thought they would make a killing,” Kreitman tells Mental Floss. “They ramped up production and produced 5000 machines in 1937 alone.”

What Wurlitzer didn’t quite realize was that the machines made in the decades prior were so durable that they rarely needed replacing. “It took them about seven years to sell their stock,” Kreitman says.

Ownership changed again in 1945, when the Philadelphia Toboggan Company purchased Skee-Ball, and didn’t pass to other hands until 1985, when a businessman named Joe Sladek purchased it. Each owner has pursued Skee-Ball as a result of its considerable longevity and appeal, even though some local administrations have occasionally taken issue with the devices and their loose flirtation with gambling.

“I know at some point in Chicago some cops came in and chopped Skee-Ball machines apart with axes, then tossed them out the back door,” Cooper says.

Ryan Basilio via Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Remarkably, Skee-Ball has remained largely unchanged for the past 110 years. Cooper says that Simpson’s early concept designs strongly resemble today's machines. It’s still a very analog experience: Pitch the ball, and hope you hit a high-scoring target.

In 2016, Skee-Ball changed hands once more, this time to the Bay-Tek company. It’s estimated that more than 125,000 machines are in operation today, with many locations organizing loose tournaments. Brewskee-Ball has made a name for itself as a leading competition league. Players can—and usually do—drink while playing, with winners receiving a cream-colored jacket and trophy as proof of their Skee-Ball prowess. Like roller derby participants, they favor colorful player names like Brewbacca and Monica LewinSkee and play during “skeesons.” (Back in March, Brewbacca was the focus of an ABC News digital feature.)

While some machines dating back to the 1940s are still in operation in a few locations, Cooper says he and Kreitman have yet to come across any of the original models from either Simpson or Este.

Simpson died in 1930, living long enough to see Skee-Ball become a popular pastime but unable to reap the financial rewards he had worked so hard to try and achieve.

“He was 57 when he invented it,” Kreitman says. “He saw the success, but never saw the financial benefits.”

Behr Will Pay Someone $10,000 to Travel the U.S. and Canada in Search of New Paint Colors

Rainbow Row in Charleston, South Carolina
Rainbow Row in Charleston, South Carolina
iStock.com/RiverNorthPhotography

Want to add a bit of color and excitement to your life? Behr has just the opportunity for you. The company wants to pay a “Color Explorer” $10,000 to visit vibrant destinations across the U.S. and Canada in search of new hues that will ultimately be turned into actual Behr paints.

“The Behr Color Explorer will kayak the glacial blues of Lake Louise in Banff [Alberta, Canada], people-watch at a vibrant music festival, take in the bold exteriors of Charleston’s Rainbow Row, and experience many more moments of positively pigmented wanderlust in between,” Behr writes in its job description.

Throughout their trip, the Color Explorer will take field notes and plenty of photos, and document their experiences on Behr’s blog and social media. After seeing all there is to see, this person will head to the company’s headquarters in Orange County, California, to work with Behr's marketing team on naming the new colors they uncovered.

Behr's paint names tend to range from the alliterative (see: “Bali Bliss” and “Barely Brown”) to the poetic (“Moth’s Wing”) to the straightforward but still somehow evocative (“Wheat Bread” and “Swiss Coffee”). The company's color of the year for 2019 is called Blueprint.

The ideal Color Explorer will be adventurous, interested in color, and knowledgeable about the latest trends, according to Behr.

In addition to providing a $10,000 stipend, the company will also cover all travel expenses, accommodation, and experiences. Would-be explorers can apply for the gig on Behr’s website by writing a short description of the color that inspires them most before the May 15 deadline. Applicants must be at least 21 years old and residents of the U.S. or Canada, and they must also have a valid passport.

30 Offbeat Holidays You Can Celebrate in May

iStock.com/Wildroze
iStock.com/Wildroze

From May Day to Memorial Day and everything in between, the month of May is full of delightful, offbeat holidays.

  1. May 1: Lei Day

You've heard of May Day, but this is the Hawaiian equivalent. Celebrate the islands' culture with lei-making contests, Hawaiian food and music, and even the crowning of the Lei Queen.

  1. May 1: Mother Goose Day

Founded in 1987 by Gloria T. Delamar in conjunction with the publication of her book, Mother Goose: From Nursery to Literature, this is a day to "re-appreciate" the old nursery rhymes.

  1. May 1: New Homeowners Day

One could argue that getting out of the rental game is a celebration in itself, but here's a holiday for brand new homeowners anyway. (A Risky Business-style dance party would be one good way to party with all that room.)

  1. May 3: National Two Different Colored Shoes Day

For people who want to practice a safe level of nonconformity.

  1. May 4: Star Wars Day

     Darth Vader and two stormtroopers from the film 'Star Wars' stand menacingly over some road works in London's Oxford Street in 1980.
    Central Press/Getty Images

May the fourth be with you!

  1. May 4: Free Comic Book Day

Ever since 2002, the first Saturday of May has seen participating independent comic book stores across the country hand out their wares for free. Over 3 million comic books are given away each year.

  1. May 4: International Respect For Chickens Day

You might appreciate them for the sustenance they provide, or you might appreciate them so much that you don’t use them for sustenance. Either way, celebrate the chicken today.

  1. May 6: No Homework Day

We assume this applies to kids and adults alike.

  1. May 7: National Cosmopolitan Day

We love a holiday with a built-in way to celebrate: in this case, with Carrie Bradshaw's favorite cocktail.

  1. May 8: No Socks Day

    Baby taking first steps
    iStock.com/simonkr

The pitch for this holiday cites the lighter load of laundry foregoing socks will create. This seems specious at best—how big are your socks?— but let's all hope it will be sandal weather by this point, in which case you can and should definitely go without socks.

  1. May 10: Stay Up All Night Night

Staying up all night pretty much always leads to some great stories.

  1. May 11: Eat What You Want Day

The best holidays encourage you to break some dietary rules and this one might be the best of all because it encourages you to break all of them.

  1. May 11: National Babysitter’s Day

Because, let's be real: their job isn't always easy.

  1. May 11: National Train Day

National Train Day celebrates when the "golden spike" was driven into the final tie in Promontory Summit, Utah, to connect the Central Pacific and Union Continental railroads, creating a country unified by 1776 miles of train track.

  1. May 12: National Limerick Day

Observed annually on the birthday of English author Edward Lear, whose 1846 A Book of Nonsense helped bring the lyrical form to popularity.

  1. May 13: National Hummus Day

    A fresh bowl of hummus with cucumbers
    iStock.com/TheCrimsonMonkey

Give us all the food holidays.

  1. May 14: Underground America Day

Underground America Day honors those who make their homes not just on Earth, but in it. It was invented by architect Malcolm Wells in 1974 and those who wish to celebrate can do so by doing things like riding the subway, burying treasure, eating root vegetables, or thinking about moles.

  1. May 16: Biographers Day

This is celebrated annually on the anniversary of the 1763 meeting in London between James Boswell and Samuel Johnson, which launched one of the most famous author-subject relationships and produced the biographies Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides and Life of Samuel Johnson.

  1. May 16: Mimosa Day

What would brunch be without them?

  1. May 17: National Bike To Work Day

We can't promise you won't arrive to the office slightly sweaty, but we can give you permission to skip the gym after completing your cycling commute.

  1. May 17: National Pizza Party Day

    A table full of freshly made pizzas
    iStock.com/AlexeyBorodin

Party is a relative term, by the way. You and a pizza is definitely a party.

  1. May 18: International Museum Day

On this day, the entire planet celebrates museums and all the amazing things they have to offer. We recommend checking for events and activities in your area: Hundreds of thousands of museums join the party every year.

  1. May 20: Eliza Doolittle Day

Today is a good day to channel your inner Eliza (either before or after the etiquette lessons).

  1. May 22: National Maritime Day

A Presidential Proclamation issued in 1933 made this day an official holiday dedicated to recognizing the maritime industry. It is set to coincide with the date in 1819 that the American steamship Savannah set sail on the first ever transoceanic voyage under steam power.

  1. May 22: World Goth Day

They'll act like they don't want/need/care about having a day in the calendar, but come on, everyone wants to be celebrated.

  1. May 23: World Turtle Day

    A green turtle approaching the surface of the water
    iStock.com/Searsie

Celebrate by reading 20 things you didn't know about sea turtles right here.

  1. May 24: International Tiara Day

Who's a pretty princess? Anyone who wants to celebrate Tiara Day.

  1. May 25: National Tap Dance Day

The perfect day to put on your dancing shoes.

  1. May 25: Towel Day

To honor author Douglas Adams, fans carry around a towel all day. The tradition is a nod to a passage in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy about the importance of towels: "A towel, [The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy] says, is about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have." Good enough for us.

  1. May 30: Loomis Day

This is a day to honor Mahlon Loomis, a oft-forgotten Washington D.C.-based dentist who received the first U.S. patent on a wireless telegraphy system in 1872—before Guglimo Marconi, who is credited with inventing the first radio, was even born.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER