CLOSE
Original image
iStock

The Hole Story: A History of Skee-Ball

Original image
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.”

Original image
Courtesy of Crumbs & Whiskers
arrow
Animals
Inside Crumbs & Whiskers, the Bicoastal Cat Cafe That's Saving Kitties' Lives
Original image
Courtesy of Crumbs & Whiskers

It took a backpacking trip to Thailand and a bit of serendipity for Kanchan Singh to realize her life goal of saving cats while serving lattes. “I met these two guys on the road [in 2014], and we became friends,” Singh tells Mental Floss about Crumbs & Whiskers, the bicoastal cat cafe she founded in Washington, D.C. in 2015 which, in addition to selling coffee and snacks, fosters adoptable felines from shelters. “They soon noticed that I was feeding every stray dog and cat in sight," and quickly picked up on the fact that their traveling companion was crazy about all things furry and fluffy.

On Singh’s final day in Thailand, which happened to be her birthday, her friends surprised her with a celebratory trip to a cat cafe in the city of Chiang Mai. “I remember walking in there being like, ‘This is the coolest, most amazing, weirdest thing I’ve ever done,'” Singh recalls. “I just connected with it so much on a spiritual level.”

Singh informed her friends that she planned to return to the U.S., quit her corporate consulting job, and open up her own cat cafe in the nation’s capital. They thought she was joking. But three years and two storefronts later, the joke is on everyone except for Singh—and the kitties she and her team have helped to rescue.

A customer pets cats while drinking coffee at the flagship Washington, D.C. location of cat cafe Crumbs & Whiskers.
A customer pets cats while drinking coffee at the flagship Washington, D.C. location of cat cafe Crumbs & Whiskers.
Courtesy of Crumbs & Whiskers

Washington, D.C. customers stroke a furry feline while enjoying coffee at cat cafe Crumbs & Whiskers.
Washington, D.C. customers stroke a furry feline while enjoying coffee at Crumbs & Whiskers.
Courtesy of Crumbs & Whiskers

Crumbs & Whiskers—which, in addition to its flagship D.C. location, also has a Los Angeles outpost—keeps a running count of the cats they've saved from risk of euthanasia and those who have been adopted. At press time, those numbers were 776 and 388, respectively, between the brand’s two locations.

Prices and services vary between establishments, but customers can typically expect to shell out anywhere from $6.50 to $35 to enjoy coffee time with cats (food and drinks are prepared off-site for health and safety reasons), activities like cat yoga sessions, or, in D.C., an entire day of coworking with—you guessed it—cats. Patrons can also participate in the occasional promotion or campaign, ranging from Black Friday fundraisers for shelter kitties to writing an ex-flame's name inside a litter box around Valentine's Day (where the cats will then do their business).

Cat cafes have existed in Asia for nearly 20 years, with the world’s first known one, Cat Flower Garden, opening in Taipei, Taiwan in 1998. The trend gained traction in Japan during the mid 2000s, and quickly spread across Asia. But when Singh visited Chiang Mai, the cat cafe craze—while alive and thriving in Thailand—had not yet hit the U.S. "Why does Thailand get this, but not the U.S.?" Singh remembers thinking.

Once she arrived back home in D.C., Singh set her sights on founding the nation’s first official cat cafe, launching a successful Kickstarter campaign that helped her secure a two-story space in the city’s Georgetown neighborhood. Ultimately, though, she was beat to the punch by the Cat Town Cafe in Oakland, California, which opened to the public in 2014, followed shortly after by establishments like New York City’s Meow Parlour.

LA customers at cat cafe Crumbs & Whiskers
LA customers at cat cafe Crumbs & Whiskers
Courtesy of Crumbs & Whiskers

Still, Crumbs & Whiskers—which officially launched in D.C. in the summer of 2015—was among the nation’s first wave of businesses (and the District's first) to offer customers the chance to enjoy feline companionship with a side of java, along with the opportunity to maybe even save a tiny life. Ultimately, the altruistic concept proved to be so successful that Singh, sensing a market for a similar storefront in Los Angeles, opened up a second location there in the fall of 2016. "I always felt like what L.A. is, culturally, just fits with the type of person that would go to a cat café," she says.

Someday, Singh hopes to bring Crumbs & Whiskers to Chicago and New York, and “for cat cafes as a concept, as an industry, to grow,” she says. “I think that it would be great for this to be the future of adoptions and animal rescues.” Until then, you can learn more about Crumbs & Whiskers (and the animals they rescue) by stopping by if you're in D.C. and LA, or by visiting their website.

Original image
LEGO Ideas
arrow
Design
Fans of The Office, Rejoice: A Dunder Mifflin LEGO Set Could Someday Become a Reality
Original image
LEGO Ideas

After nine seasons filled with pranks, gags, awkward jokes, and just a few too many “That’s what she said's,” the finale of NBC’s The Office aired on May 16, 2013. While the beloved show probably won’t be getting a reboot anytime soon, LEGO fans may someday be able to recreate the cast’s shenanigans with their very own Dunder Mifflin-inspired set.

Jaijai Lewis, a 36-year-old market researcher from New York City, has submitted a toy recreation of the fictional paper sales company’s Scranton branch to the LEGO Ideas website. It’s a miniature replica of the TV show's titular office, complete with the main shared space (cubicles and desk plants included), a conference room, and separate offices for Michael and Darryl. These rooms are designed to be modular, and can either be connected together or remain separate.

Of course, Lewis made sure to include mini-replicas of the whole gang, including Michael, Jim, Pam, Dwight, Angela, Meredith, and more. They come with tiny accessories, like Michael’s Golden Dundie, Meredith’s water bottle, and Pam’s ring. (The last one fits in Jim’s suitcase.)

If 10,000 different fans support a design on the LEGO Ideas blog, it will become eligible for review to become a real-life product. The LEGO Dunder Mifflin has already hit the coveted 10K number, so with any luck, you could eventually see it on the shelves of a toy store near you.

Check out some pictures of Lewis’s design below, or visit the LEGO Ideas site for more details.

LEGO fan Jaijai Lewis's design of the Dunder Mifflin Paper Company, Inc., a fictional paper company from NBC's TV show 'The Office.'
LEGO Ideas

LEGO fan Jaijai Lewis's design of the Dunder Mifflin Paper Company, Inc., a fictional paper company from NBC's TV show 'The Office.'
LEGO Ideas

LEGO fan Jaijai Lewis's design of the Dunder Mifflin Paper Company, Inc., a fictional paper company from NBC's TV show 'The Office.'
LEGO Ideas

LEGO fan Jaijai Lewis's design of the Dunder Mifflin Paper Company, Inc., a fictional paper company from NBC's TV show 'The Office.'
LEGO Ideas

LEGO fan Jaijai Lewis's design of the Dunder Mifflin Paper Company, Inc., a fictional paper company from NBC's TV show 'The Office.'
LEGO Ideas

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios