As early as 1737, the owner of the Centre House tavern on the eastern edge of Philadelphia's central square boasted that "gentlemen who would divert themselves at bowls" could avail themselves of the green on the grounds of his tavern. The proprietor Roger Ellicott also offered a billiard table for indoor sportsmen. In 1755, Daniel Fisher wrote in his journal while he was in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: "I went into a Tavern called the "Centre House"...Here is a Bowling Green." (Daniel Fisher's Journal, Some Prominent Virginia Families, p 802)
How did playing bowls become an attraction at commercial tavern gardens in the colonies?
In the American colonies, bowling greens--hopefully smooth & relatively level lawns used for playing bowls--capped many colonial gardens. By the 18th century, many bowling greens measured 100 by 200 ', & many were sunk slightly below the level of the ground surrounding them. Others could be irregular in shape or even oval. Sometimes called “squares” in late-18th- & early-19th-century America, bowling greens offered beauty & ornament as well as recreation. The game had simple rules. A small white ball of earthenware, called the jack, was rolled onto the green to serve as a target. Players rolled their bowls in turn trying to place them close to the jack. Bowls were slightly flattened at their poles, so that they could not be rolled in a straight line. An opponents ball could be aimed at to knock it out of its position close to the jack. Few colonial greens were level, and familiarity with the green was an advantage.
David Teniers the Younger (1610-1690) Tavern Visitors Playing Bowls at an Inn on a River
Bowling greens were recorded in Boston in 1615, New Amsterdam, as New York was then called, & not long afterwards in Washington & Virginia. There was a bowling green in Williamsburg, Virginia in 1632, & several states have towns named "Bowling Green" due to the early settlers abiding interest in the sport.
On July 30, 1666, in Port Royal South Carolina, Robert Sanford recorded, "Found...a plaine place before the great round house for their bowling recreation." (Narratives of Early Carolina 1650-1708. p. 100.)
Even though the Virginia council had outlawed gambling on bowls, it seemed to continue. In the mid-Atlantic & South, playing at bowls often involved wagering. William Byrd wrote in his diary of visiting the bowling green in Williamsburg on May 5, 1721, “After dinner we walked to the bowling green where I lost five shilling.” William Byrd II began his Bowling Green in 1722 at Westover on the James River. In 1724, the Rev. Hugh Jones description of Williamsburg noted that "Not far from hene is a large area for a market place; near which is a play house and a good bowling green." Twenty years after Byrd built his bowling green, guests at Westover were still bowling there. In 1741, the last year of Byrd's diary, almost every July afternoon had a bowling game.
David Teniers the Younger (1610-1690) Tavern Visitors Playing Bowls at an Inn
British officers installed bowling greens in the American colonies in New York in 1725. By 1733, the area was declared a public park. 1733, New York City: "Resolved...lease a piece of Land lying at the lower end of Broadway fronting to the Fort...to make a Bowling Green thereon, for the Beauty & Ornament of said Street as Well as for the Recreation & Delight of the Inhabitants of This City." (New York City Common Council Resolution, March 12, 1733)
In 1735, this notice appeared in a New York City newspaper, "John Miller.—All Persons indebted to the Estate of George Montgomerie, deceased, are hereby desired to pay the same to John Miller, Gardner, at the old Bowling Green...—N.B. You may be furnished with the best kind of Garden Seeds, of several Sorts, that have been abus'd or spoil'd by ignorant Pretenders, to Silvering may be rectified & put in Order." (The New-York Weekly Journal, February 17, 1735)
David Teniers the Younger (1610-1690) Tavern Visitors Playing Bowls
An ad for land in South Carolina advertised its location by using the bowling green as a point of reference. October 10, 1740, Charleston, South Carolina: "TO BE LET...the house near Mrs. Trott's Pasture, where the Bowling Green." (South Carolina Gazette, October 10, 1740) A year later, an explanation of Williamsburg also touted its bowling green. 1741, Williamsburg, Virginia: "Near it is a good Bowling-Green & a Play-house." (Oldmixon, John. The British Empire in America. London: 1741. p. 408)
Eliza Lucas Pinckney wrote to a friend in May, 1743, of William Middleton's Crow-Field in S. C.: "Opposite on the left hand is a large square boleing green sunk a little below the level of the rest of the garden with a walk quite round composed of a double row of fine large flowering Laurel & Catalpas which form both shade & beauty." (Pinckney, Eliza Lucas. The Letterbook of Eliza Lucas Pinckney 1739-1762. edited by Elise Pinckney, Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1972. p. 61-62)
Pieter Angillis (Flemish, 1685-1734) Neighbors Engaged in A Game of Bowls
In the 1754 South Carolian Gazette, an ad announced a house to be sold, "together with all the Out houses, Bowling Green, Gardens, & other land." While taking over the management of Fort Pitt in Pittsburg, Capt. Simeon Ecuyler wrote in April of 1764, of a deer park and bowling green in the little garden there.
Irish physician Dr. Henry Stevenson (1721-1814), had one of the earliest terraced gardens in the Baltimore area. His grounds displayed a flat four-bed garden on the north side of his home, called Parnassus, which Stevenson started constructing in 1763 & completed in 1769. On the south side of the house, facing the harbor, he built a bowling green & five grass terraces. In 1770, Virginian Mary Ambler visited Mount Clare in Baltimore & recorded that she “took a great deal of Pleasure in looking at the bowling Green & also at the …very large Falling Garden thee is a Green House with a good many Orange & Lemon Trees just ready to bare…the House…stands upon a very High Hill & had a fine view of Petapsico River You step out of the Door into the Bowlg Green from which the Garden Falls & when You stand on the Top of it thee is such a Uniformity of Each side as the whole Plantn seems to be laid out like a Garden there is also a Handsome Court Yard on the other side of the House.” (Ambler, Mary. "Diary of M. Ambler, 1770." Virginia Magazine of History & Biography XLV (1937): 152-170)
Pieter Angillis (Flemish, 1685-1734) Tavern Visitors at a Game of Bowls
Meanwhile, back in Virginia, Robert Carter wrote of his bowling green at his plantation Sabine Hall twice between 1770 - 1772. He sent one of his slaves to cut the grass in 1772 and wrote, "Talbot set to work yesterday to shave the bowling green, he seems to do it well, but he is very slow." School tutor Philip Vickiers Fithian wrote of another plantation in 1773, Nomini Hall, Virginia: "The area of the Triangle made by the Wash-house, Stable, & School-House is perfectly level, & designed for a Bowling-Green." (Fithian, Philip Vickers. Journal & Letters of Philip Vickers Fithian, 1773-1774: A Plantation Tutor of the Old Dominion. Edited with an introduction by Hunter D. Farish. Williamsburg: Colonial Williamsburg Inc., 1943)
In Annapolis, Maryland, Charles Carroll of Annapolis wrote his son, Charles Carroll of Carrollton, in 1775, “Examine the Gardiner strictly as to . . . Whether he is an expert at leveling, making grass plots & Bowling Greens, Slopes, & turfing them well.” (1775 Carroll, Charles of Annapolis to Charles Carroll of Carrollton. Charles Carroll Letterbooks MS. 208 Maryland Historical Society, Baltimore Maryland.)
Pieter Angillis (Flemish, 1685-1734) Gentlemen on a Bowling Ground
Virginia's Colonel George Braxton wrote to a friend just after the Revolution between 1776-1781, "I agreed wth Alexander Oliver Gardener...to finish my...Garden wth a Bolling Green." (Colonel George Braxton's Letterbook. in Horner, Frederick, The History of the Blair, Banister, & Braxton Families. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Company, 1898. p. 147-148)
In 1726 George Washington’s father, Augustus, took over management of the family estate at Mount Vernon; & in 1732, the year George was born, constructed the bowling green. At this time the game was highly favored as a genteel pastime by the ranking officers of the British Colonial Army. George grew up with the game, became an avid bowler in his youth, & apparently this love of the game was never lost. He kept the green busy through the years. By 1754, he had come into his inheritance & settled down with Martha. They kept up the family tradition of sponsoring bowling on the green as “suitable for the intelligentia & ranking army officers.” George Washington wrote on October 28, 1785, at Mount Vernon, Virginia: "Finished levelling & Sowing the lawn in front of the Ho. intended for a Bolling Green." In 1798, visitor Julian Urysn Niemcewicz wrote of his visit to Mount Vernon, "Two bowling greens, a circular one near the house, the other very large and irregular, form the courtyard in front of the house." In 1813, Noah Webster described Mount Vernon as still having its bowling green, "Of Mount Vernon. On the western bank of the Potomac uine miles below Alexandria, is the seat of the late general Washington. The house stands within fifty yards of the brink of a high stcep bank, at a bend in the river,which affords a vicw of an extensive & delightful landskip. The house is large but more magnificent than elegant. On the west is a handsome bowling grcen, & on each side serpentine walks, bordered with trces, a flower garden on one side, & on the other, a kitehen garden The position & the improvements all rendered it a charming rctreat, & 'worthy of the illustrious proprictor." (Noah Webster, 1813 Elements of Useful Knowledge. Washington, George. The Diaries of George Washington. Edited by John C. Fitzpatrick. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1925. 4 Vols. Vol 2:429)
1791 Edward Savage. Mount Vernon from the Court Yard Carriage Entrance.
Visitor Moreau de St Mery wrote of his 1790s visit to New York City: "The Governor's House is at the lower end of Broadway...What really embellishes this place is an enclosed bowling green, surrounded by an iron railing in front of the house." (St. Mery, Moreau de. American Journey 1793-1798. Edited by Kenneth & Anna Roberts. Garden City: 1947. p 150)
Several ads also noted bowling greens in New York City in the 1790s. In 1792, New York City: "A bowling green is in front, & stables, wood house & other necessary offices in the rear of the house." (New York Diary; or, Loudon's Register, June 25, 1792). In 1794, 1794, Belvedere House New York City: "The little grounds into which the east front opens, are formed into a bowling-green, gravel walks, & some shrubbery." (New York Magazine, August 1794, p. 451)
The machine in the garden seems to have regularized bowling greens & the rules that governed play. It is claimed that the patenting of the first lawn mower in 1830 Britain, is believed to have been the catalyst, world-wide, for the preparation of modern-style greens, sporting ovals, playing fields, pitches, grass courts, etc. This is turn led to the codification of modern rules for many sports, including lawn bowls, football codes, lawn tennis, & others.
1600 Gentlemen Engaged in a Game of Lawn Bowls or Lawn Billiards
David Teniers the Younger (1610-1690) Game of Bowls
David Teniers the Younger (1610-1690) Peasants playing bowls outside an inn
David Teniers the Younger (1610-1690) Playing at Bowls