A Brief History of Skee-Ball
Updated: Sep 25
Imagine it — the unmistakable sound of a wooden ball rolling down the lane, launching itself into the bullseye, then the sounds of bells or electronic music that comes with sinking a ball. There's nothing quite like the lovable, classic boardwalk and arcade game of Skee-Ball. It's been a favorite for many people for more than 100 years. But have you ever wondered how this popular game came to be? Let's explore the interesting history of Skee-Ball!
What Is Skee-Ball?
Skee-Ball is a classic game often found on boardwalks and in arcades, among other fun venues. Each player has their own “alley” or wooden ramp on which to throw and roll a wooden ball. The alley has a “ball hop” bump to launch the ball upwards at the end and into a bullseye-like set of rings. The bullseye has several holes for the ball to fall through, each with different point values.
The object is to score as many points as you can in the given time limit. The games are often coin-operated and give out tokens or tickets that players can exchange for prizes. You'll often see several alleys lined up in a row so multiple people can play at once.
What Is the History of Skee-Ball?
So, just how was Skee-Ball created? This fun game has a rich and interesting history with origins in the early 1900s.
Joseph Fourestier Simpson Invents Skee-Ball
Skee-Ball's original invention came from a man named Joseph Fourestier Simpson. Born in Philadelphia, Simpson later moved to Vineland, New Jersey. During this time, Simpson was a bit of a mogul, dabbling in many different careers and industries and hoping for an invention that would lead to something big.
The stories are lost on just how he came up with the idea for Skee-Ball, but it was one of many ideas that Simpson tinkered with and tried out. Simpson tried a number of different inventions over the years, but none led him to fame or riches. However, his idea for a new game became his most famous invention and claim to fame.
The game was inspired in part by bowling with its long wooden lanes where players throw balls down to the target. The game also drew inspiration from skiing and ski jumping, which were becoming increasingly popular in the U.S. at the time. Simpson's new game included a slight jump in the middle, shaped similarly to a ski jump. This inspiration also gave the game its name, changing the spelling to skee.
The Skee-Ball Alley Company
Having a hunch that this new game would be a hit, Simpson filed for a patent, and it was granted in 1908. His licensing partners, John W. Harper and William Nice Jr., created the Skee-Ball Alley Company in 1909. Quickly afterward, Skee-Ball lanes started showing up in Philadelphia, along the Atlantic City Boardwalk and other areas of the country.
Despite its growing popularity, Simpson seemed to struggle to market his new game properly and was not seeing the financial gains he hoped for, instead struggling financially as well. He and his two business partners simply lacked the skills and resources to get this invention off the ground.
The J.D. Este Company
Here is where Skee-Ball's history truly gets interesting. Enter Jonathan Dickinson Este, who, until quite recently, was credited as the founder of Skee-Ball. The old story goes that Este created the game for his children using wooden materials from his father's lumber business. However, this was recently debunked when it was discovered Simpson was the one who filed for the original patent.
The truth of the story is that by about 1911, Simpson completely ran out of money. Meanwhile, Este had played Skee-Ball in Philadelphia and noticed its appeal and popularity. He became interested in seeing this game succeed — and profiting from it. He directed some large investments to Simpson and his partners, and eventually owned all rights to the game by 1913, creating the J.D. Este Company.
Este was a much more shrewd and successful marketer than his predecessors and advertised the game aggressively in print media. This led to the game spreading across the country and gaining popularity by 1915.
The Wurlitzer Company
After his initial success, Este left the industry, selling off his shares of Skee-Ball and other amusements. By 1935, Skee-Ball was owned by the Wurlitzer company, maker of the famous jukebox machines. The company found that this game now outsold its own jukeboxes and greatly increased the game's production in response.
However, what they didn't realize was that the original game machines were built so sturdily that they very rarely needed to be replaced, and it took Wurlitzer years to sell all of the extra machines they produced.
In the coming years, the game changed hands a number of times. In 1945, Skee-Ball was purchased by the Philadelphia Toboggan Company, which retained the rights for forty more years. Businessman Joe Sladek then obtained the rights to the game in 1985. In 2016, the game was purchased by a Wisconsin company called Bay-Tek, which still owns the rights to the game today.
Although Skee-Ball has been around for more than a century, not much of the original game design has changed. The one major difference is in the length of the alleys. The original design called for 32-foot alleys, requiring more strength to launch the ball all the way to the target and making the game a bit more difficult to play and fit into entertainment venues. Additionally, the “jump” was in the middle of the alley instead of at the end, adding to the challenge of the game.
The design was shortened and adapted a few times until its modern iteration of 10 feet as the standard commercial length, with the jump at the end of the alley, just before the target. This shorter design made the game easier to transport and install. It also made the game more appealing to women and even children to join in on the fun.
Today, you can find Skee-Ball in bars, arcades, boardwalks and more. You can play the popular game solo or with others. Skee-Ball fans have formed leagues, hosted championship competitions, and even given themselves fun nicknames like Luke Skeewalker or Shaskeel O'Neal. Due to the solid construction of Skee-Ball games, you may find some dating back as early as 1940 at your local venue, though it's quite difficult to find any of the original machines from Simpson's or Este's time. Regardless, the game remains a classic and is fun for all ages.
Bring the Fun of Skee-Ball to Your Home
Now you can have all the fun of Skee-Ball right in your own home. These home models are slightly smaller than the commercial versions, making them easier to fit and play with at any time. If you love the fun and nostalgia of this classic boardwalk game, why not install one in your game room or family room? Your friends and family will love the endless entertainment these top-of-the-line home Skee-Ball machines from HB Home can provide. Shop online with us today or contact us with any questions.