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The Hole Story: A History of Skee-Ball

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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.”


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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.”

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Courtesy of Royal Treasure Chest
If You Love Antique Stores, This Subscription Box Is For You
Courtesy of Royal Treasure Chest
Courtesy of Royal Treasure Chest

Do you love wandering the aisles of antique malls, shopping at vintage clothing stores, and filling your home with knick-knacks and ephemera from the past? Then this subscription box is for you.

Royal Treasure Chest is a curated monthly subscription that sends a package full of vintage goodies to your door, thoughtfully hand-picked based on your personal taste. The subscription box offering is an extension of Royal Treasure, an online vintage shop with a presence on Etsy and eBay and run by wife-and-husband team Denise and Royal.

Prices start at $15 for a monthly single-item box. Also available is a $40 plan (three items) and a $60 plan (five items). Your box is highly customizable. First, you select your category (or categories) from the following options: Beautiful old hardcover books, curios and knick-knacks, jewelry, tie bars and cufflinks, paper ephemera (like postcards or photographs), and ladies' or gentlemen's accessories. Then you can go into detail about your style, favorite eras, and likes and dislikes. That means it's great for indecisive people who want to treat themselves to a box of nice things every month.

To find the vintage collectibles, Royal Treasure's Pittsburgh-based team travels to estate sales in Western Pennsylvania and Ohio. Every box comes with a note printed on parchment paper recounting where your new treasures were found and gives details about the families that once owned them. (The grandfather was a World War I fighter pilot! This family of dance instructors counted a young Gene Kelly among their pupils!) It reads like a letter from a friend and gives a homespun feel to the whole operation.

I subscribed to the $40 plan and loved the items I got. Every box also included a bonus postcard with a message written by someone from another era. I definitely took Royal Treasure up on the opportunity to go into detail about my taste. One of the things I wrote was that I like dogs, and I got a lot of dog-themed stuff that made me smile. In one month's box, I got a porcelain dog figurine as well as a trinket box and a decorative plate with country scenes on them. I liked the puppy statuette and thought the box and plate were nice enough, but then I looked closer and realized they each had a tiny dog cavorting around the landscape and I appreciated them even more. Now that's attention to detail.

vintage clothes
Courtesy of Royal Treasure Chest
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Mathew Tucciarone
Candytopia, the Interactive Art Installation Made of Sweet Treats, Is Coming to New York City
Mathew Tucciarone
Mathew Tucciarone

A colorful exhibition is sharing some eye candy—and actual candy—with visitors. The sweet art pop-up, called Candytopia, is heading to New York City this summer following successful stints in Los Angeles and Santa Monica, Gothamist reports.

Candytopia feels a little like Willy Wonka’s chocolate room. More than a dozen rooms with psychedelic backdrops will be on view, as well as candy-inspired interpretations of famous artworks such as Mona Lisa and The Thinker. The installation is the brainchild of Jackie Sorkin, the star of TLC’s Candy Queen.

Many of the art installations are made from actual candy, but unlike Wonka’s lickable wallpaper, visitors will have to keep their hands and tongues to themselves. Instead, guests will be given samples of various sweet treats like gummies, chocolates, and “nostalgic favorites.”

Forbes named Candytopia one of the best pop-up museums to visit in 2018. New York City seems the perfect place for the exhibit, having formerly hosted other food-inspired pop-ups like the Museum of Pizza and the Museum of Ice Cream.

Candytopia will debut in New York City on August 15 at Penn Plaza at 145 West 32nd Street. Tickets must be purchased in advance, and they can be ordered on Candytopia’s website. Private events and birthday parties can also be arranged.

Keep scrolling to see some more installations from Candytopia.

A wing of the Candytopia exhibit
Mathew Tucciarone

An Egyptian-inspired statue made of candy
Mathew Tucciarone

A candy version of the Mona Lisa
Mathew Tucciarone

A shark statue
Mathew Tucciarone

[h/t Gothamist]

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