Edwin S. Lowe (1911 – February 23, 1986), born in Poland, the eldest son of an Orthodox rabbi, studied in Palestine before relocating to the United States at the age of eighteen.
Lowe was a toymaker and game entrepreneur whose promotion of a game he renamed Bingo was made popular as a national pastime and fundraising activity for churches and schools.
In the U.S. bingo was originally called "beano" when it first reached North America in 1929. It was a country fair game where a dealer would select numbered discs from a cigar box and players would mark their cards with beans. They yelled "beano" if they won.
It was first played at a carnival near Atlanta, Georgia.
New York toy salesman Edwin S. Lowe renamed it "bingo" after he overheard someone accidentally yell "bingo" instead of "beano". He hired a Columbia University math professor, Carl Leffler, to help him increase the number of combinations in bingo cards. By 1930, Leffler had invented 6,000 different bingo cards.
This was before computers, so Leffler
worked out all the unique bingo card combinations by hand.
It was tricky and in the end Lowe was paying Leffler $100 per card, which equals nearly $1,400 per card today. The story is that after finishing the job Leffler went insane and spent the rest of his days screaming bingo in a mental hospital.
A Catholic priest from Pennsylvania approached Lowe about using bingo as a means of raising church funds. When bingo started being played in churches it became increasingly popular. By 1934, an estimated 10,000 bingo games were played weekly, and today more than $90 million dollars are spent on bingo each week in North America alone.
E. S. Lowe Company produced bingo games and materials in addition to plastic toys and the dice game Yahtzee, a favorite of my mother-in-law. In 1956 he bought rights from a Canadian couple who approached him with a concept of a game that they played on their yacht. Lowe highlighted its origins in naming the game Yahtzee.
Lowe also produced miniature chess and checker game sets that circulated widely among U.S. service personnel in World War II. In 1959, Lowe produced the Renaissance Chess Set which featured highly detailed chess pieces based on the Renaissance period. The impressive design of these chessmen is still highly regarded today and the chess set is a popular collectors item. Milton Bradley purchased E. S. Lowe Company in 1973 for $26 million.
The very first chess set I owned was the Renaissance set by Lowe; it was a 13th-birthday gift purchased while my family was vacationing in Puerto Rico.
During the 1950s Lowe also produced cheap, hollow plastic sets that came with an atrocious red and black board. They were not weighted and I remember seeing a boxed set at a Ben Franklin store that caused great excitement because this was a "real" set...the pieces looked like pictures of the sets I had seen players using in tournaments. The pieces were hollow and light as a feather so I filled them with plaster of Paris and cut small circles from an old piece of felt and glued them on the bottom. The King was only about 2.5 inches high, but that was OK because I had no idea how high a King was in real tournament sets. It was a great set at the time, but today an expression my Dad used to use seems appropriate, "I wouldn't hit a dog in the butt with it." I'm sure exactly what that means, but it seems right.
Lowe started his toy company with $1,000 and two employees and started making Bingo cards during the Depression. By 1934, there were over 10,000 games of Bingo being played each week in the U.S. and Lowe had 1,000 employees working 12 hours a day, 7 days a week producing bingo games and small plastic chess and checker sets.
By 1945, the company expanded and was selling the cheap plastic sets and just a year later the United States Chess Federation was endorsing Lowe's chess sets.
In 1955 his company published a beginner's chess book included in some of the sets called E.S. Lowe's Chess in 30 Minutes that was authored by Edward Young, aka Fred Reinfeld! By the way, Al Horowitz' April, 1955 issue of Chess Review had an article called Bright Combinations by Edward Young claiming it would be a regular feature written by "a new chess author." Edward Young's last article appeared in the June, 1955 issue.
Lowe's first popular chess set was produced in 1946. It was a black and ivory plastic Staunton design with 3 1/8 inch King that was packed in an embossed leatherette chest. He also produced a red and ivory set that was packed in a cardboard box. In addition to the Renaissance set with its 4 inch King, there were magnetic sets with a 2.5 inch King, plastic travel peg in sets and a variety of cheap plastic Staunton sets, usually with the ubiquitous and awful red and black board. I remember one chess promoter whose tournament announcements specified "no red and black boards."
Lowe maintained a home at Quogue, Long Island, New York, but died at his
Manhattan residence on February 23, 1986 at the age of 75.