If you’re like most jugglers, you cringe every time you hear someone refer to juggling clubs as bowling pins. Even worse is when you hear another juggler call them pins, which, thankfully, happens only very rarely. As creator Casey Rentmeester so comically pointed out in the meme below, the two really don’t look that much alike.
It is true that the body of a juggling club, especially American clubs, is a reasonable match for the bottom half of a bowling pin, but the resemblance ends there. However, resourceful jugglers and prop makers recognized that match and took advantage of it when plastic toy bowling pins began appearing in stores in the early 1960s. By cutting off the top of the toy pins at their narrowest part, and inserting a dowel rod and adding some type of knob, they were able to make inexpensive clubs. While professionally made juggling clubs have been around since 1895, their cost and availability were sometimes limiting factors. In the pre-internet age, you might never have heard of Edward Van Wyck or Harry Lind, especially if you were a hobbyist. Even if you had, that didn’t guarantee that you could order a set. Harry Lind required a referral from another customer before he would make you a set of clubs. Van Wyck and Lind clubs could be expensive and, being made of wood, were heavy and not extremely durable. Thus, the opportunity to make an inexpensive, durable set of clubs by just visiting a couple of stores and putting in an hour or two of work became very appealing.
The earliest known maker of plastic toy bowling pin juggling clubs (PTBPJCs) is Dave Madden from New York City. He had seen another juggler use such clubs, but never found out who this mystery juggler was. He recalled that they had a plastic bowling pin body, thin dowel rod for a handle, and a giant knob made from a hard plastic baseball.
In 1963, Dave decided that he could improve this design and make some clubs for himself. He made 6 set of clubs for the Juggling Jesters (Dave Madden, Jay Green, Dick Luby, Mickey O’Malley, Harry Deido, and Art Bassett) to use. These PTBPJCs were quite simple, consisting of the bowling pin body, a thicker hardwood handle, and a rubber crutch tip for a knob. Tape was used to smooth the transition from plastic pin to hardwood handle.
When Juggling Jesters member Jay Green saw how durable the Madden clubs were, he thought that he could again improve upon the design. In 1964, Jay took the plastic bowling pin body and hardwood handle and added a funnel that went from the thickest part of the body to the handle. He also added the first flex cushioning on the handle and foam knob and end cap, creating what we know recognize as the modern multi-piece club that most jugglers use today. Under all of those innovations, though, was still a plastic toy bowling pin and a dowel rod. Jay later found smaller plastic toy bowling pins and created a thinner European version of his clubs.
Larry Merlo created an extremely nice version of the PTBPJC in 1972 featuring a lathe turned pine handle, hardwood furniture knob, and an end cap made of marine plywood and polyurethane. He wrapped the handle with bicycle tape and added decorations to make an extremely nice do it yourself club.
PTBPCs were made popular when Charles Lewis, better known as Carlo, published his book, “The Juggling Book By Carlo” in 1974. He gave instructions on how to make a nice set of PTBPJCs featuring lathed handles, which, like Larry Merlo’s club, was an improvement over Dave Madden’s design. Many jugglers made home-made sets of clubs from his instructions.
Many pictures of such clubs can be found. Dan Menendez used such a set, as did many others.
Even juggling legends sometimes started with PTBPJCs. Anthony Gatto’s first set of clubs were PTBPJCs made by his father. One of these still exists and is in David Cain’s Historical Juggling Props Collection.
When Brian Dube began making clubs, he used a design extremely similar to Jay Green’s European clubs using small plastic toy bowling pin bodies. These clubs are almost indistinguishable from Green’s clubs. Before long, Dube started to manufacture his own custom molded bodies, mostly putting an end to PTBPJCs. Nevertheless, resourceful jugglers still use them from time to time. I (David Cain) remember making some back in the early 1980s and even made a devil stick that was nothing more than a dowel rod with plastic toy bowling pin bodies at the ends. It was extremely heavy and slow. My brother affectionately named it the “easy stick”.
With all of the juggling club options available today, you would think that no one would take the time to make PTBPJCs anymore, but you would be wrong. Just last month someone was selling a set that they had just made on ebay. They are shown below.
I was recently in a toy store and came across foam toy bowling pins in the clearance aisle. I purchased the set for $5.00 and decided to try my hand at making a set for home-made clubs for my kids. They were extremely top heavy and not much good, but you can see the end result below. I think I’ll stay with professionally made clubs for now, but I’ll always have a place in my heart for PTBPJCs.