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The history of curling–and maybe the future of sports at Berkshire Publishing

My lack of appreciation for the sport of curling has not gone unnoticed. While everyone else in the office is getting ready for the open house at the nearest curling club (they have even named our team–it’s called the “Skippers” according to the sign on the office bulletin board), I am holding out for sports where you hit something, or someone.

But curling is obviously much loved. Our expert on the subject has written for us for many years, and I am happy to share his superb coverage of the topic. Tomorrow I will post a couple of our great photos: of a women’s curling team and a venue in western Canada. I am delighted that we have such excellent coverage of a sport that’s attracting attention in the Winter Olympics, but I have to admit that when Cassie said I could be the coach or manager if I didn’t want to play, I didn’t feel a whole lot better! Here’s a quote from Morris Mott’s excellent article, posted here for the benefit of all the people curious about the history and culture of this newly popular sport: “The attractions of curling are much like those of bowling and golf. Recreational players can be confident that serious injuries almost never occur to participants. They can be confident as well that even a novice can expect to make a few shots.” You won’t catch me bowling, either.

Curling, by Morris Mott

Curling is a team sport played on a long, narrow sheet of ice. It incorporates the basic principles of lawn bowling or horseshoes. Each of four members of a team has a counterpart on an opposing team, and in alternating fashion the members of the teams throw (slide) objects toward a target. The target is a group of concentric circles called a “house” at the far end of the sheet; the largest of these circles is 12 feet (3 meters) in diameter. The objects that are thrown are round “stones” or “rocks,” which must be less than 44 pounds (20 kilograms) in weight, less than 36 inches (1 meter) in circumference, and less than 4.5 inches (11 centimeters) in height.

After each player has made two throws—after a total of sixteen throws—an “end” (similar to an inning in baseball) has been completed, and at this time one point is awarded to a team for each of its stones that lies both in the house and closer to the center of the house (the tee or button) than any of the other team’s stones. If neither team has a stone in the house, the end is “blank”; however, most ends result in one team counting between one and three points. A new end then begins, with players throwing toward the house at the other end of the sheet. A match is normally complete after ten ends. However, extra ends are played to break ties, and in recent years
clocks have been introduced to speed up play, and occasionally a match is terminated because one team has used all the time allowed for its total of eighty throws.

The sheet of ice on which the game is played is called a “rink.” The rink is 146 feet (44 meters) long, although only 132 feet (40 meters) are in play. As one moves down the sheet eight lines are encountered, each drawn straight across the ice, and many of the rules of the game preclude or allow particular activities within the specific sections of the ice created by these lines. The width of the ice varies from the 14 feet, 2 inches (4.2 meters) commonly found in Canadian curling clubs to the 15 feet, 7 inches (4.7 meters) used in other countries and in international play. The side boundaries are identified, often with wooden boards, and stones that touch or strike the boards are removed. The only important consequence of using the different widths is that in Canada one stone can fit in the space between the side boards and each house at the line drawn across the ice at the middle of the house (the tee line), but in other countries and in international events, two stones can fit there.

A team of curlers, often also called a “rink,” is composed of a “lead,” a “second,” a “third”(sometimes called a “vice skip”), and a “skip.” The four members throw their stones in order, and in the usual pattern the lead alternates with the other team’s lead in throwing his or her two stones, then the second does the same, then the third, and finally the skip. Normally, though not necessarily, the skip throws last because usually he or she is the best shot maker on the team or at least the best shot maker under pressure. For this reason, and because the skip is given the responsibility for calling the shots that a team will attempt as an end unfolds, the skip is the most important member of the team. This explains why usually a team will be identified in the skip’s name.

If one reduces curling shots to their essential purposes, only four types exist. The first is the draw into the house. The second is the hit, a faster-running shot designed to take out (remove) an opponent’s stone(s). The third is the guard, a stone thrown with quiet weight that stops in front of the house (but it must be within 21 feet or 6.4 meters of the tee line to remain in play). The fourth is the tap-back, which might involve raising a guard into the house or simply moving stones to more advantageous positions.
A curling stone is thrown from a “hack,” which is now a rubber foothold but once was essentially a hole hacked into the ice. Two hacks are at each end, one for left-handed throwers and one for right-handed throwers, and each is 126 feet (38 meters) from the middle of the house at the far end. The curling stone is held by a handle, and as it is released the thrower imparts a spin or turn to the stone. If the thrower twists his or her elbow and hand out on release, then an “out turn” has been used, and if the thrower is right-handed the stone will rotate counterclockwise as it moves down the ice. If the thrower twists the elbow and hand in on release, then an “in turn” has been used, and it will rotate clockwise, again if the thrower is right-handed. As a stone moves along the ice toward the far house, and especially as it starts to lose speed, a stone thrown properly will move across the ice as well as down it. This fact means that a curler almost never throws directly at his or her target. A well-played curling shot is one that has been thrown with not only just the right amount of weight but also just the right allowance for sideways movement.

All of the players hold a curling broom or brush (the brush has become far more common since the 1970s), and this piece of equipment has different functions. The person throwing the stone holds the broom or brush in the nonthrowing hand and uses it to help maintain balance through the delivery. The skip uses his or her broom to provide a target for the thrower; when the skip is throwing, normally the third holds the broom. Almost always the broom is placed to the side of the true target to allow for the sideways movement. The other two members of the team use their brooms (brushes) to affect the speed and direction of the stone after it is on its way. Essentially, they sweep or brush in front of the stone and thereby cause it to slow down at a less rapid rate than it would if they were not sweeping. Just how sweeping affects speed is a matter of some controversy, but it seems to do so in several ways. It removes debris from the path of the stone, although in modern indoor rinks about the only debris that creates problems is the straw or hair left by other brooms or brushes. It affects speed also by temporarily heating the ice directly in front of the moving stone and thus creating a slicker path, and perhaps by creating a bit of an air vacuum just in front of the stone.

The attractions of curling are much like those of bowling and golf. Recreational players can be confident that serious injuries almost never occur to participants. They can be confident as well that even a novice can expect to make a few shots. For competitive players, the rewards can be the fame that comes with victory in prestigious club, regional, national, and even world championship events. The rewards also can be the valuable merchandise or, in recent years, substantial amounts of money awarded to victors. The most important reward, of course, is the knowledge that a player has achieved excellence in a sport that rewards coordination, skill, concentration, stamina, strength, strategy, and teamwork. Finally, for both recreational and competitive players, one of the attractions of curling is that it is a sport with many natural breaks in the action, and the time can be used for socializing with other players and even spectators.

Origins and Early Development
Games in which an object is thrown or rolled or slid toward a target are thousands of years old and have been played in many parts of the world. However, the game we would recognize as curling, featuring stones and brooms and houses, probably appeared during the sixteenth century, perhaps in northwestern continental Europe but more likely in Scotland. Certainly the Scots were responsible for the early development of the game, if not for its first appearance.

The early games of curling were played with stones that were simply held in the hand, although sometimes grooves or small holes might have been added to provide a better grip. The caliber of shot making must have improved dramatically during the seventeenth century when players began to use rocks with handles. The caliber of shot making improved still further during the latter half of the eighteenth century, especially as round stones became more common, and triangular or oblong ones became less. During the eighteenth century curling clubs began to proliferate. People established clubs for many reasons, but among the reasons were the desires to recognize meritorious play and to schedule regular competitions and social occasions for members.

Until early in the nineteenth century members of Scottish clubs curled with stones of differing weights, and perhaps even shapes. They used sheets of ice of assorted dimensions and a variety of rules to govern delivery, sweeping, and etiquette. Then, during the second quarter of the nineteenth century, improved transportation networks allowed curlers from different towns or districts to compete against each other, and standardized rules and regulations became desirable. The result was the formation of the Grand Caledonian Curling Club in 1838. This club was really an association, not a club. It became the Royal Caledonian Curling Club in 1843. It adopted and then promoted key rules that remain in effect today: Participants should not interfere in any way with an opponent’s delivery; each team should have four players; each player should make two shots per end; only circular stones should be used; the sheet of ice should be 138 feet (42 meters) from “foot-score to foot-score”(the hack lines).

As the Scots were developing curling, they also were beginning to export it, often by emigrating, sometimes just by traveling. By the end of the nineteenth century the sport had been introduced into several countries, especially Canada, where in specific regions iron or wooden stones might be used. By the turn of the twentieth century curling in Canada was played mainly with “granites,” and the sport was more popular in Canada than anywhere else in the world. This is still true today; Canada has about 1 million curlers, perhaps forty times as many as any other country.

Canadian Prairie
The region of Canada that especially took curling to heart was the Canadian Prairie, which was settled between the 1870s and the 1920s by peoples of European ethnic origins. Curling quickly became probably the most popular participant sport among them. Part of the reason for this popularity was that a significant number of newcomers were Scots, people already familiar with the sport moving in either from Scotland itself or from an eastern Canadian province. Another reason was that the basis of the Prairie economy was commercial agriculture, and winter was a slow time of the year. Finally, especially on the eastern part of the region, excellent natural ice could be maintained for three or four months each year, much longer than in Scotland or eastern Canada. The indoor, natural-ice curling rink was not invented on the Prairie, but it soon became far more prominent there than anywhere else. In small towns little two- or three-sheet sheds or “rinks,” often joined to an indoor skating rink, were built almost as soon as schools or churches were, and in cities larger structures with perhaps eight or ten sheets were quickly constructed.

Canadians on the Prairie not only curled more often than people in other parts of the world, but also curled more seriously and more skillfully. Beginning in the 1880s the better curlers began to gather for bonspiels, which are curling tournaments of several days’ duration at which prizes are offered to winners of events. The most skilled Prairie participants also introduced techniques and practices that made curling a better test of athletic excellence. In particular, they developed the shoulders-square-to-the-target delivery, a type of delivery that was facilitated by the permanent hacks that players could build in indoor rinks. On their temporary outdoor surfaces the Scots had used portable footholds (crampits), which encouraged a shoulders-sideways-to-the-target delivery that was not as efficient. With the squared-up delivery came improved accuracy and a style of play that featured hits rather than draws. Finally, during the 1920s the serious prairie curlers also worked hard to establish a Canadian (men’s) championship event. It was first held in 1927, and prairie curlers dominated it until the mid-1970s. This championship was called the “Brier,” after a product manufactured by the sponsor, the Macdonald Tobacco Company. The Brier has been sponsored by other corporate entities since 1979, but it still goes by the same name, and it remains the most keenly followed national championship event in the sport.

Artificial Ice and Growth in Popularity
During the last half of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth, Canadians and especially Prairie Canadians nurtured the old Scottish game of curling to new levels of popularity and athleticism. However, not until after World War II, with the availability of artificial ice, did the sport become truly international.

Artificial ice is created when a thin layer of water is sprayed onto a cold, hard floor, usually a surface of cement. The floor is cold because brine is pumped through pipes laid just below the floor surface. The sprayed water freezes, and the ice remains hard and true even if the air in the building is quite warm. Artificial ice was invented in England late in the nineteenth century, and it quickly began to have an impact on skating and ice hockey, but not until the prosperous 1950s and 1960s could large numbers of curlers in Canada and elsewhere afford to join clubs that installed an artificial surface. Then the technology began to have immense consequences.
One consequence, especially in Canada, was that more women began to participate. A few women had curled earlier, but the more comfortable, heated, artificial ice rinks drew women by the thousands, and by the 1970s and 1980s curling in Canada was truly a mixed sport. Another consequence was that curling could become much more popular and much more competently played in the moderate to warm weather regions of Canada. Finally, artificial ice led to internationalization. In the United States, in Scandinavian countries, in Switzerland, Germany, and other European nations in which the sport had been established earlier, curling now became much more popular. It also gained a small following in such unlikely nations (given their climates) as Australia, Bulgaria, Mexico, New Zealand, and Japan (in some of these nations the sport was not completely unknown prior to World War II). By the turn of the twenty-first century curlers competed in about forty countries around the world.

World Championships
Another reason for the rise in popularity of curling after the 1950s was the example of athletic beauty and excellence exhibited by elite players in world championship competitions. Almost always these competitions have featured a strong Canadian team, but competitors from other countries, notably Scotland, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United States, have won frequently. An unofficial annual men’s world championship event began in 1959; it was sponsored by the Scotch Whisky Association. In 1966 the International Curling Federation was formed, partly in an attempt to have curling accepted as an Olympic sport. During the next few decades the federation (in 1991 it became the “World Curling Federation”) helped to establish and then to oversee an annual world women’s championship (first held in 1979), a world junior men’s (1975), and (in 1988) a world junior women’s championship (junior curlers can be no more than twenty-one years of age). In 2002 it established world senior (fifty years of age or older) championships for men and for women and a world wheelchair curlers’ championship (wheelchair curlers use a stick to push the stone). These world championship events are, of course, preceded by national championship events in the individual countries.

Since the 1980s many of the national and international championship events have become popular on television, as have other events in both North America and Europe that feature “professional” curlers (the money that curlers can win is not enough to live on year around, but it is substantial). Various curling organizations, including the World Curling Federation, have introduced or promoted initiatives to make curling a more attractive sport for live audiences as well as TV viewers. Among these initiatives are the use of clocks to encourage teams to quickly decide on a shot and then play it, the use of microphones on players so that the television audience has access to discussions about strategy, and especially the use of the “free guard zone” rule to increase the likelihood that the early stones thrown in an end will remain in play and that the last few shots will require great skill.

The Future
Curling likely will grow in popularity both as a participant sport and a spectator sport. Since 1998 it has been an “official” Winter Olympic sport; this designation assures exposure all over the world. In western Europe and in North America demographic trends suggest that recreational, easily learned, sociable sports such as curling will thrive. The sport is easily televised, and, as the Sports Network in Canada has discovered, a large demand for televised curling exists among retired people. Artificial ice has allowed the sport to be introduced in many warm weather countries, and the fact that curling has recently gained a few followers in Israel, Spain, and Greece suggests that this pattern will continue. Curling is enjoyed by men and women, by young and old, by highly competitive athletes as well as by people who want mainly a reason to laugh and talk with friends.

Morris Mott

Further Reading
Creelman, W. A. (1950). Curling past and present: Including an analysis of the art of curling by H. E. Wyman. Toronto, Canada: McClelland and Stewart.
Kerr, J. (1890). History of curling, Scotland’s ain’ game and fifty years of the Royal Caledonian Curling Club. Edinburgh, UK: David Douglas.
Kerr, J. (1904). Curling in Canada and the United States, a record of the tour of the Scottish team, 1902–1903, and the game in the dominion and the republic. Edinburgh, UK: George A. Morton.
Lukowich, E., Ramsfjell, E., & Sumerville, B. (1990). The joy of curling: A celebration. Toronto, Canada: McGraw-Hill Ryerson.
Maxwell, D. (1980). The first fifty: A nostalgic look at the Brier. Toronto, Canada: Maxcurl Publications.
Maxwell, D. (2002). Canada curls: The illustrated history of curling in Canada. North Vancouver, Canada: Whitecap.
Mitchell, W. O. (1993). The black bonspiel of Willie MacCrimmon. Toronto, Canada: McClelland and Stewart.
Mott, M., & Allardyce, J. (1989). Curling capital: Winnipeg and the roarin’ game, 1876 to 1988. Winnipeg, Canada: University of Manitoba Press.
Murray, W. H. (1981). The curling companion. Glasgow, UK: Richard Drew Publishing.
Pezer, V. (2003). The stone age: A social history of curling on the prairies. Calgary, Canada: Fifth House.
Richardson, E., McKee, J., & Maxwell, D. (1962). Curling, an authoritative handbook of the techniques and strategy of the ancient game of curling. Toronto, Canada: Thomas Allen.
Russell, S. (2003). Open house: Canada and the magic of curling. Toronto, Canada: Doubleday Canada.
Sautter, E. A. (1993). Curling—vademecum. Zumikon, Switzerland: Erwin A. Sautter-Hewitt.
Smith, D. B. (1981). Curling: An illustrated history. Edinburgh, UK: John Donald Publishers.
Watson, K. (1950). Ken Watson on curling. Toronto, Canada: Copp Clark Publishing.
Weeks, B. (1995). The Brier: The history of Canada’s most celebrated curling championship. Toronto, Canada: Macmillan Canada.
Welsh, R. (1969). A beginner’s guide to curling. London: Pelham Books.
Welsh, R. (1985). International guide to curling. London: Pelham Books.
World Curling Federation. (2005). Retrieved March 4, 2005, from

One thought on “The history of curling–and maybe the future of sports at Berkshire Publishing

  1. Does anyone know where I can buy miniature flags (4″x6″) flags of each country that has curling?


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