IN THE LAST century they were described as "nurseries of vice" and "receptacles for idle and dissolute persons." Today they ar "family fun centers."

Behold the contemporary bowling houses, centers or establishments . . . call them anything but "alleys" please, because while the sport is currently gushing with respectability, the bad old days of bowling were not that long ago.

It wasn't until the 1950s and the advent of automatic pinsetters that bowling moved out of cramped basements into plush new quarters in suburban shopping centers.

Veteran bowlers insist tht the disreputable tag was a bum rap, but it once was fficial.

In the 1860s bowling was outlawed by the city of New York for "promoting a pernicious spirit of gambling among the younger and more unwary part of the community."

Proprietors merely added another pin to the nine-pin game then prevalent to circumvent the law and in the process made prossible 7-10 splits, 300 games and Bowling for Dollars.

There are now more than 9 million leagues bowlers in the United States and a few million more who drop into their neighborhood emporium for occasional games. And the den-of-iniquity decor has given way to well lit and color-coordinated facilities that more resemble airport lounges.

There are 60 commercial facilities in this area, plus 15 at military installations and one lane in the White House, put in by Truman, ripped out by Eisenhower and replaced by Nixon, who made the cover of Bowling magazine for his efforts.

And if you've ever tried to engate a lane on a whim, you know the sport is more than just popular here - almost 80,000 accredited league bowlers in the metropolitan area.

It's a family sport now.

At Fair Lanes in Springfield, Va., on a typical Thursday recently, 546 men, women and children bowled 1,637 games in 11 leagues. Maybe a dozen more nonleague bowlers sneaked in games before 12:30 a.m. when the pins were finally left in peace.

An average day, according to manager Dick Westlake, who was there when the first bowler, Joyce Beck, arrived before 9.

"I'm a rotten bowler," said Beck, who bowls once a week in the Sunrise League, one of three Thursday morning "ladies' leagues" that occupied 37 of the 40 lanes that morning.

Beck says she scored an under-whelming 44 in her first try at tenpins six year ago when a "little league mother" asked her to fill in for an ailing team member. She has since raised her average to 123, but doesn't expect to join the professional tour any time soon.

"It's a social thing, good exercise and something to do one day a week," she said.

Beck and the three other Strugglers, who held fifth place in the 10-team handicap league, were matched that morning against the second-place Pickem Ups.

The competition was spirited but friendly, with both teams occasionally applauding the other's success. And when Struggler Betty Wheaton went both out of turn and in the wrong lane, the only penalty she paid was some ribbing.

"We're not cutthroat," said Struggler Irene Albanese. "When we lose we're disappointed, but we don't pout."

In an upset that made no headlines, the Strugglers won all three games and were awarded a fourth for total pins.

"It's about time our team got on the right track," said Albanese, while the Pickem Ups' Millie Van Noy smiled gamely and admitted the morning sweep "makes me sick."

By noon, the morning leagues were surrendering lanes to the "half past ladies league" and retrieving children from the nursery.

Fair Lanes is one of many area bowling houses that provides day car for preschoolers. The fee is 50 cents and it's good business. Mothers can concentrate on impossible splits, knowing their children are being cuddled and coddled by an 82-year-old grandmother who will give them cookies and lead them in harmonyless song.

Mrs. Estelle Brashers (Mrs. B. to everyone at Fair Lanes) has presided over the nursery for 10 years. Last October she was presented with a rocking chair by the morning leaguers. She is the rare Fair Lanes employee who doesn't bowl.

"Women didn't go in for sports in my day like they do now," said Mrs. B. Which is not to say there is any mandatory retirement age in the sport.This year in Idaho an 81-year-old grandmother bowled her first 200 game.

And on lane 25 Gordon Edwards, 64, was losing the weekly intrafamily championship to his wife Elidia.

The Edwardses bowl together in a mixed Monday morning league, then compete against one another during the rest of the week "for the right to call youself champ," said Edwards, who was philosophical about losing this week's title.

"It makes me madder'n hell."

At the snack bar (Fair Lanes also has a liquor bar, five pinball machines and a pool table), Jean Best was catching lunch after bowling in the morning scratch (no handicaps) league. Best, who won the 1975 Pro-Am tournament at Springfield, is not your one-a-week bowler.

"Bowling is the biggest thing in my lfie," she said. She belongs to three leagues, substitutes often in others and coaches a Saturday morning children's league.

Her husband Chris regularly bowls Tuesday and Thursday nights while she bowls Mondays and Wednesdays. The only nights they spend togethr are Fridays, when they bowl in a mixed league, and weekends when they travel to tournaments. Their 9-year-old son Gregory has a 114 average and has been bowling for as long as you might expect.

Best left Fair Lanes at 1 but was called back that night to substitute in a mixed league. A few lanes away, her husband was bowling in the Northern Virginia Masters League.

The Masters may be the most competitive men's league in the area, with a league average close to 190.

"The vast majority of bowling is social, a night out with the wife. But when you get to the Masters level it's not social anymore," said Don May, president of the 20-team league. "You're bowling for the high level of competition and the money."

First place in the 34-week Masters season is worth $3,000 to $4,000 to the winning team. But that total does not include the pot games and side bets. And at that level there are tournaments where an "amateur" can win as much as $15,000.

"The only way you get classified as a pro is to join the PBA (Professional Bowler's Association) tour," said Jim Robinette, this area's top ranked bowler for seven of the last 10 years.

Robinette traveled the professional tour for three years in the mid 1960s, finally quitting because "it was just too tough a way to make a living. It was a lot of travel, hectic and expensive."

Fees and living expenses at that time came to $15,000 a year, he said, and today it would be closer to $25,000.

But there are bowlers in the Masters league anxious to pay the price.

Like Mark Glover, 20, is the league's young "pheenom." He bowls at least 50 games a week, belongs to three leagues and averages a little over 200.

"Right now I don't have the confidence or experience to join the tour," Glover said. But Wilson Rowe, 34, is ready to make his move. He plans to join the tour part time this winter and, if he can "show some results" to his backer, go full time next summer.

Rowe is realistic. He knows that for every Earl Anthony (who in 1974 became the first bowler to win more than $100,000 in a year) there are scores of bowlers who don't cover expenses.

"A lof of guys have good form and a good strong ball," said Rowe, who has both. "But the mental aspect is 80 per cent."

To a bowler in Ohio or California, it might seem unrealistic for men with averages like Glover and Rowe (210) to be thinking of making it on the tour. But good bowlers claim that averages in this area are 10 to 20 points lower than they would be if the lane conditions were up to par.

It's a matter of "dressing."

Dressing is a process of applying oil in precise amounts to the maple and pine wood lane. A properly thrown ball on a properly dressed lane should skid for 16 feet, then roll the next 19 feet before hooking into the pocket. The hook is caused by friction where the oil is thinnest.

Bowlers complain in a loud and abundant chorus that most local lanes are dressed haphazardly and only five days a week. Weekend bowlers, says this chorus, are bowling on dry lanes and damaging the wood's lacquer finish.

The facility most cited as how conditions should be is the Bowl America in Falls Church.

Larry O'Neill, this year's top ranked are bowler, who belongs to a league there, credits part of his success to the lane conditions and to manager Jim Reynolds.

"The lanes here are just like those on the (PBA) tour, so I don't have to worry about the ball hooking too early," wrote O'Neill in Down the Lanes, a local bowling paper.

Reynolds, who bowls in the Masters league at Springfield, sympathizes with area managers.

"This is a tough area to have good conditions in. It's very humid and that has a lot to do with it."

Other managers counter that, with so much use, it is impossible to keep lanes in an ideal state. They claim bowlers use the "condition issue" as an excuse for sloppy bowling.

Jack Wintersteen, a Masters bowler with a 193 average for the last 30 years, partially agrees. He calls local conditions "erratic," but says "guys complain a little too much. A good bowler should be able to adjust to whatever the conditions."

But on that particular Thursday, Wintersteen had adjustment problems of his own. In contrast to the perfect game (300, 12 consecutive strikes) he bowled two months ago, he scored a lowly 120 in a game.

"It's a humbling experience," he said. "I can't ever recall bowling a game that low, not even in 1946 when I started."

By 1 a.m. the last bowlers had left Fair Lanes. The two-man cleaning crew would have eight hours to prepare for the next day's onslaught.