Boules, bowls and bowling
When we talk about the world’s oldest competitive sports – discus throw, polo and even hockey – one of them is overlooked: Lawn bowls. Other sports like running, wrestling and boxing also have a pretty long history, but when it comes to those played with balls, bowling tops them all.
There is evidence of bowling in Egypt some 5,000 years ago, using balls made of husks, covered in leather and bound by string. The Ancient Romans had a similar game, trying to toss large round stones as close as possible to smaller ones. This developed into what the Italians call bocce, or “balls.”
As the game moved throughout Europe and the rest of the world, it took on some different looks.
When Roman soldiers brought the game to France, the locals eventually switched out the stone balls for wooden ones, and boules was born. Just like in the Italian version, players would roll the balls toward a target. Centuries later, players in the South of France preferred tossing them through the air, trading wood for steel, and the game became pétanque. Go to any small town in Provence or the Cote d’Azure on a summer day, and you are sure to find a gathering of older men on a gravel court, pastis in hand, tape measures in their back pockets, pétanquing away.
In Northern Europe, it was played on grass courts. “Bowls” in England dates back to the 13th century, and the Southampton Old Bowling Green, founded in 1299, is still played on today. The English and Dutch colonists brought their “bowls” around the world, and bowling greens started popping up in North America – one of the oldest survives today in New York City, near Wall Street, presently adorned with a famous statue of a bull.
The Dutch were fond of a brand of bowls that used nine pins, set up in a diamond shape, rather than a smaller ball as a target, and they set up their pins on greens around New York State. Indeed, the first mention of bowling in America was in the story of Rip Van Winkle, in 1819, and as more German immigrants arrived, the nine-pin or ten-pin game grew in popularity. The oldest bowling alley in America was started at the Holler House in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in 1908, and on its 100th birthday, the pins are still set by hand by a real human being.
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