We are used to seeing bowling as an ‘American sport’, often associated with some Hollywood movies or contests to score the maximum 300, but its origins are very different and it was born in Egypt in the IV-III Millennium BC.
The remains of 3200 BC balloons were found made with husks of grain, covered with material such as leather and tied with a rope. Some porcelain balls have also been discovered somewhat similar to current ones. Herodotus described the game and said it had been introduced by the people of Lydia in Asia Minor.
Even the Roman legionaries spent time throwing rocks trying to get them to land close to others in a way that, of course, evolved into the game of Bocce widespread in Italy and France. Obviously, it was not exactly like today, but we can say it had some affinity. So there are basically two types of bowling game – one where pins are targeted and the other where a ball is targeted.
Other similar games like this were in the areas of Germany around 400 AD, where the smooth floor of the church was used as a track and demons depictions were used as skittles. Actually this game also had a purifying intent!
In 1299 the oldest Bowling green was built, the Master’s Close in Southampton, England, which is still in use and is known as the Southampton Bowling Club.
But the first written document that mentions the game dates back to King Edward III of England, when in a letter of 1366 the king banned it because it was a distraction to the practice of archery.
In the 15th and 17th centuries the bowling ‘greens’ spread to Germany, Austria, Switzerland and the Netherlands with playing surfaces made of ash or clay.
The first indoor playground dates back to 1455 in London when the bowling grounds were covered by canopies (or rooves) and bowling became a game for all seasons. In Germany, these places were called kegelbahns, and were often linked to taverns (as indoor alleys are in English pubs today).
In 1511, King Henry VIII, who was an avid bowler, banned bowling for the lower classes by imposing a tax for private lanes.
In 1530, the then King transformed Whitehall Palace in the centre of London into his new residence, featuring open-air bowling alleys, covered tennis courts among other diversions no longer considered acceptable.
Around 1520, the founder of the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther, set the number of bowls to nine (while the first ranged from 3 to 17) and built a bowling alley next to his home for his children, sometimes rolling a ball alone.
An anecdote on the game dates back to the famous English admiral Sir Francis Drake who on July 19, 1588 was playing bowls at Plymouth Hoe when he was announced the arrival of the Invincible Armada Spaniard. Sir Francis replied to the messenger: ” We have time enough to finish the game and beat the Spaniards too.”
The game of bowling arrived in America directly with the first Dutch colonisation when in 1609 explorer Henry Hudson discovered Hudson Bay, and then founded New Amsterdam (later New York).
In 1670 the Dutch loved to play at the Old King’s Arms Tavern, near today’s Broadway.
The oldest alley in New York dates back to 1733, Bowling Green in New York City, and was built on the livestock market, while the first covered alley dates back to 1 January 1840, Knickerbocker Alleys.
The 1848 revolutions in Europe led to accelerating German immigration to the United States, which reached 5 million by 1900, and the Germans carried their love of beer and bowling with them. At the end of the nineteenth century New York City was a bowling centre.
Pin bowling changed from 9 to 10 pins when, in 1841, the state of Connecticut banned the sport of 9 bowls because there was too much betting. The game simply changed the rules and adopted 10 pins that had already been played in England!
The standards and rules for the sport were established in the United States in 1895 and since then its maximum spread has been in this country. Today, it is played by about 100 million people in over 90 countries, but the lion’s share is made up by the United States with 70 million players. The link with America, particularly since the second world war has caused the spread of ten-pin bowling in Italy, with the Trivigliano alleys being one of the best facilities.
Everything is summed up in a smooth track, 10 pins and a very ‘elastic’ ball (in the engineering sense that it transmits the energy it accumulates!).
The bowling ball is the heart of the game and are often customized. The player takes the ball with three fingers and a thumb and must roll it on the alley until it hits all the pins. The winner is he who drops more pins, but it is not quite that simple.
All the rest is the secret of the craft: the way to handle the ball, how to walk, to roll the arm. Everyone has his techniques that matures with years and with practice.
But we cannot talk about ten-pin bowling without having to imagine at least one American movie scene, without thinking of the Happy Days television series or the 1988 movie Grande Lebovski set in a bowling alley.
Bowling is also the favorite sport of Homer Simpson, of the series of cartoons followed all over the world, by the men of the Flintstones family, the famous primitives and by the men of Trivigliano.
Anyway, in Italy there is a section of the CONI, Italian National Olympic Committee, specifically dedicated to this sport!