In January 2011, a momentous event occurred, completely unnoticed in the American press. The assets of La Boule Intégrale, perhaps the most important manufacturer of boules in the history of petanque, were sold at a public auction.
The origin of boules — a game involving the rolling of stone balls — is lost in antiquity. The ancient Egyptians played it. The Greeks played it — maybe they learned it from the Egyptians, The Greeks introduced it to the Romans. The Romans introduced the game to the Gauls, who began to play it with balls made of wood, eventually out of a very specific type of wood — boxwood root.
Gaul gradually became France. Boules was played there during the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment. It was played during the Revolution, and into the 1800s.
To make a ball, it was necessary to find very old — centuries old — boxwood trees in the mountains, dig their roots from the ground, shape the roots into wooden blanks, and dry them slowly so that they didn’t crack. After that, the blanks were formed into wooden spheres by a skillful wood turner. With the development of mass-produced nails in the 1800’s the wooden balls began to be covered with metal nails, creating the boule cloutée, the nailed-wood ball.
Boules was popular in France, and the number of boules players grew through the 1800s, until — in the early 1920s — the sport of boules faced a catastrophic shortage of boxwood roots.
Around 1920, a young man named Paul Courtieu, along with a friend and co-worker Vincent Mille (a champion player of buoules lyonnaise), hit on the idea of manufacturing a ball made entirely of metal.
Courtieu lived in Lyon, and worked during the day at the Berliet Vénissieux factory as head of the mills — the company made handcuffs. He spent his nights in his workshop, trying to find the metal alloy best suited to the manufacture of boules. His work was inspired by the technology used to create spherical explosives during the Great War.
The two engineers rejected steel as too hard and too rust-prone. They began work on a rust-resistant alloy based on aluminum (which had been discovered thirty years earlier) and bronze. Their early attempts failed — the aluminum-bronze alloy was too soft, and too fragile to withstand the shock of a direct hit by another ball. But they kept at it. It took them two years, but they eventually succeeded in developing a suitable “bronze” alloy of copper, aluminum, and other metals. (The exact composition of the alloy is still a trade secret.)
In 1923 they filed a patent for a metal-alloy ball made of two welded-together metal hemispheres. The next year, in 1924, they filed a patent for a ball that was cast in one piece — “La Boule Intégrale” (the Integral Ball, often referred to simply as “the Intégrale”).
Their new company was named “La Boule Intégrale”. At first, out of economic necessity, all machinery and equipment were designed and produced by Courtieu, who created them in the company’s first workshop (atelier) in a former coach house in Lyon.
The new all-metal balls were a serious threat to the established manufacturers of nailed-wood balls. For one thing, all-metal balls could be mass produced more quickly. A skilled nailer could not make more than 4 or 5 sets of 2 boules cloutées per day. For another thing, it had always been difficult to manufacture a well-balanced nailed-wood ball, while balance was a minor issue in the manufacture of an all-metal ball. In addition, with metal balls it became possible for each player to choose the weight of his balls regardless of the diameter of the ball. And there were concerns that the new metal balls would damage the nailed-wood balls already in use.
Naturally, the wooden ball manufacturers resisted the new metal balls. But Courtieu had Auguste Bataille in his corner. Bataille was the son of the former Deputy Mayor of Lyon and apparently a persuasive man. Bataille used his influence and all of his persuasive powers, and he succeeded. It took him two years, but Bataille did it.
A study by the boules federations determined that Integral Balls were about the same hardness as nailed-wood balls, so using the two together would not be problem. So at its annual convention in January 1925, the Union Nationale des Fédérations de Boules (the ancestor of the Fédération Française de Boules) approved the Boule Intégrale for use in all official competitions.
In hindsight, Courtieu saw this as a watershed moment in the history of petanque. With the introduction of the all-metal ball, petanque experienced an explosive growth in popularity.
Les différents comités de pétanque furent heureux de voir que grâce à la Boule Intégrale un engouement extraordinaire s’établit et qu’en peu de temps une multitude de nouveaux pétanqueurs se révélèrent. Un grand nombre de sociétés se fondèrent. La progression rapide de ce jeu parti de la Provence, de Marseille en particulier, gagna rapidement la France entière.
The different petanque federations were happy to see that, thanks to the Integral Ball, an extraordinary enthusiasm for petanque took root, and that in very little time a multitude of new petanque players (pétanqueurs) appeared. Many new companies were formed. The game quickly spread out from Provence and Marseille until it had conquered all of France.
Almost immediately Courtieu had competitors. Jean Blanc and Louis Tarchier developed a process in which steel blanks were stamped into hemispheres and then welded together to form boules. That process eventually became the industry standard. The possibility of rust, which Courtieu and Mille had worked so hard to avoid, never turned out to be a serious issue with the steel boules.
In 1926 the company shareholders were listed as “Mille, Courtieu et Bataille”. In 1930 the shareholders were listed as “Courtieu, Bataille et Delaigue”. The other shareholders eventually left the company, leaving Courtieu the sole shareholder.
In time Courtieu’s son Etienne Bertholet assumed control of the company. Bertholet diversified the company by starting production of steel balls, which could be manufactured much more cheaply than bronze balls. The manufacture of steel balls was subcontracted out in 1960, but Boule Intégrale continued to manufacture bronze balls. Eventually, the AS de Carreau (Ace of Diamonds), or AC, was the only bronze boule on the market. It was a very soft boule, particularly suitable for hard terrains and for pointers who lob.
In 1969 Courtieu celebrated his golden wedding anniversary with Madame Courtieu, who had been his faithful collaborator in the management of the company from the beginning. He died on February 2, 1972.
Under Courtieu’s son Etienne Bertholet, the company continued to produce and innovate. It remained a family business until 1981, when it was sold to Florence et Peillon.
It was probably at that point that the company began to go down hill. Toward the end of its life it was making more money manufacturing bocce balls than petanque balls, which generated only a small part of its revenue. Its boules had always been known for their very high quality, but they were also rather expensive — this may have contributed to the decline in sales. In 2003 the company was transferred to a group of investors. Early in 2007 it ran out of money and was put into receivership. In January 2011, its assets were liquidated at a public auction.
The company had one last spasm of life before it died permanently (see this TV news report from Lyon — La Boule Intégrale est sauvée!). Two brothers, Patrick and Dominique Dauvergne, la fonderie Davergne, bought the brand name and stock for 50,000 euros. The company was back in business again with a new Integral web site. The resurrection was only temporary, however. In September 2013 La Fonderie Davergne stopped producing petanque boules for good, and the Intégrale name was laid to rest (mise en sommeil).
The bronze boule is not completely dead. The ETR and ETR Or are still being manufactured in Turin, Italy by a company called Unibloc.
If you enjoyed this post, you might enjoy some of our other history posts.