Feathery Golf Balls c1600 to 1848
A lot of golfers know the term "feathery golf ball" but few know what they actually look like. Fewer golfers have ever seen one, and fewer still have been lucky enough to ever own one.
I started collecting antique golf clubs and antique golf balls in 1995. I had only been playing golf for a little over six months at the time and I knew virtually nothing about the history of the game, nor anything about the clubs and balls that were used throughout the centuries.
As my enthusiasm for collecting grew so did my desire to own examples of very early clubs and balls. It took several years before I had the confidence and the funds to purchase my first feathery golf ball. To hold a ball that is at least 150 years old, and in some cases nearer 200 years old, is quite a thrill for a golf collector. To have a feathery is your collection is a definite achievement in golf ball collecting.
Two families dominated the virtual "closed-shop" that was early 19th century golf ball making, the Robertson's and the Gourlay's. Here are some premium examples of their work.
Feather golf balls made by Allan Robertson of St.Andrews
Feather golf ball made by one of the Gourlay brothers.
To have the skill of being able to make a golf ball in the first half of the 19th century was a very valuable commodity. The balls were made from leather pieces stitched together filled with feathers. A skilled man could make about three balls a day and their price (12 scottish pennies) would have been the equivalent of about fifty British pounds in today's money (say 80 US dollars). The secrets of ball making were passed down from father to son and very much kept in the family because livelyhoods depended on it. For that reason certain families dominated the trade. I believe this is why the few written accounts of how balls were made differ quite distinctly. For example, some accounts describe how balls were boiled after stitching whilst others don't. I beleive there was a certain degree on mis-information nbeing passed to confuse and discourage others from entering the trade.
If you've not handled a genuine feather golf ball you may be surprised to learn that they are actually very heavy for their size, and in that respect are very close to what modern balls weigh. Equally, they are very hard and cannot be compressed with hand power alone...thise means they have elastic properties that are necessary for them to be propelled significant distances. Some accounts suggest that a good drive in 1850 was nearly 200 yards. I can certainly believe that as I have managed to drive some replica balls I have made over 150 yards.
Here is Allan Robertson hard at work in his workshop making feather filled golf balls.