Feathery golf ball
Feathery golf ball c. 1850
Diameter 4,5 cm
Weight 43,6 g
As the name suggests, a feathery golf ball was one filled with goose or chicken feathers. These had been boiled beforehand and then, with an awi, stuffed tightly into a case made from three stitched pieces of bullhide (the leather ifself having already been softened in alum and water). It took no less than one top hat full of feathers to fill each ball.
Once sewn up, the casing was liberally coated in white lead paint, to be create a surprisingly tough, elastic ball that travelled cosiderable distances.
In golf’s earliest years, by which we mean the 15th century (when the game spread from the Netherlands to Scotland), the balls were thought to have been made from boxwood, although no examples survive. But from c.1450 onwards the feathery dominated. Many were imported from Holland until, in 1618, James I granted a Scottish maker, James Melvill, a monopoly on their manufacture in return for a cut of the proceeds.
By 1838 it was reckoned that ballmakers in and around St Andrews, the epicentre of the game, were making 10,000 featheries a year. But it was arduous work. In the workshop of the leading maker, Allan Robertson, a skilled hand might complete only three or four balls per day.
One such man was Tom Morris (1821-1908), later to become Scotland’s most revered golfer. As can be seen, Morris stamped on each ball both his name and its weight, 28 penny weights. This was a unit of the Troy system, used otherwise for weighing gold.
In fact, surviving featheries can be worth far more than their weight in gold. One, made around 1840 by David Marshall of Leith, fetched just short of GBP 20,000 at auction in 1995.
Its original cost would have been nearer 3-4 shillings. But even this was prohibitively costly for the time, and it was only when featheries were superceded by more affordable, mass produced gutta percha ball from the 1850s onwards, that golf could emerge as the popular sport it is today.