Offered here is a beautiful John Gourlay feather ball that shows
little to no use. The Rev. John Kerr, among the greatest historians
known to the game, wrote that John Gourlay was the best there was at his
craft: "As a feather ball maker Gourlay was unrivalled." (The Golf Book of East Lothian, published in 1896. see attached page images.) The February 2, 1898 issue of The Golfer magazine also speaks glowingly of John Gourlay, printing that he made feather balls "as no other man could make them." (p. 86)
This beautiful example is stamped "J Gourlay" on the cover, the stamp
is faint but it is all there as shown in the image. The seams are all
tight as are the two closing stitches. And the ball is amazingly rock
hard yet resiliant.
Feather balls—made with a leather exterior and a feather-filled
interior—are the oldest remaining golf balls known. According to Thomas
Peter's 1890 account in Reminiscenses of Golf and Golfers (p 8-9) the making of a feather ball was almost a science:
"The leather was of untanned bull's hide, Two round pieces for the
ends, and a strip for the middle were cut to suit the weight wanted.
These were properly shaped, after being sufficiently softened, and
firmly sewed together—a small hole being of course left, through which
the feathers might be afterwards inserted. But before stuffing, it was
through this little hole that the leather itself had to be turned
outside in, so that the seams should be inside—an operation not without
difficulty. The skin was then placed in a cup-shaped stand (the worker
having the feathers in an apron in front of him), and the actual
stuffing done with a crutch-handled steel rod, which the maker placed
under his arm. And very hard work, I may add, it was. Thereafter the
aperture was closed, and firmly sewed up: and this outside seam was the
only one visible."
By all accounts, the making of feather balls was hard work. A good
feather ball maker working by himself crafted between 3-4 a day. It was
also dangerously unhealthy work. These artisans were prone to
contracting lung trouble and asthma from working in such close proximity
to ordinary cocks and hens feathers, which is what Tom Morris
identified the feathers as when asked about it in 1900. (Golf Illustrated, 7 Dec. 1900: 204).
John Gourlay was married briefly to Jessie Robertson whose death at age 24 was reported in the 16 May 1845 issue of the Glasgow Harold.