This c. 1848 hand-made smooth gutty ball is The Most Historic golf ball that the auctioneer has ever had the opportunity to offer for sale. Smooth guttys made in the late 1840s/early 1850s are far more rare than genuine feather balls and extremely difficult to collect. This particular example is one of the six best smooth guttys that the auctioneer has ever held, and that includes two made by Robert Patterson.
Robert Patterson's invention of the smooth gutty ball in 1845 changed the game, and the change was a slam dunk.
By 1850 the gutty ball was firmly entrenched and the feather ball was well on its way to obsolesence. Compared to feather balls, gutta percha balls were easier to make, cost only half the price, were more durable, went farther, rolled truer, and were more accurate.
Because Patterson's smooth gutty ball was easy to replicate, other makers were soon producing their own. It wasn't long before golfers figured out that a smooth gutty with strike marks flew better than one without. By the mid-1850s, ballmakers were marking up the surface of every gutty they sold.
The period of time when golfers used smooth gutty balls was short, which is why a smooth gutty ball made during that period is not just fundamentally historic, it is exceedingly difficult to collect. And for more than one reason.
To begin with, it is important to recognize that these balls were formed one of two ways—either by hand or from a mold.
According to James P. Forgan, a ballmaker by profession who worked in 1856-1857 for his brother Robert Forgan as his first apprentice, the initial smooth guttys were made by hand:
"At first the gutta-percha was in the form of a sheet, which was cut up in pieces, and when softened in hot water was drawn out in the form of a ribbon and wound up into a ball and pressed with the hand on a smooth board, and then it was heated again and pressed until it was as solid as possible, and as there were no moulds at that time, the ball was rounded in the hands, and after some practice, a good ballmaker could make them very round indeed. Then they were dropped into cold water to harden, and had to be constantly moved in the water to keep them round, for if they were left still in the water, the part that was above the surface would be swelled out of shape. The golf balls were made in this manner for some years." (Golf Illustrated, 27 Dec. 1907: 13)
The ball offered here is hand made. It looks round, like a molded ball, and it is to a high degree. Upon close examination, however, the ball is clearly asymmetrical. To further demonstrate this, one need only set it carefully on a level surface and then let go. The ball will quite literally rock back and forth until it settles. Pick up the ball, rotate it, set it back down, let go, and watch it rock and settle in the same manner.
During the earliest days of the gutty ball, smooth molds did exist, but not many. Robert Patterson made one to produce his smooth gutty. His brother recalled that Robert then made molds to sell to dealers in the trade (see TCA2 v2 p762). By the mid-1850s, most ballmakers were using smooth molds. From roughly 1860 until the late 1880s smooth gutty ball molds were used to make every golf ball produced during that period of time. The surface of the smooth guttys that came out of those molds was either cut by hand to make hand-hammered guttys or cut by machine to make machine-cut ("line cut") guttys. Either way, the ball was initially made smooth, and if it did not undergo the next step of having its surface marked up, it would remain smooth. No doubt a few of those smooth balls made between approximately 1855-1890 have made it to our day. Such balls, while very collectible, are not the same as the smooth gutty balls made for use when the gutta percha ball was introduced.
Another challenge with collecting smooth guttys is that gutta percha is easy to obtain today. A person need only acquire a small amount and an old smooth ball mold—and they are out there and not all that rare given their approximately 40 years in use. With the proper material and a mold, a person can easily make a smooth gutty ball that would look just like a smooth gutty ball made 170 years ago. This has been done, and the ball is formed just like it was 170 years ago. After all, it is the same material coming out of the same mold. Going one step further, existing gutty balls from the 1890s can be and have been remolded into smooth balls. Consequently, authenticating a smooth gutty made in 1850 from one made in 1880 or 2020 can, in most instances, be difficult if not impossible. This is why most smooth guttys that sell at auction in recent years do not achieve strong prices.
So, how can a collector distinguish between a smooth gutty that helped change the game and one made however many years later? The answer to that is . . . paint/color and evidence of age, or provenance.
Smooth guttys used in the late 1840s/early 1850s were painted. Today that paint will be old and brittle, often cracking and falling off the ball. As you can see here, the paint on this smooth gutty is essentially the same color as the paint that remains on the late 1940s John Gourlay feather ball also included in the accompanying images. In addition, there are fine cracks in the paint (barely visible to the naked eye) and some of the paint has chipped off. Note that the gutta percha itself is dark brown and is visible where the paint has been lost. The gutta percha used to make golf balls in the mid-19th century was always dark brown in color and its color does not lighten over time.
As evidence of its age, the gutta percha itself has started to "crystalize" at a couple of places on this ball. The very last image with this lot is a close-up of a small chip in the surface. It shows how, in this chipped area, the gutta percha has dried out, cracked, and started to separate into potential flakes/small pieces. This is clear evidence of age deterioration.
As another indicator of its age, this ball has clearly been played. Along with the paint wear that occurs when a ball is used, there is one clean strike mark and two minor chips in the gutta percha.
Provenance can also help authenticate an early smooth gutty. A maker's stamp on the ball is of great value. Also, a properly ID'd ball from a long-established collection, such as the Harry B. Wood collection, speaks directly to its authenticity.
Overall, this hand-made smooth gutty is a true treasure. Everything about it—from the paint color that matches the Gourlay feather ball to the two small crystalized areas that show great age, from its hand-formed shape to its evidence of use—shows that this ball is the real deal. Whoever wrote "About 1848" on the ball got it right.