The most iconic ball in the game of golf is the feather ball. It's
the stuff of lore and legend. Here, we have the real thing stamped "29" under the closing stitch. The "2" in "29" is difficult to see as the ball was lightly scuffed in that spot. It has a few scrapes and scuffs and other signs of use, but even with the wear this ball is nicer than many, with its tight seams, closing stitch, and good color.
Being made with a stitched leather cover, feather balls were not very durable. Back in the day, because they were so expensive, they were often used until they were lost or heavily distressed, no longer able to serve well in active duty. This particular ball still remains in excellent condition and presents well. There are two small areas where the leather is missing and, upon closeup examination, the stitching is exposed. This is not all bad as the stitching is undamaged and being able to view 3 or so of the stitches is quite interesting. The ball is solid. The evidence of use and age that it bears give it a charm that quickly takes a person 170 years back in time.
Feather balls—made with a leather exterior and a feather-filled
interior—are the oldest known remaining golf balls. 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).
With the advent of the gutta percha golf ball in 1845, feather balls were well on their way out by 1850.
This ball is shown on the middle left in the accompanying group image.