Still bearing much of its original red paint, this smooth gutty ball was made somewhere around 1850, when golf balls made from gutta percha were new to the game. Examples of smooth guttys are far more rare than feather balls and extremely difficult to collect. The period of time when golfers used smooth gutty balls was short.
Robert Patterson's invention of the smooth gutty ball in 1845 changed the game, and the change proved to be gigantic. By 1850 the gutty ball had taken hold and the feather ball was on its way to obsolescence. Compared to feather balls, gutta percha balls were easier to make, cost one-fourth the price, were more durable, went farther, rolled truer, were more accurate, and were impervious to wet weather—what was not to like!
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.
Smooth gutty balls were formed one of two ways—either by hand or in a mold. 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.
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. On this ball, the paint is old and brittle with tiny spider web cracks and much of it chipped off. The surface of the actual gutta percha itself is also covered with fine cracks consistent with those found in the paint. The cracking and crazing in the paint and the gutta percha is actually oxidation, not abuse. The oxidation to these materials is not really visible when viewing the ball from arm’s length, but when you zoom in to view the ball, the oxidation cracks are easy to see (see closeup photos). The ball is not damaged, it’s just old, and the surface of the ball and the paint thereon has dried out over the past 170 plus years.
A quick check on the web reveals that “Oxidation is a chemical process that causes paint to break down from exposure to heat and oxygen. It is essentially a form of corrosion in which paint loses its oil content, and as a result, dries out. This process is gradual, but the effects can be severe. As paint oxidizes it becomes duller.” Hence the dull, dried out, cracked paint on this ball. The vast majority of the remaining solid gutty balls made in the 1890s do not exhibit age-related oxidation to the degree of this ball.
The ball offered here was originally painted red so that it could be used in snow, frost, or when there were an overabundance of daisy’s growing round about in the rough. Nineteenth century golf balls that are painted red are quite rare, but they are well-documented with even a few red feather balls remaining today.
Here is where this particular smooth gutty ball gets really interesting. It has a clear mold line or “fin” that runs around the equator of the ball. (An image of a molded gutty ball with most of its fin remaining is shown in the last image accompanying this lot.) Clearly, this ball was made in a mold. However, the rest of the ball appears to be entirely handmade—formed by rolling the gutta percha between the hands as was often done in the earliest days of the gutty ball. It’s handmade nature is evidenced by the uneven areas all around the ball, which is a long way from “perfectly symmetrical.” So how is it that a smooth gutty can look like it was both molded and handmade? To the auctioneer, there is only one answer: it was both!
The auctioneer believes this ball was one of the earliest balls to be formed in a mold, hence there is an extruded fin around the equator of the ball, formed when the mold did its best to push out the excess gutta percha. (This was either one of the first molded balls or the person who made it was not a professional ballmaker. Such a strong “fin” would have been cut off, leaving the equator smooth.) The auctioneer further conjectures that the ball was used but suffered significant damage, such as unsigntly strike marks. Consequently, the owner took his molded ball and heated it in hot water and then removed the strike marks slightly reforming the ball in the process. In this instance of a ball that was already molded round, the golfer who warmed the ball simply used his fingers to push on and reshape the gutta percha. This would explain the unevenness of this ball when compared to a perfectly round ball AND it would also explain why the fin left by the mold no longer runs in a perfectly straight line around the equator of the ball as is shown in a few closeup pictures.
Heating a damaged gutty ball and reforming/remaking it was a widespread practice. In his book Precious Gum, The Story of The Gutta Ball David Hamilton notes that remaking a ball only went so far, as it would ultimately have a bad effect on it:
“The new [gutta] ball was economical in another way. A worn or damaged gutta could be revived by remolding, where a burst feathery was useless. Initially the gutta was thought to be immortal, and an enthusiastic newspaper report claimed that ‘the ball may be had for 6d and will make over as often as you please.’ More experience showed otherwise. After about 1 year, even when remolded the ball became dull in use. This was the result of an important chemical change, namely oxidation, spreading slowly through the ball from the outside rim…” (p15)
No matter the steps to the creation of this ball as it exists today, everything about it—the uneven mold line, the lack of symmetry, the oxidation cracks in the gutta percha, the oxidation cracks in the paint, the oxygenated dull patina of the paint—all these things plus the overwhelmingly crude yet calculated nature of such a distinct fin left in place around the equator tell us that this ball is old, really old.
The smooth ball mold and press shown are not part of this lot, but are offered in this auction as its own lot. The unpainted Challenger gutty ball with its remaining fin shown in one image is also not part of this lot.
This ball is third from the left in the large group image, and bottom left in the image of 6 balls.