Lot # 1: W&J Gourlay Feather Ball - Unused c1840

Category: Golf Balls

Starting Bid: $2,500.00

Bids: 20 (Bid History)

Time Left: Auction closed
Lot / Auction Closed

This lot is closed. Bidding is not allowed.

Item was in Auction "Fall 2022",
which ran from 11/3/2022 7:00 PM to
11/20/2022 12:20 AM

Offered here is a beautiful, unused feather ball made by William and John Gourlay. Their grandfather, Douglas Gourlay, had started making feather balls by 1794 in Bruntsfield, and the craft was passed down and carried on by his son William and by William's sons William Jr, Douglas Jr., and John.  The Gourlays had a high reputation as golf ball makers.

"W&J Gourlay" is stamped on the front of the ball in its normal place along with a handwritten number "29", the weight of the ball.  The back of the ball also bears a hand written "7".  Is this the first golf ball to ever bear an identifying number, to help a golfer keep track of his own ball during play? It is certainly one of the first and the only such numbered feather ball known to the auctioneer.

William and John were brothers in business from 1839 to 1844, when Wlliiam died.  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 "W&J Gourlay" on the cover. The seams are exceedingly tight as are the two closing stitches. Amazingly, this ball is rock hard yet resilient. The ball is slightly darker around its name, which is still strong and all there.

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 how Tom Morris identified the feathers when asked about it in 1900.  (Golf Illustrated, 7 Dec. 1900: 204). 

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