The Feathery: Early Golf Balls Now Treasured Collectibles

How they were made and how far golfers hit them

Original feathery golf ball and reproduction
An original feathery golf ball, circa 1835, on the left; a modern reproduction on the right. Sarah Fabian-Baddiel/Heritage Images/Getty Images

The "feathery" was the first purpose-built golf ball. Prior to featheries (the singular is also frequently spelled "featherie"), people playing golf or its antecedants used wooden spheres. But such wooden balls were also used in other stick-and-ball games; the same balls, in other words, were used by people to play different games.

The feathery arrived on the scene probably by the mid-1500s, although the first definitive reference to featheries comes from the early 1600s.

The feathery was the first true golf ball, in that it was created specifically for golfers. Featheries remained the standard golf ball until the mid-1800s.

It was time-consuming to create a feathery ball, which meant they were expensive in their own time. Today, featheries are highly sought and very valuable as collectibles.

How Feathery Golf Balls Were Made

Yes, featheries were stuffed with feathers. No, they were not soft — at least not so long as they stayed dry.

The cover of a feathery typically consisted of three pieces of leather stitched into a sphere. The feathers stuffed inside were typically goose feathers, sometimes chicken feathers.

First, the feathers were boiled for several hours to soften them. Then they were tightly packed into the leather ball before the wet leather was sewn closed. As the feathers inside dried, they expanded; as the leather cover dried, it contracted. The result was a very hard ball.

Every feathery golf ball was handmade, and it could take a couple hours or more to make just one. Therefore, they were quite expensive — much more expensive for their time than today's golf balls are for our time. According to the book Golf: The Science and the Art, the price of a single feathery ball from a reputable maker could range from $10 to $20 in today's terms.

How Far Featheries Flew

The longest recorded drive ever hit with a feathery golf ball was 361 yards. It was blasted by a golfer named Samuel Messieux in 1836. There's a catch: The ground was frozen, helping the ball slide and skid for a very long distance.

The average driving distance of top golfers with featheries, however, was little more than half that record distance. The most commonly cited range for feathery driving distance is from 180 yards to 200 yards for the most skilled golfers.

Problems With Featheries, and What Replaced Them

Featheries were the best golf ball technology of their time. But they also were frequently out-of-shape — not perfectly round — from the start, depending on the quality of the maker. Even those featheries that began their lives round could get knocked out of shape.

The seams busting open was another issue. And so was wet weather — common in Scotland and England where almost all featheries were in use — that caused the balls to soften and fly shorter distances.

Then there was the cost, which limited the number of people who could afford to play golf.

The "gutty" was an upgrade on all those issues. Gutties, or gutta-percha golf balls, were invented in 1848.

They were made from the rubber-like sap of the gutta percha tree, and gutty (or guttie) golf balls could be made from molds, made much faster and much cheaper than featheries. After the invention of gutties, featheries faded from golf very quickly.

Did Featheries Have Anything to Do with Golf's Bird Theme for Scoring Terms?

No, the feathery ball and the avian scoring terms birdie, eagle and albatross have nothing to do with each other. The bird connection isn't a connection at all, but a coincidence. In fact, featheries were long gone from golf before the term "birdie" was even invented.

Feathery Balls as Collectibles

Featheries are very expensive today as collectibles. Feathery balls that can be dated to the 18th century or earlier are exceedingly rare; most available for sale today are from the 19th century.

The older they are, the more expensive they are; those that can be tied to famous makers — such as Allan Robertson, Old Tom Morris or the Gourlay family of ball makers — are much more expensive. As with any collectible, condition also greatly affects value.

An unmarked feathery (meaning one that does not have a maker's name or mark or otherwise can't be linked to a specific maker) might fetch more than $1,000. Ones in top condition can go for multiple thousands; auction prices in the $4,000 to $6,000 range are not uncommon. Those that can be tied to a "name" maker can reach into the five digits.

So collecting featheries is not a hobby for those without a lot of money to spend.

Where to find featheries? The best places are auction houses (and their websites) that deal in golf collectibles, sports memorabilia or historical artifacts of Scotland and England. One should never buy featheries unless one is confident in the reputation of the seller. Reproductions are very common.