Ball and Cane

The rise and fall of gutta-percha.

Ball and Cane

Illustration of Charles Sumner being attacked by Preston Brooks, by James G. Varney, 1856.

Entering the 1840s gutta-percha was a virtually unknown commodity in the West, a curious substance of little practical use. But by the time it was first utilized in a submarine telegraph cable circa 1850, it was a common component of numerous commercial goods. A natural plastic derived from the latex of several different trees native to Malaysia, gutta-percha had the advantage of being pliable when heated, yet hard and moderately flexible at room temperature, making it perfect for use in such products as boot soles and bottle stoppers. Although Malayans had used gutta-percha for hundreds of years, it wasn’t until Western engineers and businessmen began actively seeking commercially viable natural substances that gutta-percha captured the attention of Europeans.

For better or worse, the West’s fondness for gutta-percha ultimately played a role in its decline. Gutta-percha could only be obtained by boiling the gray, milky sap of the gutta tree, a process which necessitated killing the tree. When German, Werner von Siemens (founder of Siemens), discovered that gutta-percha was an effective electrical insulator it was quickly incorporated into the design of submarine telegraph cables. Since most underwater cables were hundreds or even thousands of miles long, massive amounts of gutta-percha had to be harvested in a short period of time. “You only get two or three pounds per tree,” notes John Steele Gordon, author of A Thread Across The Ocean: The Heroic Story of the Transatlantic Cable. “When you need several hundred tons you’re cutting down a lot of gutta trees.”

Around the same time engineers began marveling at gutta-percha’s electrical qualities, Scottish golf enthusiast Reverend Adam Paterson began considering a more sporting application. After receiving a statue from India packed in gutta-percha (for protective purposes), he wondered if the substance would be suitable for golf balls. At the time, golf balls were made of leather and stuffed with boiled goose feathers and the skill required to sew the materials together made them almost prohibitively expensive. Even worse, the “featheries” tended to absorb water and weren’t particularly durable, lasting just a few rounds. After Paterson began playing with a gutta-percha ball he noticed that it was not only more durable, but could be driven much further, a major consideration for golfers even back then. Before long it was discovered that the dents and nicks that clubs imparted on the gutta-percha ball resulted in improved aerodynamics, which led to the innovation of dimples.

Meanwhile, the market for walking sticks was also radically affected by the introduction of gutta-percha. Traditionally, men’s canes had been black and made of ebony, a high-priced wood that put walking sticks out of reach of all but the wealthiest individuals. But the gutta-percha walking stick—dipped in sulfuric acid to achieve the traditional black color—could be manufactured for a fraction of the cost, making canes accessible to almost everyone.

Today, the gutta-percha walking stick is best remembered for its role in a heated political confrontation. In 1856 abolitionist Massachusetts senator Charles Sumner gave his “Crime Against Kansas” speech on the Senate floor, in which he railed against slavery and insulted several southern politicians. “After the Senate had gone out of session but while Sumner was sitting at his desk, [South Carolina] representative Preston Brooks came over and proceeded to beat senator Sumner senseless with his gutta-percha gold-headed cane,” recounts Gordon, inflicting injuries so severe that Sumner was unable to return to his duties for several years. Although Brooks was forced to resign from office he was soon re-elected, which prompted an outpouring of love from his supporters. “He received thousands of gutta-percha gold-headed canes from all over the south, saying, ‘Go back and finish the job,’” continues Gordon.

Ultimately, price increases (brought on by decades of over-harvesting gutta trees), and the development of synthetic plastics made gutta-percha virtually obsolete. Today, its sole commercial use is in dentistry, where it’s used to fill the empty nerve channel after root canal. As for Reverend Patterson and Representative Brooks—forever linked together by their creative use of gutta-percha—only one question remains: Would either have endorsed Teddy Roosevelt’s stance on diplomacy: “Speak softly and carry a big stick”?