The evolution of the soccer ball from its initial inception to its present form has been remarkable to read about and see.
As countries continuously integrate technology into manufacturing processes, the products that we use in our day-to-day lives benefit greatly from qualitative enhancements.
And the soccer ball certainly hasn’t been left behind in this regard.
This makes it worthwhile to talk about what old soccer balls were made of, because there are numerous differences between the balls we have today and those that existed in the distant past.
So, before I dig into all the juicy details about this topic, I’ll start with a succinct answer for the question in the title…
Old soccer balls were made from human or animal heads and pieces of cloth, before graduating to construction with inflatable pig bladders that were stitched together. Eventually, vulcanized rubber material was invented and used as the starting point for standard soccer ball designs, with each rubber panel glued together at the seams.
The latter materials above were in fact major developmental improvements from what was supposedly used during medieval times!
Now, let me digress just a little.
According to historical rumour and legend, the battle-hardened soldiers of ancient Greece and Rome are said to have kicked about the human skulls of their defeated enemies as a relaxing pastime.
Even more so, the British were also said to have played a soccer-like game with the head of an animal.
What’s quite fascinating to note about the previous statement is that this head-kicking activity eventually gained even more cultural symbolism.
People started up competing games in agricultural fields, with winning teams allowed to bury the animal head in the ground as a reward that supposedly guaranteed a good future crop harvest.
But moving back to the topic at hand, I’m now going to offer more information on what old soccer balls were made of.
What were soccer balls made of in the 1800s?
Back in the 19th century, soccer balls were nowhere near as well constructed as they are today.
The sophisticated bits of machinery and robotics that we now see in warehouses and factories across the world simply wasn’t available.
In fact, people were limited to just a few baseline options when it came to making soccer balls:
If you’re not very clued up on human anatomy I wouldn’t be surprised if you didn’t have even the faintest idea of what a pig bladder is!
But don’t worry, because I’ll explain things as best as I can.
A pig bladder is an expandable and muscular sac that is stored in the urinary tract of a domestic pig.
What it does is store accumulate urine until it is excreted through the urethra.
Because of its lightweight and stretchable properties, the airtight membrane could easily be filled with air and tied up for basic soccer ball use.
Unfortunately, pig bladders did come with a couple of drawbacks.
Firstly, soccer balls made from this material tended to come in all sorts of different shapes and sizes, which had a detrimental effect on ball control due to the inconsistency brought about by a lack of a standard visual form.
The subsequent disadvantage here is the lack of a spherical shape, which is needed for optimal bounce and aerodynamic performance.
And on a slightly related note, pig’s bladder was also used to inflate the world’s oldest soccer ball too!
Soccer ball improvements came a bit later on in the year 1855.
This was when a man known as Charles Goodyear invented the first standard soccer ball – made from a material called vulcanized rubber.
The balls made from pigs’ bladder barely fit the description, and it wasn’t until the commercialisation of rubber happened that soccer ball development really took off.
Mr. Goodyear was a man on a mission to make natural rubber stable enough for use in industrial settings.
You see, at the time rubber had a critical flaw as it melted when exposed to severe heat and cracked in extreme cold temperatures.
By accidentally mixing sulphur with rubber on a hot stove, Goodyear witnessed the rubber hardening.
It was quite unexpected because when met with heat, the rubber of that time would normally melt.
So, when it didn’t, Charles Goodyear knew he had found the solution.
And from that point on, he sought to perfect the formula for mixing the two components together and patented the process on June 15th, 1844.
Inflatable rubber bladder
After Charles Goodyear had successfully paved the way for the shape and size standardisation of soccer balls, another man took things a step further.
H.J. Lindon introduced inflatable rubber bladder soccer balls in 1862.
This was after his wife supposedly died from a lung disease brought about by inflating too many pig bladder balls with her mouth.
The logic behind this is actually quite simple to understand.
If a pig was infected, blowing into such a bladder would cause a person to inhale the hazardous substances, which would then make their way to the lungs and inflict damage.
So, he changed the game by modifying a brass ear syringe to blow up soccer balls instead of inflating by mouth.
This led to the subsequent production of rounder soccer balls that held their shape much better when kicked.
Why did old soccer balls have laces?
Your mind might be drawn to the thought of present-day shoe laces, but that’s not what I’m talking about in this section!
Back in the past, soccer balls lacked their distinct roundness and they were not easy to inflate.
So, for this context, laces simply refer to the tiny pieces of threading that were tied up to seal an interior air bladder into the soccer balls of those olden times.
People had to rely on these inflatable air bladders to keep their ball pressurised, and at the time the best way of doing so was using a lace-up slit as an aperture for tube insertion and the eventual securing of the bladder.
Furthermore, even after soccer balls had progressed to a more modern leather form in the 1900s, lace material was still needed to stitch the panels together.
How have soccer balls changed over time?
So many things have changed in soccer ball production over the years.
If I was to quickly highlight the improvements made from generation to generation, I’d come up with the following list:
- Thermal bonding of ball panels as an alternative to hand-stitching
- Micro-chip insertion to track advanced ball performance metrics
- Colour changes from older leather brown to traditional black and white shades and present multi-colour
- Material progression from rubber bladders to synthetic leather
Now I’m sure I’ve missed a few things here and there.
But in my opinion, those are some of the core developments to soccer balls that have taken place throughout the course of recorded history.
However, I’d like to leave you with a video that does a better job of summarising the evolution of the soccer ball.
Now it’s a bit of a long one at 26 minutes, but it’s so informative that I felt that I would be doing a huge disservice to the article and its readership if I excluded it.
So, here it is:
I like to keep my posts as detailed as possible yet as concise at the same time, which is why I’ll end this one here.
Hopefully the article has significantly broadened your understanding on what old soccer balls were made of and sparked further interest in soccer ball history.
The sport is such an amazing game to be a part of and I thoroughly enjoy taking about every little bit of it.
So, I’ll see you again next time.
But before then, buy yourself a great soccer ball that meets all your needs!