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This One Is for All the Marbles

May 29, 2013

by Lisa Butterworth

Etsy.com handmade and vintage goods

In the United States, Akron, Ohio, is responsible for more pop culture influence than one might expect. The Midwestern city is the birthplace of basketball superstar LeBron James; it’s where Devo got their start; and it happens to have spawned one of America’s oldest, and at one time most popular, pastimes — marbles.

But let’s back up for a second. In actuality the small, spherical toy most often made of stone, clay, or glass, was in existence long before Akron. According to a story on Mental Floss, marbles were excavated from the aftermath of Pompeii and found in ancient Egyptian tombs. Native American tribes used to play with marbles, and a 1943 article in American Collector magazine says the use of marbles was recorded in Greek literature over 2,000 years ago. Marbles’ history in the US is long and rich as well. As Dan Ackman wrote in the Wall Street Journal, “Washington and Jefferson played marbles. So did Lincoln.”

etsy-marbles-2

birdandbumble

Vintage clay marbles.

In 1884, marble production changed forever when an Akronite named Sam Dyke devised a way to produce more than one marble at a time using a wooden block with grooves, lumps of clay, and a wooden paddle that rolled the lumps in the grooves until they were round. “Mass production made marbles much cheaper to make, allowing the price to drop from about one penny each to a bag of 30 marbles for the same price,” writes Rob Lammie. Akron became a hub of marble-making and in 1915, another city resident, M.F. Christensen, invented a machine that could mass produce glass marbles, a technique still employed today.

The toy industry was pumping out huge amounts of marbles, but what were people doing with them? Turns out, there are hundreds of ways to play marbles; popular versions change with eras and often depend on what country you’re considering. But according to Paul Baumann, author of Collecting Antique Marbles, marble games “can be divided into four types: shooting games, chase games, hole or target games, and obstacle games.” One of the most popular games played at both the National Marble Tournament (held in Wildwood, New Jersey, since 1922) and the British and World Marbles Championship (held in West Sussex since 1932) is Ringers. According to the American Toy Marble Museum (located in — where else? — Akron!), in this type of match 13 marbles are arranged in a cross in the center of a ring 10 feet in diameter. Each player uses a “shooter” (slightly larger than standard size) to knock the marbles out of the ring.

etsy-marbles-7

MsMegpie

A 1970s animal-themed marble game from The Netherlands.

This game, and others like it, were extremely popular in the US in the early 20th century with both children and adults, creating a marble culture that even generated its own particular language, some of which is still heard in today’s vernacular. “Knuckle down” refers to a player’s hand position when he or she is getting ready to shoot a marble (one knuckle against the ground) and playing “for keeps” means the player who wins takes ownership of the marbles he or she garnered. A term I’d personally like to bring back is “quitsies” (which allows any opponent to stop the game without consequence).

There are as many different types of marbles as there are marble terms and ways to play with them. Some of the most popular are “onionskins” (glass marbles with swirled layered colors), “commies” (common monochromatic clay marbles), “sulphides” (clear glass marbles with porcelain figures in the middle), and “swirlies” (glass marbles with one color swirled throughout). Since marbles were all handmade prior to the late 1800s, many are miniature works of art — one of the main reasons they are hot collecting commodities. But it’s not just a marble’s good looks that are appealing. “Two things really separate marble collecting from the collection of most other antiques,” writes Baumann. “One of these is a sense of history. The other is childhood nostalgia.”

Handmade glass marbles are the most rare, and while surface condition is important, it’s the beauty and craftsmanship of a marble that will ultimately determine its price. According to Mental Floss, standard vintage marbles can range from $10 to a few hundred, while shooters will often sell for $50 and up. Some of Baumann’s own antique marble collection (which was auctioned off in 2011) fetched prices ranging from $7,800 (for a sulphide with a lion figure inside) to $13,200 (for an extremely rare onionskin made with bits of mica and a gorgeous variety of colors). It’s enough to make you lose your marbles!

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4 Featured Comments

  • LizzieMade

    Lizzie from LizzieMade said 4 years ago Featured

    This is a great, fun story about marbles. We have quite a collection of modern marbles, as my son was fascinated by them as a little boy. He still has some of his favourites on display in his room. There's definitely something special about these tiny, round toys - especially those with beautiful patterns inside clear/frosted glass.

  • UnaOdd

    Lynn Lunger from UnaOdd said 4 years ago Featured

    Marbles are such a sweet old game! I've never been an avid collector, but I did unearth a small buried trove of them while metal detecting once! Some one hid them well and forgot about them.

  • deekish

    Deeksha Lakshmi from TheColorWagon said 4 years ago Featured

    Interesting history of marbles. I love using them in pottery. Before the last firing, I just place a marble in the center of my pot and fire it with the pot. It gives a nice interesting colored pattern during firing.

  • mariarufino

    Maria Rufino from OrnamentsByRufino said 4 years ago Featured

    Every time I see marbles my mind goes back to my childhood in Puerto Rico when I would get down on my knees to shoot marbles with my younger brother. The colors inside the glass sphere have always intrigued me. Some combinations are absolutely gorgeous -- they look like perfectly round pieces of candy. Thanks for the interesting story on the marbles.

86 comments

  • JewelrybyDorothy

    Dorothy from JewelrybyDorothy said 4 years ago

    Interesting post on marbles! Thank you for sharing!

  • mcfarlanedianne

    Dianne McFarlane from mcfarlanemetal said 4 years ago

    Wow, that's fascinating! Time to dust out the toybox.

  • BambuEarth

    Amber from BambuEarth said 4 years ago

    Wow! $7,800 for a marble! That must have been one incredible marble. I used to love playing! ♥♥

  • johntasto

    John Tasto from JohnsCustomPens said 4 years ago

    I know a few collectors, it's very interesting. Some are just amazing.

  • admspeicher
  • PrincessJillian

    Joanne C from PrincessJillian said 4 years ago

    Love the variation of colors and styles. Just fascinating! Thanks for sharing!

  • jessgreenleaf

    Jess Greenleaf from GREENLEAFblueberry said 4 years ago

    I loved playing marbles as a kid! My sister and I would play for hours getting soar thumbs and always trying to win back from each other various treasured marbles.

  • richdon1

    Rich and Dona from TheCottageMouse said 4 years ago

    Loved playing marbles as a child. What memories...

  • DarburyCottage

    Rosemary Wascher from DarburyCottage said 4 years ago

    I love that hand made glass one the most, but all are so creative.Thanks for sharing.

  • MegansMenagerie

    Megan from MegansMenagerie said 4 years ago

    Love this! Brings back lots of childhood memories. Thanks for sharing!

  • hemingwayfun

    Kristan Hemingway from Hemingwayfun said 4 years ago

    so nostalgic for me... marbles! Thank you for this post. :)

  • DanielHensley

    Daniel Hensley from HoundsofApollo said 4 years ago

    Cool article, I still have my marbles from childhood kickin' around. I was hoping they would talk more about the actual process of making glass marbles though. That's always been a mystery to me.

  • WingedWorld

    Vickie Moore from WingedWorld said 4 years ago

    Thanks for the fascinating historical lesson on marbles. I had a marble collection as a kid and kids still sometimes played with marbles during recess at elementary school, but since that was the 1980s, knowledge of the rules and intricacies of traditional marble games had mostly been lost. I do remember a rudimentary game of trying to hit someone else's marble with your own to win it. Best not to play with your favorite and most beautiful marbles!

  • beautybarbaby

    Nicole from BeautyBarBaby said 4 years ago

    Loved playing with marbles as a child. I always picked out my favorites & put them in my pockets!

  • mirabellamorello

    mirabellamorello from mirabellamorello said 4 years ago

    Very interesting history of marbles! I always thought the glass ones with colors swirled in them were so fascinating! Thanks for this fun post!

  • UnderMilkWood

    UnderMilkWood from UnderMilkWood said 4 years ago

    Love marbles! the way they feel the sound they make. I used play with my nans giant ice cream tub full of them when I was younger. I loved finding out their names thank you. Wish I still had them now!

  • Nemki

    Nemki from nemki said 4 years ago

    I'm so glad that marbles and marbling textures are being focused on recently. Beautiful!

  • HelloShoes

    HelloShoes from HelloShoes said 4 years ago

    Great post. I love marbles and I forgot all about them.

  • LivingVintage

    LivingVintage from LivingVintage said 4 years ago

    Great story! WV was also a major marble making center too with Akro Agate.

  • guziks

    Stephanie from Phylogeny said 4 years ago

    My cousins and I always battled each other in marbles when we were at our grandparents' house. Who knows how old those marbles were, but there was definitely one ultimate shooter, the one we all wanted to win when we played for keeps. Of course, they weren't really ours to keep, but getting the right to play with that shooter even for a short game was the best!

  • susio

    Susanne Ryan from TheFeltedGnomeKnows said 4 years ago

    I covet marbles, especially the glorious Cat's Eye.

  • agebo

    Ann Cosgrove from acbcDesign said 4 years ago

    Love marbles - amazing how many varieties there are out there still!

  • lovelygifts

    Linda from lovelygifts said 4 years ago

    Beautiful marbles!

  • FreakyPeas

    FreakyPeas from FreakyPeas said 4 years ago

    I love, love, love marbles! I still have mine from when I was a kid. Great memories of 3rd grade recess.

  • PlanetSusan

    PlanetSusan from PlanetSusan said 4 years ago

    They're so similar to paperweights, and to think all those variations of color and pattern could be contained into a tiny marble is Amazing!

  • brokenasphalt

    Chris from brokenasphalt said 4 years ago

    Marbles!!!! All time fav.

  • thelittlemarket

    Debbie from thelittlemarket said 4 years ago

    lots of great childhood memories. So nice to see they're making a comeback!

  • Ellareki

    Ellareki from Ellareki said 4 years ago

    So interesting to read the histories behind everyday objects. I had marbles as a child of course, but didn't really know what to do with them! In the end they were always stolen by our marble-obsessed cat who, late at night, used to carry the marbles in his mouth to the top of the stairs and let them drop all the way back down the staircase - not what you want to hear at 3 a.m.

  • Degard

    Maria Fernanda Sanchez from Morichromatic said 4 years ago

    I've got lots of swirlies and an incredibly HUGE one that most probably is a shooter. I never knew they fell in specific categories. My favorite ones are the utterly tiny cristal clear ones, though they must be the most common ones and of course I have a most precious one: a swirly in transluscent red that also has a very fine black line following it. I would also love to know how glass marbles are made, it must be quite interesting.

  • RenataandJonathan

    Renata and Jonathan from RenataandJonathan said 4 years ago

    Such a great story ! Thank you :)

  • Motleycouture

    Motleycouture from Motleycouture said 4 years ago

    Wow! Interesting feature!

  • MsFoodie

    MsFoodie from MsFoodie said 4 years ago

    Hooray for marbles I was pretty good but my mom was the Champion in Southern Idaho she could whip even the best of boys! :)

  • LizzieMade

    Lizzie from LizzieMade said 4 years ago Featured

    This is a great, fun story about marbles. We have quite a collection of modern marbles, as my son was fascinated by them as a little boy. He still has some of his favourites on display in his room. There's definitely something special about these tiny, round toys - especially those with beautiful patterns inside clear/frosted glass.

  • VanillaGrass

    VanillaGrass from VanillaGrass said 4 years ago

    Marbelous topic,thanks a million for sharing!!!

  • ValerieTyler

    Valerie from ValerieTyler said 4 years ago

    That little animal marble game is so cute!

  • starvingartistbazaar

    Jennifer Syfu from starvingartistbazaar said 4 years ago

    Love! I've been collecting marbles for years and later making my own. Marbles influence my glass jewelry. My husband bought me a beautiful John Kobuki jellyfish marble as a wedding gift. Something wonderful about these small pieces of glass art.

  • SilverFoxDesigns6

    SilverFoxDesigns6 from SilverFoxDesigns6 said 4 years ago

    It's wonderful to hear some of the history of marbles. As a child I hunted for "beauties" - marbles that were different from the usual cats eye marbles that were common. I still have my collection and I cherish it not only for its beauty, but for its memories. Awesome write up.

  • leeannasjewerybox

    Leeanna from LeeannasJewelryBox said 4 years ago

    I love informative articles like this. Now I'm the wiser. Thanks for all the neat trivia about marbles, now I can appreciate them even more.

  • PACIFICNWGLASS

    Jen from PACIFICNWGLASS said 4 years ago

    My passion in life is glass., It makes me proud to make every marble I create and I dream and bring my thoughts to reality. You can see my love of nature through my art, and by looking at a handmade marble like mine you can feel the energy of the artist who made it. Every one I put in my young child's hands.... he says WOW with exclamation to his voice and kisses them.. and it's so special. I'm going to offer everyone free shipping in my store anytime .. just enter GLASSLOVE at checkout in my PACIFICNWGLASS store. The little story about the marble obsessed cat was funny too.

  • hdquilter

    Heather Dawson from QuiltingLife said 4 years ago

    Mesmerizing, one of those things that's not truly appreciated, until we realize we've missed them! Thanks for reminding us.

  • mentalembellisher

    Mental from mentalembellisher said 4 years ago

    I've always loved marbles and sometimes use them in my jewellery! What a fascinating article... thanks! x

  • ThePattypanShop

    ThePattypanShop from ThePattypanShop said 4 years ago

    This brings back memories of watching my brothers playing marbles against their friends with style and finesse. They would win lots of marbles and I had fun looking at the many varieties!! Thanks for sharing!!!

  • NirvanaRoad

    Lisa from NirvanaRoad said 4 years ago

    I love marbles! Wish I had kept my collection.

  • UnaOdd

    Lynn Lunger from UnaOdd said 4 years ago Featured

    Marbles are such a sweet old game! I've never been an avid collector, but I did unearth a small buried trove of them while metal detecting once! Some one hid them well and forgot about them.

  • PennyBirchWilliams

    Penny Birch-Williams from PennyBirchWilliams said 4 years ago

    Great information on marbles! I still have the collection my sister and I played with in the 60's. We made up a game where we each had an army of marbles and would try to hit each other's soldiers. Guess that was a sad reflection of the Vietnam war, playing on the nightly news on tv, come to think of it. Hmmmm. Well, still, they were fun and so pretty. Many are chipped and scratched after years of use by all the kids in the family, but I still think they're special.

  • patspottery

    Pat Parker from PatsPottery said 4 years ago

    Brings back a lot of memories♥ Now I need to make some clay marbles, just for fun:>)

  • ShirleyArt

    Debbie Shirley from ShirleyArt said 4 years ago

    Love marbles! Interesting post - thanks for the article!

  • catherinemaria

    Catherine Maria Charalambous from BouncyTree said 4 years ago

    What an interesting article. It was my favourite past time as a kid.

  • BemusingBaubles

    Sarah Laguna from BemusingBaubles said 4 years ago

    Oh wow . . . I'd forgotten how awesome marbles were when I was little. I had a huge glass jar that had been collected from my grandma and mom. So many marbles!

  • PetitPointFrance

    Sonia from PetitPointFrance said 4 years ago

    Very interesting ! And amazing photos !

  • PrairieSmoke1

    PrairieSmoke1 from PrairieSmokeCreation said 4 years ago

    Marbles are and always will be awesome, fantastic pictures too.. Just one thing I cant restrain myself from commenting on and there are many that feel the same for what I'm about to say.........Ohio is not the MIDWEST or should I say hasnt been for like 200yrs!!! This peanuts gallery is in the the true midwestern state of Kansas.. Look at a map its smack dab in the middle of the country west of the Mississippi River.. I apologize and will step down off my soapbox now.. Wow I feel so much better cept....I believe I may have momentarily lost my marbles... Be well...

  • mattyhandmadecrafts

    Matejka Max from NattyMatty said 4 years ago

    Still have some!

  • Ghadah1

    Ghada Hassan from MyGDesigns said 4 years ago

    Very nice pictures

  • SuprCases

    Supr Cases from SuprCases said 4 years ago

    Pretty Amazing marbles here!

  • FranceGallery

    France Gallery from FranceGallery said 4 years ago

    I played marbles as a kid. Fun Blog post!

  • ASParkerJewellery

    Amy Sarah Parker from ASParkerJewellery said 4 years ago

    Marbles are so simple and yet really interesting! Great blog! :D x

  • StayArtisan

    J.K. Ramirez from HudsonBlueArtisans said 4 years ago

    a short trip back home. thanks.

  • julikayalbers

    juli schuster from OliveandAsh said 4 years ago

    My first Etsy sale was a painting of my dad's childhood marbles :)

  • kadydesigns

    Denise Vining from kadydesigns said 4 years ago

    I love marbles!! My Grandfather collected mables and when I was a little kids we would play with them. He stored them in a big green jar. I now have them in a big hurricane vase around a candle. Everytime I look at them it reminds me of him!! Great article!!

  • gertieloo88

    Mary from WoodenHeartButtons said 4 years ago

    Cool post. I remember fondly afternoons playing marbles with the neighborhood kids. I loved especially those days where I was able to "skunk", (aquire all your opponemts marbles) the boys! Often kept in a purple Crown Royal velvet bag, they were our constant plaything once upon a time.

  • genisepark

    Genise Park from genisepark said 4 years ago

    So much fun, didn't realize that it was such a collectors item.

  • Leschatsdecouleur

    Maria Puig from Leschatsdecouleur said 4 years ago

    It's very beautiful!! I love it ;)

  • NicolasKnitKnacks

    Nicola and Jessica Belton from CelticKnittingCo said 4 years ago

    Very retro items! I love it!!

  • lauraprilltoo

    Laura Prill from lauraprilltoo said 4 years ago

    definitely nostalgic, like little universes...

  • NellywithWings

    Nelly V from NellywithWings said 4 years ago

    Lovely article. I love marbles and played with them as a child. As an adult, I just love to hold them in my hands.

  • deekish

    Deeksha Lakshmi from TheColorWagon said 4 years ago Featured

    Interesting history of marbles. I love using them in pottery. Before the last firing, I just place a marble in the center of my pot and fire it with the pot. It gives a nice interesting colored pattern during firing.

  • mabcrafter

    Mary Ann Brandow from littlebits101 said 4 years ago

    Thank you! Loved making "crackle marbles" with my grandmother back in the day!

  • mazedasastoat

    mazedasastoat from mazedasastoat said 4 years ago

    Those clay marbles are from the tops of ginger beer bottles.

  • dominna

    Katrina Dzerkale from Dominna said 4 years ago

    I love to use marbles in making jewlery. I remember first time seeing them when i was 12 - that was something amazing !!! I would bake a cake to the person, who came up with that idea.

  • aressa

    aressa from OriginalBridalHanger said 4 years ago

    I used to love to stare at the designs in the marbles, just wondering how they were made....I didn't realize there were so many ways to play marbles....Love knowing a little history behind...Never dreamed Akron, Ohio has played a part in creating marbles....

  • averygraydesigns

    Stephanie Bense from AveryGrayDesigns said 4 years ago

    I loved playing marbles as a kid. They always had marble tournaments in my hometown of Wildwood, NJ. It's nice to see that it has such a rich tradition.

  • emberair

    emberair from EmberandAir said 4 years ago

    This brings back such fond memories of playing with marbles when I was a child.

  • ThatOldBlueHouse2

    Lisa S from ThatOldBlueHouse2 said 4 years ago

    Yay for marbles! After staring at my grandmothers jar of marbles, I decided I could create jewelry using these fun collectibles from the past...no I don't ruin the marbles, I just use them in a creative way. My favorites are the "commies" the rustic clay marbles. A collector at heart, marbles are fun because they bring back the kid in all of us!

  • Pixie2428

    Doris C. from SewBeautifulbyDC said 4 years ago

    It is nice to remember the days when you could play a game using marbles and you didn't need any batteries to enjoy the game. The animal marble game looks cute. Marbles are great. I love the ones with the swirls of color through them.

  • H88255

    H88255 from HillarysSuperfoods said 4 years ago

    I loose my marbles over marbles!

  • MTmaiden

    Helen N. Hanson from NonToxicSpiritArt said 4 years ago

    I LOVE marbles! Great article.

  • WireWrapStone

    Janet Smith and Ron Covert from WireWrapStone said 4 years ago

    Thank you for the very interesting history on marbles. It helps me see the collection we have in a different light. Janet Smith Wire Wrap Stone

  • losethecurse

    Sara from HiraganaAmericana said 4 years ago

    As a kid, I was part of a marble club that the local library sponsored. We would draw chalk circles on the carpet of one of the meeting rooms and shoot away. I nearly forgot about that! I also recently saw some Little Orphan Annie and other character marbles go for thousands in an auction. It seems like a lot of people have fond childhood memories of these little glass works of art. Thanks for the article!

  • OceanPatch

    Susan from OceanPatch said 4 years ago

    We used to love to find the 'cats eyes' marbles-What a fun article!

  • mariarufino

    Maria Rufino from OrnamentsByRufino said 4 years ago Featured

    Every time I see marbles my mind goes back to my childhood in Puerto Rico when I would get down on my knees to shoot marbles with my younger brother. The colors inside the glass sphere have always intrigued me. Some combinations are absolutely gorgeous -- they look like perfectly round pieces of candy. Thanks for the interesting story on the marbles.

  • byvala

    Barbara Pater from byvala said 4 years ago

    lovely article!

  • zayaishoo

    Zaya Ishoo from DesignPrintHang said 4 years ago

    this is great!!

  • cedarpocket

    Melissa Brown from CedarPocket said 4 years ago

    Love. Marbles.

  • erifley

    Emylie Rifley from PagesAndPendants said 4 years ago

    Glass works are endlessly fascinating to me, and marbles are moreso. It's intriguing to me how flawless each is! I actually turn all my marbles into little pendants and other charms and decorations, but have always had a special love for the entrancing spheres ^.^

  • Fimigal

    Voneen Pryce from Woolby said 4 years ago

    I love marbles, Thanks for sharing!

  • korenkwan

    Koren Kwan from GarasuWonderland said 2 years ago

    love marbles, so beautifully~

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