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.”
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.
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!