Boys have played marbles since ancient times, well before the invention of modern glass marbles. One of the most ancient of children's games in fact is marbles. Marbles have been found in ancient Egypt, although it is not known precisely how they were used. Playing with marbles was very popular in the 19th and early 20th century. We have noted that the game appears to have been popular throughout Europe and America as well as European colonies overseas. The marbles were made in a wide range of colors and types, both clear and opaque. Boys were fascinated by the different types and liked collecting them. Unlike jacks, marbels were primarily played by boys, most of whom played "keepsies". "Shooting" marbles after school was a popular activity. As marbles were relatively inexpensive it is something that most boys could do regardless of their background. It seems a passtime infact persued by boys that were not from privlidged families. Available images of children playing with marbles provide some interesting information about boys' fashions.
Marbles are spheres sold in bags. They come in various sizes, colours, and patterns. The big
ones are the shooters; the small ones are the shot at. Some marbles are quite beautiful. In the olden days, given boys' natural penchant to collect things, boys were proud of their collections. Some still are.
Marbles, round spherical objects apparently used to play games, have been in existence for at least the past 3,000 years. They have been found in Egyptian pyramids and in North American indian mounds. They were popular in ancient Rome where boys played with clay marbles. An
annual marble tournament has been played in Tinsley Green, England on Good Friday for at least the past 300 years. And the United States National Marbles Tournament is still held the third weekend of June in Wildwood, New Jersey. The first marbles were round stones, nuts or fired pieces of clay and
pottery. The Pretty Little Pocket Book, a Newberry book, reprinted by Isaiah Thomas in 1787, contains a verse on playing marbles. William Blake, in his book of prose, Songs of Innocence (1798), painted an
illustration of three boys playing marbles for his poem "The Schoolboy". An original copy of this can still be viewed at the British Center for Art at Yale University. This is one of the earliest known
illustrations of marbles.
We do know that stone marbles were produced in Germany in at least the early 1800's. It appears that pottery marbles were produced in Germany and in England, during this time period. In The Boys' Own Book, published by Charles S. Francis, New York, 1829, the rating of different kinds of marbles was listed. The cheapest were the Dutch marbles of glazed clay, the next cheapest were those of yellow stone with spots of black or brown, and the best were pink stone with red
veins. There is no mention of glass marbles. Modern glass marbles appear to have been introduced about 1860. Almost all antique handmade glass marbles were produced in Germany from the
period 1860 to 1920. There is limited evidence that some handmade marbles, predominately swirl-type and end of day type, were produced in England. These have much brighter colors, but are also of later
manufacture, probably 1910-1925. Limited numbers of handmade marbles were produced in the United States in the 1890-1915 time frame. These are predominately some of the clambroth, banded opaque, slag and opaque/clearie types. The colors tend to be dull and the glass is softer and of inferior quality to German marbles. The use of machinery to produce marbles was an American phenomenum. In an initial effort to compete with German imports, American manufacturers produced handmade marbles of inferior quality and duller colors. This allowed the Americans to compete based on price. But, their marbles were probably not well received by marble players, judging from the fact that mail order catalogues of the time feature German handmade marbles. In 1905, Martin F. Christensen of Akron Ohio hit upon the idea to use a machine to produce "perfectly round spheres". This provided the Americans with the ability to compete with the Germans on two fronts. First, their marbles were superior for shooting. Because they were made by machine, and not by hand, they had no pontils. This greatly aided a marble shooter because he did not have to be concerned with the irregularities of a slightly out of round handmade marble with rough ends when trying to shoot a straight line. Second, the use of machinery allowed the Americans to greatly reduce their unit cost of production. Thus prices could be lowered and American marbles could compete with the Germans. By the mid-1920's, the Germans were effectively out of the marble-making business. Almost all marbles were made by machine in the United States. The following two decades saw what is described as "The Golden Age of Machine Mades". The large marble makers of the time began to compete with each other to produce more unique designs and more colorful marbles each season. This period of time saw the introduction of Akro Agate corkscrews and Popeyes, Peltier National Line Rainbos, swirls and Peerless Patches, and the rise and fall of The Christensen Agate Company. By the Great Depression, Akro Agate Company and Peltier Glass Company had become the largest producers of marbles. With the advent of the Great Depression, marble manufacturers became more cost conscious and brightly colored marbles began to disappear from the scene. By World War II, Master Marble Company and Vitro Agate Company had entered the marble market. Akro Agate Company failed in 1951 and Vitro Agate Company and Marble King became the largest U.S. manufacturers, but faced stiff competition from Japanese imports of catseyes. By the 1960's, virtually all marbles were made in the Far East. During the 1970's, marble playing saw a steady decline, as video games became more popular and readily available. Also, marble making shifted to Mexico, with Vacor de Mexico becoming the largest marble manufacturer. The 1970's and 1980's also saw the beginnings of a resurgence in hand made marble making by a few American craftmen. Recently, marble playing has begun to exhibit a comeback, with sales of marbles in toy stores increasing by 40% over the past few years. Also, we have begun to enter a renaissance of hand made contemporary marbles, handcrafted by modern glassmakers.
Marbles can be categorized into three basic types:
Handmade glass marbles were produced predominately in Germany in the period 1860-1914. There are now some marbles handmade by American glassworkers and craftsmen.
Non-glass marbles include all of the clay and pottery types (including bennington and china), agates, steelies, wood, stone and paper mache.
Machine made marbles were produced exclusively in the United States from about 1910 to just after World War II. After World War II, the predominate marble was the catseye, which was produced in both the Far East and the U.S. Most marbles that are found in toy and hobby stores now, are produced in either Mexico or the Far East.
There were many specialized types of marbles which boys pried for thei marble collections. There wre of course shooters needed to play marbles. Some of the popular specialized styles included aggies, bumboozers, dobies, glimmers, immies, and milkies. These are American types. I'm less sure about foreign types or the foreign languafe names for these marbles.
The marbles sought after by collectors are handmade marbles, some
select non-glass marbles (mainly chinas) and American machine mades produced before 1960. The number of people collecting handmade contemporary marbles has been increasing during the past 5 years.
There are numerous games that are played with marbles. These fall
into two categories: Board games played with marbles as game pieces and "Street or Playground Games" where the marbles are the main piece and the object of play. Visit the Games and Tournament page of this site for a history of marble playing and for a comprehensive library of all marble games. The National Marbles Tournament is held each year on Father's Day weekend in Wildwood NJ. This tournament has been held each year since 1922. The local tournament, which had been a rite of spring in communities around the country, has begun to make a come-back. The Games and Tournaments page contains some local, national and
Children in the 19th and early 20 century did not have the wide collection of toys that
modern children have. As a result they made do with with much simplier toys and games. One of those was marbles. I am not sure when children began playing with marbles. Marbles have been found in ancient Egypt, although they may not have been exclusively children's playthings. It was well before the 19th century. Boys in ancient Rome are known to have played with marbles and almost certainly children in even more ancient socities also
enjoyed contests with marbles.
We know marbles were played in the 19th century, but we do not know much about it. With the advent of the snapshot, we see many boys playing marbles in the early 20th century. This is also reflected in the period avertizing. We note the Wards catalogs in 1905 and 1930. We note much less marble plasying after World War II (1939-45)
We have noted that the game appears to have been popular throughout Europe and America as well as European colonies overseas. Some information is available on playing marbles in various countries. A HBC reader tells us that marbles werevery popular in Austria
during the 1950s. The Austrians say "Spielen mit Murmeln ". An Australian boy reports that marbles in 2003 are still popular. We know that shooting marbles was popular in England, but we have few details at this time. We do know that the world's long running reguar marble matches are held in England. As in most of Europe, shhooting marbles was popular in France. One French account described a boy's experience in the 1900s at his lycee. We also notice German children, primarily boys, shooring marbles. As in other British dominions, shooting marbles was a popular activity in New Zealand. Shooting marbles was enormously popular in the 19th century and first half of the 20th century. HBC has llittle information on playing marbles in the first half of the century. We can confim that by mid-century it was a well established game in America. Less informarion is available earlier, in part because of the lack of photography as well as the failure of comtemporary publications to report on mundane children's games.
First one must get the terminology. You do not play with marbles, you shoot them. Ones shooting skills are the key, althogh we have noted mechanical shooters. Based on available images, the boys began by finding the dirtiest, dustiest place you can. Marble matches were never done on nice clean grass. The boys then gather or sit in a big circle. In the centre, you draw a small circle about 18
inches in diameter--with a sharp stick. On paved surfaces chalk could be used. We have noted larger circles in some countries. Then you put all your small marbles in the centre of the circle. Then, using your favourite shooter, you try to knock as many marbles out of the ring as you can. If you are successful, you win the marbles that you have displaced, and get to pick up your shooter. If you don't succeed, it can be quite upsetting, because chances are you've just traded your favourite shooter to one of your co-players.
Children playing with marbles was a common sight in the 19th century, especially in the latter half as manufacturing prices came down, better marbles were produced, and the variet increased. Marbles were commonly played on the street in contest between children where the winner kept his gains ("keepsies"). They seem to have mostly been street games, played on sidewalks and allies as well as vacant lots. Available images of children playing with marbles provide some interesting information about boys' fashions. We note a wide range of outfits.
Images of children playing with marbles illustrate the clothing styles of all strata of society, except perhaps boys from the most privlidged families. Shhoting marbles was one of the mst democratic activities. Anyone could do it and elaborate facilites were not required. As marbles were relatively inexpensive it is something that most boys could do regardless of their background. It seems a passtime infact persued by boys that were not from privlidged families. This is probably because such boys were more carefully supervised and some mothers would not approve of their children shooting marbles in vacant lots and allies. Probably boys from weatltly families were less likely to play on the street like that, but seemed to have enjoyed games with themselves at home. Children from wealthy families might be more likely to play with their hoops in parks.
Wagner, Hermann. Illustriertes Spielbuch für Knaben (1903, 20th edition).
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