The small round balls we know as marbles have been around for thousands of years, at first they were of natural stones that had been rounded by fast running rivers and were used as tokens in ritual magic. Seed like objects are still rolled over the ground in some remote parts of the world today, to wake the seeds before they are sown. They were later made of clay and had ritual markings on them, it would seem that not all these spheres ended up with grown-ups for ritual use, but fell into the hands of their offspring. These children would have used them in play, rolling them along into holes or at any others that were in their way.
Mr Lissner in his book ‘Man, God and Magic’ tells of Seven little white marbles being found in the Drachenhohle caves near Mixnitz in Styria, Austria. These were used by our Palaeolithic ancestors. He also mentions 30 pebbles of a similar nature and date found in the Wildenmannlisloch Caves, which are now 5,300 feet up in the Churfirsten Mountains, Switzerland. They were not of local stone, but had been brought from a considerable distance.
Roman Marbles from the British Museum
Marble like objects have been found in archaeological digs all over the known world, the British Museum in London has both Greek and Roman marbles dating from 200 years before the birth of Christ, as well as some Egyptian examples found in a child’s grave dating from the Early Dynastic period 3000 BC. Over on the other side of the world the inhabitancy of North America that predates the Indians left marbles in their burial mounds, which date from 6000 BC.
In the official guide book to Westminster Abbey is the following. “A favourite game of the period (1376) – ‘nine holes’ – was evidently played by the novices in intervals of leisure, as traces of it are found both in this and in the first bay of the North Cloister close by, where the holes are clearly visible on the stone bench near the Prior’s seat.”
Paintings by many Dutch artists from the 16th century show children playing the game of marbles. One by Pieter Bruegel painted in 1560 shows over 200 children play some 80 games which include marbles, titled ‘children’s games’ it can be viewed at the Kunsthisrorisches Museum in Vienna. There are also Dutch tiles in Delft wear that show different marble games, these blue tiles were used as decoration around fireplaces in the larger houses of the time. The Douce collection held in the Bodleian Library, Oxford contains scores of old prints showing Flemish children at play. One of them by Jacob Cats (1625) show 13 games being played, with marbles in the middle foreground. The painting by Adrian Van Ostade (1620 – 1685) entitled ‘Musicians at a cottage door’ shows a rural scene from the 17th century in which two small boys can be seen playing a early ring game.
‘Musicians at a cottage door by Adrian Van Ostade
An anonymous poem of the 17th century describes an English schoolboy as a ‘dunce at syntax, but a dab at taw.’
There are numerous mentions of marbles in European literature, and in 1729 Samual Rogers wrote this much-quoted verse in his ‘Pleasures of Memory’
‘On yon gray stone that fronts the channcel-door,
Worn smooth by busy feet, now seen no more,
Each eve we shot the marble through the ring
When the heart danced, and life was in its spring’
A Coventry penny token of 1801 shows two boys playing marbles in the free school, with a master standing over them with his cane raised over his head. Also in 1801 Joseph Strutts book on the ‘Sports and Pastimes’ was published, later editions mentions the marbles game ‘Ring Taw’.
In a book on the battle of Trafalgar I came across the following ”The same spirit affected the wounded. A seaman aboard the Conqueror, his leg shattered, lay on deck calmly playing marbles with stray grapeshot while waiting to be carried below.”
There is also an engraving by R. Pollard from a painting by R. M. Page, showing Scholars playing marbles in the Cloisters of Westminster Abbey in c. 1800.
As was said earlier most marbles were made from stone or clay. Early stone marbles were made in Germany but they were sold from Holland and so became known as Dutch marbles. ‘The Boy’s Own Book’ dating from the mid 1800 says, “The Dutch were for many years the chief producers of marbles, and even now do a large trade in them. The greater number of the Dutch marbles are made of a hard stone or marble, found near Coburg, in Saxony. The stone is first broken with hammers into small cubical fragments, which are then placed, a couple of hundred or so at a time, in a mill somewhat resembling a flour-mill. The lower stone, which is fixed and at rest, has several concentric circular grooves; the upper stone, which is of the same size as the lower one, is made to revolve by water or wind power, and the cubical pieces are gradually introduced between the two. Small streams of water are passed through the furrows of the lower stone, and the pressure of the upper stone on the little pieces rolls them over and over in all directions, reducing their rough surfaces, and in about fifteen or twenty minutes turns them out of the mill perfectly round and smooth.”
Scholars playing marbles in the
Cloisters of Westminster Abbey
In Victorian time there were many books published such as ‘Every Little Boy’s Book’, ‘Manly games for Boys’ and ‘The Boy’s Own Book’ which contained both ‘Sports and Pastimes’. The contents all covered marble games and how to shoot them. As Dr. Johnson said, “Whatever you would do, however trifling in it self, strive to do it well”.
There is a story about a blind boy who being unable to play marbles was always call upon as a umpire as his ear was so acute that he could tell if a shot was properly made. He exclaim ‘a fair shot, that! And his decision was never questioned.
In ‘The Modern Playmate’ published in 1870 there is even a paragraph on how best to shoot a marble. “A few hints on taw-shooting. Do not aim directly at the marble, because you are always apt to use a little too much strength, and then the taw flies over the marble, and misses it altogether. Aim at the ground about a quarter of an inch in front of the marble, and then you will seldom miss.”
Illustration from an old book
It was in the 1850’s that glass marbles made their appearance, most of them coming from small German glasshouses (which were in fact small family factories). The reason for this sudden mass production and export was due to the invention of the Marble Scissors, a small hand held device that rounded one end of the cane or rod that made the marbles, while cutting the other, so making them round. The glasshouses made the mass production of these individual works of art possible, they did so in the last half of the 19th century and the first two decades of the 20th.
When I went to the German Marble Championships in August 2004 I visited Lauscha where Elias Greiner first mass produced glass marbles in the 1850s and looked round the modernised Farb Glas Hutte where hand made marbles are still made.
I also went to the Marbel muhlen in Eisfeld and saw a marble mill that was still working up until the 1950s. They had an exhibit which showed the mill a wooden barrel that was used to polish the marbles, a board which had holes holding a 100 marbles, this was used to quickly counting the finished marbles, 10 of these boards = to 1000 marbles were then empted in to small sacks, these small sacks were then used as baldest on the many sailing ships that plied there trade all over the world.
Marble games were established enough to have been included in Lady Gomme’s 1890 book of ‘Traditional Games’. There are 11 games many of which are still firm favourites today. She says, “Different kinds of marbles are alleys, barios, poppo, stonies. Marrididdles are marbles made by oneself by rolling and baking common clay. By boys these are treated as spurious and are always rejected. In barter, a bary = four stonies; a common white alley = three stonies. Those with pink veins being considered best. Alleys are the most valuable and are always reserved to be used as ‘taws’ (the marble actually used by the players). They are said to have been formerly made of different coloured alabaster.
M F Christiansen, who lived at Akron, Ohio, USA, invented the first glass marble-making machine in 1901. It was semi-automatic and looked like a row of small bicycle wheels in a long line.
By the 1920’s the Akro Agate Company had fully automatic machines, which were making thousands of uniformed two and three colour marbles every day. Over the next three decades there were many companies in the USA and through out the world making marbles. In 1948 the English Glass Company were producing marbles, which were used at Tinsley Green for a number of years. This company was however short lived as in the 1950s the Cats Eyes marbles from Japan were introduced to the worlds markets. It was not only the manufacturing in England that was affected, many of the biggest and best known companies American that had dominated the markets stopped making them.
The following is an extract form an Hong Kong guidebook (1950’s) that gives a description of how marbles are made.
‘The local factory uses scrap glass for raw material which is fed into an oil-fired furnace which can generate a temperature of 1,200oC. The glass emerges in liquid form from a valve, which has been adjusted in relation to the size of the marbles required. The liquid sliver is cut as it descends from the furnace and the globules fall into water-cooled revolving drum. The rolling and cooling result in the globules contracting into spheres and in doing so, the marbles are formed.
There are two ways to produce the traditional colouring for the opaque marbles, the colouring agent is placed in the furnace with the scrap glass, but for the internal colouring, the melted colouring agent is streamed into the liquid glass as it emerges from the furnace.’
As the twentieth century merges into the twenty-first the biggest marble factory would appear to be one in Mexico. Set up in 1930 the Vacor de Mexico factory in Guadalajara to day makes twelve million marbles a day in ten sizes from 10mm to 35mm.
Personally I think the best glass playing marbles come from the factories that are situated in West Virginia USA and I have quite a few of the in my collection still.