- Written by Doris Montag Doris Montag
Playing with small, round balls may have started with cave people. Clay balls have been found in the tombs of Egypt, in Native American burial grounds, and in the ancient Aztec pyramids.
Smooth stones, nuts, fruit pits, and fired balls of clay were used for games. In the 1700s the globes were made of white alabaster, a marble stone — hence the name “marbles.”
Hand-blown glass marbles were made in Germany between the 1860s and 1920s. A “glass marble scissors” had been patented to cut the ball of molten glass, thus creating small globes.
In the heating of the glass, the form was rolled in colored sand, creating the patterns in the marbles. Swirl-design marbles were made into the 1920s. The German glass-blowing companies closed after World War I.
Machine-made marbles were created in America during the 1920-1940s. The Christensen Agate Company of Akron, Ohio, produced a machine where hot glass was dropped onto steel rollers to shape the glass into smooth marbles.
Recognized names like Akro Agate, Peltier Glass, and Master Made Marbles made marbles of baked clay, glass, steel, plastic, onyx, and agate. By the 1940s, the Catseye, produced in Japan, became the most popular marble of our era.
Today, Vacor de Mexico is the largest maker of machine-made marbles, producing over 90% of the world’s supply.
The individual marble names may relate to their use, such as the “shooter.” Others are named for the material they are made of, such as “Steelies” from steel and “Alleys” from alabaster. Flints, Cloudies, Corkscrews, and Peerless Patches refer to the appearance.
Other names include China, Aggie, Commie, End of Day, Bennington, Onion Skin, Mica, Bamboozer, Popeyes, Sparklers, and Moonies.
The standard marble is a half-inch in diameter. These small marbles are called “ducks” or “mibs.” They are the marbles that players try to knock out of the ring drawn on the ground. The large marble, called the “shooter” or “taw,” is generally three-quarters of an inch in diameter and is used for shooting the “mibs.”
There are hundreds of variations of marble games. The classic game, ring taw, or ringer, was the most popular game in the United States. A 3-foot ring is drawn on the ground with 10-15 small marbles (mibs) placed within it. Players take turns attempting to knock them out of the ring from outside the circle.
In advance, players agree to play “for fair,” which means every player keeps their marbles. Or to add excitement and drama, many play “keepsies” (for keeps), where the player who knocks all the marbles out of the ring gets to keep all the marbles.
If the shooter does not knock a marble out of the ring, it remains in the circle. If a player then knocks your shooter out of the circle, they instantly win. If this does not happen, the player shoots from within the ring on their next play.
Marbles were very popular until World War II. The game waned as kids were drawn to TV (Saturday morning cartoons), followed by video gaming. A resurgence in the 1970s revived the game, or at least marble collecting, with large-scale collector competitions.
Several YouTube videos have good discussions of marble values that vary by type, production method, and age. A single marble can be priced from $1 to $100. You must know your marbles.
Marbles are now a nostalgic memory of the past. Few play today.
Doris Montag is a homespun historian and an exhibit curator who researches and displays historical collections of ordinary things, such as can openers, crochet, toy sewing machines, hand corn planters, powder compacts, egg cartons, and more. Contact or follow her on Facebook, HistoryofOrdinaryThings.