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We’ve lost our marbles. November 13, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Did you play with marbles when you were a kid? Neither did our friend Ben. In fact, I tend to think of marbles as a Depression-era game, with kids in Buster Brown suits and Nancy dresses playing marbles and hopscotch on the sidewalk. But when I was growing up, marbles were still available everywhere. Those little plastic mesh bags of marbles were in bins or on hooks in every five and dime, grocery, drug store, and toy store.

Our friend Ben was thinking about all this recently after Silence and I went to visit our friends Bruce and Cole in beautiful Charlottesville, Virginia over Hallowe’en. Like us, Cole is a collector, and his latest collecting passion is marbles. He showed us exquisitely crafted cases and vases of marbles, expounding on marble types and makers as he held each marble to the light. He brought out books on marbles and marble collecting. When we visited local antiques stores and malls, Cole trolled for marbles while Silence searched for her ever-elusive ruby glass chicken salt cellar (still no luck) and I looked for antique chess pieces (forget it).

By the time Silence and I got back to Pennsylvania, we were kind of hooked on marbles. They’re great collectibles because they don’t take up much space, and you can still find jars and bags of them for a few dollars (if you’re lucky). Of course, the kinds valued by collectors, typically the early American machine-made marbles, tend to cost a lot more, especially when they’re in excellent condition.

Thanks to Cole, our friend Ben learned that I was almost right about my Depression-era concept, as long as I broadened it out a bit. The Golden Age of American marble-making was really in the 1920s and ’30s. Before that, marbles were usually made by hand, typically in glass factories that made other types of glassware for a living and made a few marbles at the end of the day with their leftover glass. The elegant glass marbles were made in Europe, chiefly in Germany.

Then, around the turn of the century, Americans perfected a marble-making machine, and American marbles came into their own. By the Roaring Twenties, American machine-made marbles dominated the world market. Hundreds (if not thousands) of kinds of marbles were made in factories across the country, with most of the marble companies concentrated in West Virginia and Ohio. White marbles with multicolored patches and swirls, clear marbles with streaks of color, glass marbles that mimicked the old agate marbles hand-carved from stone—anything a glassmaker could think of, in every color combination he could devise, made its way to market.

But then came World War II. Glassmaking supplies, like everything else, were needed for the war effort. Those of us who didn’t live through it can’t really imagine how the war changed the lives of ordinary Americans. From groceries to gasoline, it affected the everyday lives of families across the country in a way nothing else has ever done since. And after the war, when the U.S. was trying to get Japan back on its feet economically, one of the things they taught the Japanese to make was marbles.

The Japanese didn’t make the many kinds of marbles that had been produced in American factories before the war. They made one kind, called a cat’s eye. These are the clear marbles with bands of color inside them. Japan learned to make cat’s eyes cheaply and well. Imports of Japanese cat’s eyes flooded and quickly dominated the American market. One by one, the American marble companies closed. Even in our friend Ben’s day, cat’s eyes were still the only marble available in those many, many mesh bags in all the stores. American marble-making had passed into the hands of historians and collectors.

Today, marble-making is enjoying a renaissance of sorts in America, thanks to the collector market. Art glass in general, from lampworked and dichroic glass beads and jewelry to marbles and larger pieces, is flourishing, though of course these exquisite marbles are as pricey as their ancient handmade relations were back in Germany in the 1800s. And at least one American factory, JABO, is making limited runs of machine-made marbles for the collector market. Even the Japanese cat’s-eye marbles now have their  aficionados and collectors. But today’s marble market is dominated by a single factory, Vacor de Mexico, that makes Mega Marbles in an unbelievable assortment of styles and colors. Vacor is clearly the inheritor of the great tradition of the glory days of American machine-made marbles. You’d definitely admire their marbles… assuming you could find any.

This at last brings our friend Ben to the point of this post. Thinking about marbles made me realize that I couldn’t remember the last time I’d seen them in a store. So this week, I did a little research. I went to grocery stores, drug stores, dollar stores, even children’s consignment shops. Sure enough: no marbles. When I asked at one drug store, a cashier told me a sad tale: Her son, an elementary school teacher, had asked her to get him some marbles for his class. After looking everywhere with no luck, she had been forced to resort to a crafts store where they sell marbles for vases and aquariums. You know, the clear glass marbles in various colors that all look the same. Pretty enough, but boring.

So what’s happened to marbles in America? Are we so terrified that our children will swallow them that we’re afraid to even carry them in stores? Our friend Ben thinks not, especially after seeing shelves bulging with packets of tiny, usually plastic, toys with their “choking hazard” warning. Or is it just that, like our friend Ben back in the day, we no longer play with these venerable toys?

Whatever the case, I think I can now definitively say that, as a nation, we’ve lost our marbles. But, marble-wise, all is not lost. You can still admire the many beautiful types of Mega Marbles online, and buy packs of them, including the big shooters, for less than $3 a pack. You can also buy and enjoy every kind of marble ever made, from polished stone and machine-made marbles to the old ceramic Benningtons and the most modern art glass, on eBay, at flea markets, antiques stores, and marble and toy shows, and at specialty sites online. Three current favorites are Land of Marbles (www.landofmarbles.com), Collectible Marbles (www.collectiblemarbles.com), and Mega Marbles (www.megamarbles.com). (I know there are plenty more, I just don’t know about them. Maybe an experienced marble collector out there will help me out!)

There are also marble books galore, sold through Land of Marbles, Amazon, and doubtless many another store. If you have a favorite antiques mall or flea market that carries a selection of collectors’ books, check there, too. Buying a jar of old marbles for $8 is one thing, but before you spend serious money on marbles, it pays to look into collector pricing. Read before you buy! And unless you’re an antiquarian, buy a current book with lots of color photos. Older books are fascinating, but black-and-white photos aren’t nearly as helpful when it comes to marble ID.

The great era of American marble-making may be lost. But fortunately for marble lovers, it’s still possible to find our marbles. Next time you come upon one of these cunning little spheres, take a closer look. Like our friend Cole, you may find that yesterday’s simple pleasure is today’s treasure.

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Comments»

1. fairegarden - November 13, 2008

Hi OFB, a well done piece on marbles. I played with them as a kid and not in the depression but in the fifties and sixties. We played for keeps too. I had a few shooters, the large ones that I loved the most, especially when they were made of unusual materials. No one wanted the cats eyes as keepers then. I do have a bag for the grandkids to play with, all cats eyes from when my kids were small but all offspring cry out with horror, choking hazard, what are you thinking? So they have been removed from the toy basket. HA I think we need to get them out again for Thanksgiving. Thanks for the reminder of times past.
Frances

Thanks, Frances! Alas, I would probably have been too excitable and/or uncoordinated to make a good marbles player. As for Thanksgiving, go for it, I say! You can always put them in a bowl or something and just admire them. I’ll bet the grandkids will be fascinated! And you can point out to their horrified parents that somehow none of them managed to choke on them…

2. Gail - November 13, 2008

I remember marbles very well…growing up in the fifties lots of kids had bags of marbles. From the get go the best looking marbles caught my attention! Looks in marbles were important, the big shooters were always marked up and pitted from aggressive playing.
The smart and serious players kept their shooters separate from the bag. I am going to follow your links and look at the marbles and see what other memories are unearthed!

Gail

Go for it, Gail! You may end up being a collector, too! Even if you don’t go into it in a big way, think how marvelous it would be to have a bowl or vase of interesting marbles to look at every now and then for nostalgia purposes!

3. nancybond - November 13, 2008

So what’s happened to marbles in America? Are we so terrified that our children will swallow them that we’re afraid to even carry them in stores?

They exported them all to Canada! Every Dollar Store in town has bags of marbles here, both the kind you play with and those that are used for more decorative purposes. So, you haven’t really lost your marbles…they’re just misplaced. ;-)

Ha! Another good excuse to visit Nova Scotia!

4. Daphne Gould - November 13, 2008

Just earlier this week I was having a discussion on marbles. We have a new glassworker in our artists’ coop that makes marbles (among other things). So as we were admiring them, Thierry, who grew up in France, wanted to know if American kids played with marbles. I certainly did as a child (in the 70s). It turns out our games were different. When he played they put the larger marbles down and from a distance try to hit them with the little marbles. Totally the opposite of what we do.

That’s fascinating, Daphne! Seems like it would be harder to play that way, though…

5. Mike Timonin - November 13, 2008

In the ’80s in Nova Scotia, we played with marbles, but the rules we used were clearly different from those used by, well, pretty much anyone else. Our elementary school had this strip of woods out back, between the buildings and the soccer fields, and we used to dig little holes around the roots. Then we would decide on how many marbles each kid would use – the person who got the most marbles into the hole got to keep all of the marbles in the hole. As I recall, we ranked marbles on a series of esthetic values – larger marbles were worth more than smaller ones, clear glass were worth more than cats eyes, etc and so on. From early spring through late fall, marbles played a huge role in the lives of most boys and some girls.

And then, Dad got transferred, and I’ve never had the opportunity to play marbles since. And, it turns out that other people play marbles totally differently, with shooters and such.

Wow, your version sounds like fun, Mike—sort of a cross between marbles and bowling!

6. Cinj - November 14, 2008

I played with marbles as a child too, but I grew up in the 70’s and 80’s. No one else really had them so I didn’t actually play the official game of marbles, but they were fun to roll around anyway. We also occassioally needed to replace the plastic marbles that came in the Hungy Hippos game. I loved the cool, smooth feel of a handful of glass marbles. I used to have some wonderful marbles that looked cracked inside though I’m not sure what ever happened to them.

Dad had a bunch in his possession that my son snatched up shortly after he passed away. My kids have started collecting and playing with them. The cats enjoy chasing them across the floor when the kids inevitably don’t put their stuff away when they’re done playing with it. One of these days I should figure out the official rules of playing marbles and teach my kids how to play.

What a great story, Cinj! You should check out your dad’s marbles before they all get lost or broken—he may have had some treasures in his stash. Some of those old marbles are worth hundreds of dollars!

7. deb - November 14, 2008

I started collecting old marbles about twenty years ago. Mostly I was after blue marbles, but would buy anything that looked old. Right now they are in an old glass milk container. I want an old bubble gum machine to display them in.

Good for you, Debbi! I think a bubble gum machine would make a really cool display.

8. Ratty - November 14, 2008

I always thought marbles were fun. I liked looking at them more than playing with them, but I did both at times. I think your marble history lesson here is even more fun for me, than the marbles themselves though.

Thanks, Ratty! That’s quite a compliment. I think you should check out the Land of Marbles website. You’d enjoy seeing all the different kinds!

9. Bob Johnson - November 26, 2008

I remember playing marbles alot. Sometimes we’d dig a small hole and take turns hitting them in. The first one to get his marbles in won them all.
I know of one USA marble manufacturer called Marble King USA. You can find it here…http://madehereinamerica.com/childrenstoys.aspx

Bob Johnson

Thanks, Bob! Marble King is one of the last of the great U.S. marble companies still in operation, and they still make the marbles most of us remember—or at least, remember seeing—from our childhoods. They’d make a great stocking stuffer for a child or adult marble fanatic!


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