We’ve lost our marbles. November 13, 2008Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
Tags: American marbles, machine-made marbles, marble collecting, marbles
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.