Marbles: Collecting and Playing

If you're old enough to remember playing marbles as a kid, you're not 18 anymore. Nowadays the various types of marbles, once used in childhood games, are more often displayed in collector's cases.

Playing marbles date back to prehistoric times. Round stones that were probably used in games have been found in burial grounds and tombs in both Egypt and what is now the southwestern United States.

Handmade marbles of glass probably originated in Italy and spread rapidly over continental Europe marble games were very popular throughout the Roman Empire during the pre- and early Christian eras. Centuries later they arrived in the New World (America) where until around World War II, marbles were among the most popular children's games. Adults also played marble games such as Chinese Checkers.

Marbles can be divided into a number of broad groups according to material. Stone was probably the first material used, followed by clay and later glass. Agates are by far and away the most popular example of stone marbles, and to this day are my own personal preference. Early handmade examples, usually distinguished by minute facets, are the most desirable; later examples were better polished, and of course machine made marbles are absolutely smooth.

Clay marbles were made in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and are available in a number of sized, colors and combinations. Crockery marbles, usually blue or brown, are clay marbles that have been glazed and fired. At some point these were termed Benningtons after a type of pottery they somewhat resemble. They have "eyes" on the surface and are generally somewhat crude.  China marbles on the other hand, were very labor intensive and somewhat rare.

Marbles of the most popular material, glass, were originally formed in rods. This material could be clear or have all kinds of decorations in it. Marbles were made by heating and twisting these.

Some types of glass marbles are swirls or spirals, onion skins or mica marbles. Usually made of clear glass, they enclose small figures of animals or other images made of a material that looks silvery through the glass. English and French manufacturers produced fine sulphide paperweights but the figures in the predominantly German sulphide marbles are somewhat cruder. Their value depends on scarcity, absence of air bubbles, size and - most of all-  condition. Those made of colored glass or having colored figures are rarest and command very high prices at auction.

Most of the hand made marbles, glass and agate, were imported, mainly from Germany. Just after WWI, machine made marbles were introduced in the US and pretty much put the companies making hand produced products out of business. Even the early machine made marbles are very collectable.

Here in the last few years a number of glass workers all over the country have started making new versions of the older marbles and some of the designs are very interesting. There can be seen at local marble collector meetings and of course the big national shows sponsored by the Marble Collectors Society of America. Many areas have local clubs affiliated with this society; if you have an interest in learning more about this field of collecting, write to the SeaTac Marble Club, PO Box 739, Monroe WA 98272 for more information about local activities. You don't have to be a kid to enjoy marbles! -Jerry Sackett

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