The Magic of Marbles


The Magic of Marbles

Do you have a collection of marbles stashed away, nestled in a soft leather bag? If so, you know what it’s like having your own treasure of precious jewels.

Like snowflakes, no two marbles are alike. Some are richly colored and transparent, like rubies, emeralds, or sapphires. Others are swirls of colors melded together; and some are clear glass with spirals of solid color inside.

There is a multitude of games that can be played with marbles. They can also be used for trading or collecting.

Marbles have been with us in some form since ancient times. Small, hard balls of clay have been discovered in European caves. Egyptian tablets have depicted people playing with marbles, and some have been found in pharaohs’ tombs. The Romans, including Augustus Caesar, played with them. Marble games are mentioned in two of Shakespeare’s plays, and it has been a tradition to play marbles on Good Friday in England, where it is still sometimes called Marbles Day.

American Indians used smooth, round pebbles for marbles; early settlers made them out of clay. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln were all avid marble players. During the Civil War some soldiers carried marbles in a bag suspended from their belts and played with them between battles.

Around the turn of the century most marbles were handmade in Germany by expert glass-makers. They were very beautiful and are now valuable collectors’ items. If you should come across a marble that has a little circular nub of glass, or pontil, on each end, the marble was handmade. The pontil shows where a special tool called a marble scissors snipped hot molten glass from a long rod to form the marble.

After World War I, machines were invented to make marbles, and since that time most marbles have been mass-produced in factories.

  • Aggie—slightly larger than normal marble, usually made of agate

  • Cat’s-eye—marble with wedge of color embedded in clear glass

  • Cleary—clear glass marble, sometimes tinted

  • Clayey—small marble made of clay

  • Glassie—glass marble

  • Little Solid—small, opaque, colored marble

  • Migs—target marbles

  • Milky—translucent white glassie

  • Peewee—very small marble

  • Purey—small, brightly colored, clear glass marble

  • Smoky—glassie with wisps of color

  • Steelie—ball bearing used as taw, or shooter

  • Taw—large marble used for shooting; often an aggie or a cleary

  • Water—clear, colorless glassie

Although there are countless variations, marble games fall into three basic categories: chase games, hole games, and enclosure, or circle, games. To discover marble games that you haven’t played before, check under “Games” in your local library. Also, ask your parents or grandparents to show you one of their favorite marble games when they were children.

[illustration] Illustrated by Dale Kilbourn