The earliest marbles were actually round stones, nuts, fruit pits or fired pieces of clay and pottery. Some say they were found in the Egyptian pyramids and in North American Indian mounds.
The young Roman boy Octavian (that’s Emperor Augustus to us) was written to have played games with nut marbles. And jumping forward, there has been a National Marbles Tournament in Tinsley Green, England, every Good Friday for at least a few hundred years.
Marbles also made appearances in plenty of literature during the 1800s. Let’s just say that they’ve been around for a long time.
We know that handmade glass marbles were produced in Germany starting in the mid-19th century because there is a known patent for ‘glass marble scissors’ from that time.
But there’s also some evidence that early marbles were crafted in England, and in Venice, Italy, so the winner of the ‘First Handmade Glass Marble’ contest isn’t crystal clear.
The German glass company Elias Greiner Vetters Shon, the same company that holds the patent on the marble scissors, made swirl-design marbles by hand until the 1920s, which were exported to American and English markets.
The orb began at the end of a rod of semi-molten glass, and after a blob was formed, those special scissors sliced it off. Since the rod contained strands of different colours, the little glass results would as well.
Today, collectors clamour for the Greiner company’s brightly coloured creations, because as names like Core Swirl, Mika, and Latticino indicate, these were little works of art. They’re still known to turn up in attics and historical dig sites.
The production of handmade marbles ebbed in the 20s to make room for the machine-made variety. American companies like Akro, Agate, Peltier Glass and Master Made Marbles began to really churn them out.
They were made out of all sorts of materials: baked clay, glass, steel, plastic, onyx, and agate. The machines also meant better shooting marbles, because there were no nicks or misshapes like there were with the handmade items.
Their names were based on a marble’s particular use (a Shooter, for instance), the material it was made of (Steelies from steel, Ally’s from alabaster), or its appearance (Flints, Cloudies, Corkscrews, Peerless Patches, etc.).
By the 1940s, Japan was producing cat’s-eyes, which were the most popular marbles, and by the 1960s, nearly all the world’s little round ones were produced in the Far East or Mexico. But handmade glass marbles rolled onto the collector scene once more in the 70s and 80s – glass craftsmen once more having a go at the orbs.
Marble play involves rolling, throwing, dropping, or knuckling (marble balanced on the forefinger, thumb shooting marble outward) your little round guys against an opponent’s marbles or another prescribed target.
The game itself has dozens of variations. There is Taw, Ring Taw, Ringer, Lagging, tic-tac-toe, hit-and-span, assorted pot games, bridgeboard, Chinese marbles, boxies and keepsies (probably the most heartbreaking of all, because if your opponent wins, he gets to keep all of your marbles).
Ring Taw is frequently played by adults and has official rules, as laid down by the British Marbles Board of Control. 49 half-inch-diameter marbles are used, and each player has a tolley, a larger marble of up to three-quarters of an inch. The ring, drawn on any available hard surface, is six feet in diameter. The objective is to knock more marbles outside the ring than the opposing player or team.
At the start, the 49 marbles are compressed into a circular ‘pack’ in the middle of the ring. The captain of the team ‘tolleys off’ by holding their tolley to their nose and letting it drop into the ring.
The tolley nearest to the edge of the ring plays first. Each turn starts with the tolley placed in the crook of the index finger and flicked from the edge of the ring towards the marbles inside.
Every marble knocked out of the ring scores.
Judgements are made by looking from directly overhead: a marble which lies exactly on the line is still in but if its middle is beyond the line it is out. If one or more marbles are knocked out and the tolley is still within the ring, the player gets another shot and his turn continues until he fails to knock a marble out or the tolley itself goes out.
If a shot fails to knock a marble out and the tolley finishes inside the ring, it stays there until that player’s next turn. This is to be avoided as it means the tolley can be ‘killed’ – knocked out of the ring – by the opposing team.
A dead tolley is not removed, but the player is handicapped by having to ‘knuckle down’ his shots, playing them with the back of the hand touching the ground. The game ends when the last marble is knocked outside the ring and the winner is the player or team who collects more marbles.
DUBS – Hitting two or more ducks out of the ring.
DUCKS, MIGGS or MIBS – The marbles placed in the ring to be shot at.
FOR FAIR – Playing to return to owners all marbles won during the game.
FUDGING – Moving hand across line when shooting. This is forbidden.
HISTING – Raising hand from ground in shooting. This is forbidden.
KNUCKLE DOWN – To rest knuckles on the ground when shooting.
LAGGING/DRIBBLING – Tossing or shooting for the line to determine the order in which players shoot.
LAG LINE – Line formed by mark on the ground ten feet away from lagging point.
LOFTING – Shooting in an arch through the air instead of rolling shooter on the ground.
MIBSTER – A marble player.
PICKS – Removing obstructions or levelling ground in front of shooter.
ROUNDSTERS – Taking a different position for shooting (on rings only).
SHOOTING/FLICKING – Holding taw between thumb and first finger and releasing it by force of thumb.
SNEAKING – Shooting to lay close to ducks for next shot.
TAW, TOLLEY or SHOOTER – Marble shot from the hand of a player.