The earliest marbles weren’t called marbles, of course, because marble wasn’t the source material just yet. 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 1800’s. All of which is just to say, once again, 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 up by hand until the 1920’s, 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 colors, the little glass results would as well. Today, collectors clamor for the Greiner company’s brightly-colored 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 20’s to make room for the machine-mades. 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 handmades. 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 1940’s, Japan was producing cat’s-eyes, which were the most popular marbles, and by the 1960’s, 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 70’s and 80’s—glass craftsmen once more having a go at the orbs. Maybe it was something to do with the scissors.
Marble play involves rolling, throwing, dropping, or knuckling (marble balanced on forefinger, thumb shooting marble outward) your little round guys against an opponent’s marbles or another prescribed target. There is taw, ringtaw, 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). There are tournaments for the people who play, and conventions for the people who collect. If we had pyramids today, we’d stick marbles in them too. There’s just something about them that’s inexplicably, well, nifty.