Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Miners, Mountains and Marbles -- Part Two

Can you remember playing marbles as a kid? I don’t. I remember WATCHING the BOYS play marbles. I don’t know why, but girls, when I was growing up, were not even considered to be credible or capable mibsters (someone who plays marbles). As girls, we never even broached the possibility that we might be good at it.  Girls "back then" were the watchers, the cheerers. The circle on the playground seemed drawn to exclude girls.. Maybe that’s why I chose this photo. Contrary to that accepted norm, this Life Magazine photo below is of 11-year-old Emma Miller from Canton, OH, who was Amish and won the girls’ 1949 championship.

The game of marbles has been around ever since …well, no one really knows…but let’s just say “forever.” Small clay balls have been found in burial mounds of Native Americans, some 2000 years old. The Aztecs had marbles, as did the Romans who played marbles as a game. The glassblowers of Venice made small glass balls around 900 A.D.

And, marbles were made from all kinds of materials other than glass. I remember when we first moved here JOTOLR, a former resident of our old farmhouse came by for an historical walk down memory lane. For whatever reason (I don’t recall) he talked about making marbles by taking a chunk of shale, finding a hole in a rock in the river, and letting it churn in the hole for some time, to make it round, and then returning to retrieve it. Sounds a bit apocryphal, especially if one considers how long it would take to build a pouchful of useable marbles! But he seemed serious.  I do have a wooden marble, as well as a marble marble.

For me, though, I’ve always been fascinated with glass—whether it’s Steubin lead crystal, Tiffany’s lamps, Millifiore paperweights, or marbles. West Virginia, at one time, was home to many glass factories, and the quality of the glass made here was recognized far and wide. Of course, glass manufacturing included production of marbles, which are used for many things other than games. But, as with many such traditional industries, it is largely silent today.  Nonetheless, the game of marbles lives on.

There are over 50 different games commonly played with marbles. The language of marbles is rich with names and moves. There are bombsies, commoneys, corkscrews clearies, steelies, alleys, and aggies, bumboozers , immies and peewees, milkies, and more…the beat goes on. A mibster can play for keepsies or for fair; or fudge, or hunch; knuckling down is the right way to shoot, but a shooter will probably lag, as well.
What’s neat about the game of marbles is that the “equipment” is so simple, it can be carried easily in a pocket, set up quickly, and provides endless entertainment. It can be played in the city, in the country, in the house or out of doors. All that’s needed is a smooth, flat surface and marbles. In 1922 the Scripps-Howard newspaper company sponsored the first National Marbles Tournament for kids 14 and under. As I mentioned in yesterday's post, Raymond Jarrell (among other West Virginia kids over the years) won the tournament in 1972. 

I have not been able to learn whether it will be held again this year, but it did happen last year. Nor have I been able to determine whether the marble factory Marble King, here in Paden City, West Virginia, is still in business. I traveled to Marble King years ago, and after the factory tour was told to go out by the railroad tracks and comb the grounds for forgotten marbles. Among the treasures I found was a black and yellow bumblebee, a not-altogether-rare marble, but on the rare side, anyway!

Remember when those cat’s eyes came out in the 1950’s? The ones with the various-colored swirls inside? They were made in Japan, and apparently, according to Richie Chevat’s Marble Book, nearly “sank the U. S. marbles industry” because marble manufacturers hadn’t caught up with the techniques for producing these kinds of marbles. Everyone here wanted them. I remember finding one and considered it precious at the time.

There aren’t many mibsters, today. Computers and electronic games have largely replaced games like marbles. Pinball machines still use marbles. Some other uses include reflectors in road signs, spawning beds in fish hatcheries, agitators in aerosol cans, and as rollers to slide coffins into crypts.

There is so much marble lore on the web and well worth a short stroll down memory lane. Here is a particularly engaging site:  MARBLE CONNECTION. Also, if you want a compendium on marble lore, including how to play over 50 marbles games, splurge a little and buy The Marble Book by Richie Chevat. You can get it for a penny on What a great way to spend a spring afternoon or two with your kids or your grandkids….learning (and teaching) the skills of knuckling down! Who knows? Maybe they’ll learn enough, themselves, to take home all the money, marbles and chalk and revive the game(s) of marbles once again!


  1. I used to play marbles at the tiny elementary school I went to as a child. And I was pretty good---even had a nice shooting callus, as I recall. I tried to interest my own children in playing (which they did for a bit, but soon lost interest). But even though they didn't play, they still collected marbles because they thought they were so beautiful. There was a store near Boone, NC that had big bins of marbles for sale by the pound. Even I bought some! I like to put them in the flower garden. I think the fairies like them. :-)

    Very interesting posts, Elora. I particularly enjoyed reading about how the nice marble champion man gave you those marbles. I can see why you treasure them.

  2. Elora -- I was one of those girls that played marbles with the boys, very competitively -- very good post -- barbara

  3. Beth and Barbara,
    You have my admiration (for knuckling down and going head to head with the male mibsters!) Guess I wasn't determined enough, but you're so right, Beth: who could resist those lovely marbles of every stripe and swirl?! I was smitten from the beginning and actually love all things colorfully glass! And I love that last word in your comment, Barbara: "competitively." Says a lot!! Thank you both for your comments!


  4. I just wanted to thank you for the story about Raymond Jarrell. I went to school with Raymond and played marbles with him in elementry school. He was always a champion with it. It is funny that I found this article when I was searching to find something about marbles for my son. He was going through some old things in my basement and found a large container of marbles and I was explaining I played marbles with Raymond as a child and these were probable some to the marbles. I was saddened that I was not able to find much of mention of him on the internet, since he was the World's Marble Champion. I remember when he won this event. I seems at times just like it was yesterday. FYI. The gas station that he works at is the one that he played a lot of marbles on the floor to become the World Champion.

    Kathy Jarrell Kinder