Getty Images
Getty Images

A Brief History of Marbles (Including All That Marble Slang)

Getty Images
Getty Images

If you're the type of mibster that has knuckled down with a taw and shot for an aggie duck, then you already know quite a bit about mibs. If you're among the many people who have no idea what any of that means, stick around as we explore the history of marbles.

Rolling Through History

Believe it or not, but no one really knows where marbles originated. They've been found in the ashes of Pompeii and in the tombs of ancient Egyptians, and they were played with by Native American tribes, so it's impossible to pin down a precise country of origin. The earliest examples were simply stones that had been polished smooth by a running river, but for centuries artisans made them by hand from clay, stone, or glass.

Mass production became possible in 1884, when Sam Dyke of Akron, Ohio, created a wooden block with six grooves, each of which held a lump of clay. An operator would roll a wooden paddle over all the clay balls at once, with a back-and-forth and slightly lateral motion, creating six marbles. With around 350 employees, Dyke's factory was cranking out five train carloads, or about one million marbles, every day. Mass production made marbles much cheaper to make, allowing the price to drop from about one penny each to a bag of 30 marbles for the same price. Other businessmen jumped on the bandwagon and Akron soon became the marble capital of late-19th century America.

In 1915, mass production of glass marbles began, thanks to a machine invented by Akron's M.F. Christensen. His machine consisted of a screw conveyor made up of two grooved cylinders spun next to each other. A "slug" of molten glass was placed between the cylinders on one end and it was gradually carried down to the opposite side, simultaneously cooled and shaped into a sphere by the rolling grooves. The design worked so well, it has remained essentially unchanged and is still the most common way to make marbles today.

Watch marble production on "How It's Made":

Marbles were really popular throughout the early part of the 20th century, but World War II rationing, plus the utter chaos of the European Theatre, put a damper on the sport. It enjoyed a brief resurgence in the 1970s, and continues to be played today, but it has never been able to reclaim its title as a childhood institution.

Talk Like a Mibster

To the layman, a marble is just a marble. But if you're an experienced player, you probably have a half-dozen slang terms to describe the sphere in front of you. Marbles usually earn their nickname based upon what they look like, what they're used for, or the material used to make them. For example, "aggies" are marbles that are made from agate, a type of stone. An "alley" can be a marble made of alabaster, but it can also be another term for a "shooter" or "taw," the large marble used to knock around the smaller ones, which are sometimes called "mibs" or "ducks." "Bumblebees" are yellow and black striped. "Jaspers" are common, blue marbles made from glazed or unglazed china. "Onionskins" are glass marbles with swirls of layered colors that extend over the length of the marble. "Sulphides" are semi-opaque glass marbles that usually contain a small figured in the middle. Sometimes the figurine is an animal, a character (like Santa Claus), or even a real person (like Teddy Roosevelt, at left). And if you can spot any of these marbles on sight, you're probably a "mibster," a term for someone who plays marbles.

Morphy Auctions

In-game slang includes many phrases that have made it into the everyday lexicon. For example, to "knuckle down" means to put your hand in a position to shoot your marble, keeping at least one knuckle on the ground at all times. "Fudging" means you crossed the line on your shot, which is a minor form of cheating. If you're about to take an easy shot with your taw, you can say the marble you're aiming for is a "dead duck." Playing "for keeps" means that any competitor's marbles you knock out are added to your personal collection. Oddly enough, the origin of the phrase, "losing your marbles" can't definitively be traced back to the game of marbles. However, if you were to lose all your marbles in a "for keeps" game, you probably would go a little bit crazy.

Glory in the Ring

You might think you know how to play marbles, but I'm afraid you don't. That's because there is no single game called "marbles." By the same token, any game that uses marbles can be called "marbles." There are hundreds of games that can be played with marbles, however, the most common game used for modern tournament play is known as "Ringers."

To play Ringers, two mibsters arrange 13 ducks in an X at the center of a 10' diameter ring. The mibsters take turns knuckling down with their shooters and firing into the ducks, scattering them. Any ducks that leave the ring are worth one point each. If his shooter stays in the ring, the mibster can keep shooting ducks, earning more points. However, once his shooter leaves the ring, it's the next mibster's turn. Once all 13 marbles have been knocked out, the ducks are re-racked into an X again for the next round. Play continues until one mibster has 50 points.

Ringers is played at the National Marbles Tournament (at left), held over four days in June since 1922 in Wildwood, New Jersey, with winners in both the boys and girls divisions since 1948. The players are all between the ages of seven and 15, and compete for scholarships, prizes, and, of course, glory in the ring. This year, about 50 of the best mibsters in the country played, but your reigning king and queen of marbles are Brandon Matchett and Baily Narr, both from Allegheny County, Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania is quite the marbles powerhouse – since the tournament began, 71 champions have hailed from the Keystone State.

Ringers is also the preferred game for the British and World Championship, played at The Greyhound Inn and Pub in Tinsley Green in West Sussex every Good Friday since 1932. The area has a competitive marble legacy dating back to 1588, though, when, legend has it, two young men played for the hand of a beautiful woman. The tournament is truly international, and teams from Germany, America, Japan, and the Czech Republic have all participated. This is a team competition, where 49 ducks are placed in the center of the ring; mibsters shoot into the group with a "tolley" (their term for a shooter) and fight to be the first team to score 25 points. 

Of course Ringers isn't the only game played in organized competitions. In 2011, Standing Stone National Park in Crossville County, Tennessee, was the site of the 29th Annual Rolley Hole Championship. Rolley Hole is similar to croquet and is especially popular in Kentucky, Tennessee, and Georgia. In Europe, the World Marbles Championship has been held annually in Prague since 2005, where they play a game that closely resembles golf.

A Beautiful Investment

If you were a mibster in your youth, or if you just think marbles are cool to look at, you're in luck – collecting vintage marbles is a very popular hobby. But before you start bidding on eBay, there are a few things you ought to know.

There are a variety of different kinds of marbles, but the ones that bring top dollar are handmade and machine made glass marbles. Handmade are more sought after, simply because they're so rare and reflect more deliberate craftsmanship. But particularly beautiful machine made examples can still command a respectable price. You can tell the difference between the two by the presence of a pontil, a small rough spot that is left over when the handmade marble is removed from the glass rod in its final stages of production.

Size, manufacturer, and condition are important, but the main thing a marble collector looks for is the beauty of the design. There are, of course, many different styles that are popular with collectors, with about a dozen different terms used to describe them. Some of the more popular styles are onionskins, corkscrews, lutz, micas, clearies, Indians, Joseph's Coat, oxbloods, and sulphides. The more colors and the more delicate the artistry, the more you'll pay for a marble, regardless of the condition.

To collect marbles, you'll probably want to pick up a few tools of the trade. You'll need a magnifying glass or jeweler's loop to check the condition of the marble, so you can see how bad the inevitable chips, flakes, or scratches are on a game-played marble. This can also help you see the details on the figurine inside a sulphide marble. It also never hurts to have a hand-held black light. Some vintage marbles will glow under black light, because they were made with a small quantity of Uranium. The marbles are perfectly safe to handle, though, because the Uranium has been encased inside the glass.

Morphy Auctions

Of course you'll also need your wallet, because good condition marbles do not come cheap. Your average vintage duck can run anywhere from $10 to a few hundred dollars. Shooters usually start in the $50 range and only go up from there, often selling for hundreds or even thousands of dollars. For example, earlier this month at Morphy's Auction House in Denver, PA, one of the top marbles auctioneers in the country, they sold a single peacock Lutz onionskin for $13,200 (at left). It was sold as part of the collection of Paul Baumann, the man who literally wrote the book on marble collecting back in 1969. Other notable sales in the collection included an amber glass Latticino Swirl for $10,800, a sulphide with a painted lion figure inside for $7,800, and a beautiful, black-and-white clambroth for $5,700. However, one of the biggest – if not the biggest – amount ever paid for a single marble was a whopping $27,730 for a big 3" shooter (below) in 2010. Not a bad return on what was probably an investment of a few pennies.

You can check out the rest of the Baumann Collection on the Morphy Auctions website.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Kena Betancur, AFP/Getty Images
Want to Live as Long as an Olympian? Become a Chess Grandmaster
Kena Betancur, AFP/Getty Images
Kena Betancur, AFP/Getty Images

It’s well known that physical fitness can help prolong your life, so it’s not surprising that elite athletes, like Olympians, tend to have longer lifespans than your average couch potato. But it seems that “mind sports” can help keep you alive longer, too. According to BPS Research Digest, a recent study suggests that international chess grandmasters have lifespans comparable to Olympic athletes.

The study, published in PLOS ONE, examined the survival rates of 1208 mostly male chess grandmasters and 15,157 Olympic medalists from 28 countries, and analyzed their life expectancy at 30 years and 60 years after they attained their grandmaster titles. They found that both grandmasters and Olympic medalists exhibited significant lifespan advantages over the general population. In fact, there was no statistical difference between the relative survival rates of chess champions and athletic champions.

There are several variables that the study couldn’t take into account that may be linked to chess players’ long lifespans, though. Grandmasters often employ nutritionists and physical trainers to keep them at their best, according to the researchers, and exercise regularly. Economic and social status can also influence lifespans, and becoming a world-champion chess player likely results in a boost in both areas.

Some research has shown that keeping your mind sharp can help you in old age. Certain kinds of brain training might lower the risk of developing dementia, and one study found that board game players in particular have slightly lower rates of dementia.

If keeping the mind sharp with chess really does extend lifespans, the same effect might apply as well to elite players of other “mind sports,” like Go, poker, or competitive video games. We’ll need more research to find out.

[h/t BPS Research Digest]

nextArticle.image_alt|e
David Franzen, Library of Congress
You Can Thank 1950s Suburban Architecture for ‘The Floor Is Lava’
David Franzen, Library of Congress
David Franzen, Library of Congress

No one knows who, exactly, was the first kid to play "The Floor Is Lava," the simple childhood game that has only one rule: You can’t touch the floor. But as Quartz reports, a new paper contends that the game wouldn't have come about if it weren’t for the rise of American suburbs.

Published in the Social Science Research Network, the analysis by Tim Hwang of the MIT Media Laboratory argues that architecture was a vital factor in the spread of the folk game.

In the new suburban housing developments of postwar America, builders began to market the relatively new idea of the family room, an informal room designed for the social needs of the whole family. This room was separate from the formal living room and dining room, both of which were more likely to contain the inhabitants’ good furniture and fancy china. In building plans popular in the 1950s and 1960s, they were also set apart from the kitchen. One 1965 poll found that seven of 10 new houses built that year contained a family room.

And these factors, Hwang argues, are integral to playing The Floor is Lava. Family rooms provide big couches, coffee tables, and other furniture that kids can move around, climb on, and use as props for the game. Bedrooms would be too small, and formal living and dining rooms too full of potentially fragile items that Mom and Dad would be livid to find disturbed. And kitchens were seen as a mother’s domain, meaning that she would likely be there to put a stop to any shenanigans.

"What is unique about the family room space is both the quantity of space and permission that it affords to the play of The Floor is Lava,” Hwang writes.

However, this is just a hypothesis, and no one can really identify who started playing the game first. Kids in urban apartments can also theoretically jump all over their parents’ living room furniture, if allowed. During my childhood, the game typically took place on a playground rather than inside, requiring players to avoid the ground rather than the family room floor. There are games that originated elsewhere in the world that also revolve around avoiding the floor—Hwang notes examples from Kenya and the UK. But given how the spread of suburbs in the U.S. during the postwar period affected home design, it makes sense that a game might arise from the new spaces children lived in. We may never truly know how The Floor Is Lava was invented, but architecture seems like a good clue.

[h/t Quartz]

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios