CLOSE
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
iStock
arrow
fun
'Puggle,' 'Emoji,' and 298 Other New Words Added to Scrabble Dictionary
iStock
iStock

Scrabble aficionados and wordsmiths around the world will soon have some new reading material to bone up on. In celebration of National Scrabble Day today, the makers of the classic word game announced that 300 new words will be added to Scrabble’s official dictionary.

The new words will be published in the sixth edition of Merriam-Webster’s The Official Scrabble Player’s Dictionary, which will be released this fall, according to Mashable.

Here are just a few of the new additions:

Emoji (noun): A small computer symbol used to express emotion
Ew (interjection): Used to express disgust
Facepalm (verb): To cover the face with the hand
Macaron (noun): A cookie with filling in the middle
Puggle (noun): A kind of dog
Sriracha (noun): A spicy pepper sauce

Some players of the 70-year-old game may be surprised to learn that “ew” isn’t already a word, especially considering that Scrabble recognizes more than 100 two-letter words, including “hm” (another expression), “ai” (a three-toed sloth), and “za” (slang for pizza). If played strategically and placed on a triple word square, “ew” can land you 15 points—not bad for two measly letters.

New Scrabble words must meet a few criteria before they’re added to the official dictionary. They must be two to eight letters long and already in a standard dictionary. Abbreviations, capitalized words, and words with hyphens or apostrophes are immediately ruled out.

Peter Sokolowski, editor at large at Merriam-Webster, told Entertainment Weekly, “For a living language, the only constant is change. New dictionary entries reflect our language and our culture, including rich sources of new words such as communication technology and food terms from foreign languages.”

The last edition of the Scrabble dictionary came out in 2014 and included 5000 new words, such as "selfie," "hashtag," "geocache," and "quinzhee."

[h/t Mashable]

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
arrow
Words
25 Double-Letter Scrabble Words to Have in Your Back Pocket
iStock
iStock

The best Scrabble players are the strategic ones who keep adding words to their player vocabulary. Once you've mastered a number of two-letter words and the high-scoring ones (that are admittedly very difficult to play), start looking to double-letter words to take advantage of the multiples on your tile rack.

1. AGLOO

seal on snow
iStock

Don't have an I for IGLOO? Use an A for AGLOO, meaning an air hole through the ice made by a seal.

2. ALLEE

allee
iStock

Instead of an ALLEY, use this double-double-lettered word meaning a tree-lined walkway.

3. BETTA

betta fish
iStock

Rather than BETA, use that extra T to mean the freshwater fish.

4. BRATTICE

Coal mine
iStock

A BRATTICE now means a heavy curtain or barrier in a mine to help direct air flow, though the medieval meaning was simply a temporary partition along a wall.

5. DRESSAGE

Dressage
Adam Ihse, AFP/Getty Images

The fanciest of all horse training and equestrian events, DRESSAGE is the obedience and discipline riding competition, rather than the racing.

6. FUGGY

man holding his nose because of terrible smell
iStock

To FUG is to make something stuffy or odorous, but its adjective form (FUGGY) and past and present participles (FUGGED, FUGGING) will take care of any extra Gs on the board.

7. GHYLL

two people looking into a ravine
iStock

Not only will GHYLL, which is a deep ravine, utilize a double-letter, but it will help if your tile bar is sorely lacking in vowels.

8. GRAAL

gold chalice
iStock

GRAAL is an older form of the word GRAIL, but it's also a technique used in glassblowing.

9. HEELER

Shoemaker holding high heels
iStock

Don't have an A for HEALER? A HEELER is a person who puts heels on shoes (as well as an Australian cattle dog).

10. HELLUVA

cursing key on keyboard
iStock

If you're having a HELLUVA time getting rid of a few letters, this nonstandard combination word is actually Scrabble-approved.

11. INNAGE

worker examining containers
iStock

INNAGE is the quantity of goods remaining in a container when received after shipment.

12. LARRUP

man defeating other man at video games
iStock

To decisively defeat someone or trounce them is to LARRUP.

13. MAMMEE

tropical island
iStock

Another double-double-letter word, a MAMMEE is species of tropical tree with large red fruit.

14. MOGGY

cats
iStock

A MOGGY or MOGGIES (plural) is the cat equivalent of a mutt.

15. OLLA

Salad in glass jars
iStock

A quick word to tack onto some common board letters, an OLLA is a wide-mouthed pot or jar.

16. OUTTELL

woman with megaphone mural
iStock

OUTTELL, OUTTELLS, and OUTTELLING all refer to speaking out or declaring something openly.

17. PERRON

outdoor staircase
iStock

A PERRON can refer to both large outdoor stairways or the stone platforms of certain columns and edifices.

18. PIGGERY

pig in pig pen
iStock

You're surely prepared with PIGGY, PIGGIE, and PIGGISH, but a PIGGERY is a pigpen.

19. QUASSIA

Quassia amara
iStock

Score extra points with a well-place Q. A QUASSIA is another tropical tree whose bitter bark is sometimes used as a digestive aid or an insecticide.

20. SCABBLE

clay in hands
iStock

No, not Scrabble. SCABBLE means to shape roughly.

21. TIPPET

tippet
Metropolitan Museum of Art, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

A TIPPET is a covering for the shoulders, or a ceremonial scarf worn by clergy.

22. TYPP

balls of yarn
iStock

A TYPP (or TYPPS, plural) is a unit of yarn size. It's an acronym for thousand yards per pound.

23. VALLUM

Vallum at Hadrian's Wall
Optimist on the run, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

The VALLUM was part of the defensive wall of earth and stone surrounding Roman camps.

24. WEEPIE

man and woman crying in movie theater
iStock

While WEEPY is an adjective for tending to weep, a WEEPIE is a very maudlin movie.

25. WELLY

child wearing wellingtons
iStock

According to the official Scrabble dictionary, WELLY is an acceptable form of WELLIE, the British rainboots.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios