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Monday, March 14, 2011

The Marble World: A Child Discovers A Charmer

I slowly lifted the tiny treasure to my cogent eyes to explore the magical universe trapped in the timeless inner dimensions of the orb. Beneath the surface lay a world of wonder instigated in the mind of a young child. Cat's eye, tiger, turtle, ade, oxblood, sulphide, onionskin, beach ball, mica, spiral, corkscrew -- each a unique sphere requiring careful investigation; each a kaleidoscopic, artistic world of wonder. Inexpensive and practical yet beautiful and puzzling -- the marble.

How many of you have felt the hold of the marble. I used to love collecting marbles and playing marble games. It seems to me marbles touch something very basic about being a child. Not only are marbles part of every child's fortune, but also marbles are keys to comprehending the strong power of beauty and the inevitable allure of possessing splendid creations.   

Marbles are objects of extremely old origin. Marbles are believed to have originated in Harappan civilization in India near the river Indus (3300–1300 BCE; mature period 2600–1900 BCE). Various marbles of stone were found on excavation near Mohenjo-daro (one of the largest city-settlements in the Indus Valley Civilization).

Marbles are also often mentioned in Roman literature, and there are many examples of marbles from ancient Egypt. These marbles were commonly made of flint, stone or clay-baked balls. Clay balls have also been found  in Native American burial grounds as well as in the ancient Aztec pyramids. Marbles made from china and real marble have also been found, the latter perhaps giving the balls their name. (Sharon L. Cohen, "The History of Marbles,", 1999-2011)

Marble games date from antiquity, and ancient games were played with sea-rounded pebbles, nuts, or fruit pits. The young Octavian (later the emperor Augustus), like other Roman children, played games with nut marbles. It is believed that Romans spread the word about this form of entertainment throughout their empire.

Archaeologists have also dug up engraved marbles from the earthen mounds built by some early North American mound builder cultures. And, Jewish children used filberts as marbles at Passover.

Glass marbles are thought to have been some of the many glass objects made in ninth century Venice, but it is not until the late middle ages that the playing of marbles games is again documented. It appears that by then marbles were known throughout Europe. A manuscript from the fifteenth century refers to 'little balls with which schoolboys played." In 1503 the town council of Nuremberg, Germany, limited the playing of marble games to a meadow outside of town. ("Ancient Marbles: The Most Simple Toy,", 2009)

The popularity of playing marbles increased considerably once they were produced in large scale by factories. A German glass blower invented a marble-making mold in 1846, which made it much easier to produce marbles and considerably reduced the cost for popular use. 

This trend continued in the 1890s, when the first marble manufacturing machines were made. Before factories, most children could not even afford a clay marble. However, once these balls were produced in large quantities, a child could buy a couple of them with a penny. Akron, Ohio, was one of the first cities that produced marbles in large amounts. The factories could make as many as one million marbles per day--enough to fill a railroad boxcar. (Sharon L. Cohen, "The History of Marbles,", 1999-2011)

There still are a couple of American marble factories. The toys are also manufactured in Mexico. A number of artisans in the United States now make handmade marbles, which are pieces of art rather than playthings. Some of them are as large as six inches in diameter. Their vibrant, rich colors and unique designs make them one-of-a-kind beautiful objects to enjoy.

Marble Memories

Many games have graced the pages of marble history. The game of Ringer is one of the most well known games. Perfecting the arts of propulsion and backspin took lots of practice. Many Ringer players became unbelievably adept. Why, the American game even took on tournament rules in the early 20th century.

According to the people at Akron Marbles, Ringer has changed radically between 1923 and today. In 1923 “a committee of playground and recreation experts” wrote the first sets of rules. The wording was awkward, at times confusing and was designed to be liberal and easy for schoolhouse staff to hold elimination tournament, something they’d never done before. ("The History of the Game of Ringers,", Canal Fulton Glassworks)

Once they’d held a couple years worth of tournaments and there existed some real-time experience on how children were playing the game some flaws where realized. After the 1925 national finals a group of tournament officials put their heads together to work out some of the flaws they perceived in the rules, in order to improve the game and make it fairer. These changes were put into place in 1926 and the rules were obviously written by a professional writer, most likely a group of journalists.

When the Scripps-Howard Company dropped their sponsorship of The National Marble Tournament in the mid 1950’s the new board of directors threw out the 'poison shooter rules. This change resulted in a very different game and built in a flaw that eventually led children to stop playing with marbles. It made the game a lot easier to the advanced players, a lot harder for lesser skilled player and almost impossible for a novice to play the game at all. ("The History of the Game of Ringer,", Canal Fulton Glassworks)

Yesterday's News, March 13 2011) The marble game here is not Ringer. Here is J.K.'w memory of a marble shooting match:

"Then one day in March or April a patch of dry sidewalk would appear here and there. Hundreds of little boys would come down out of trees, crawl out of tents or caves, or retreat from walking on the rubbery ice of lakes, ponds or the Mississippi river, and the real marble games would begin....

"The boy with the agate would place it cunningly behind a crack or unevenness in the sidewalk. On the bumpy surfaces agates were hard to hit. The lad with the agate would sit with his legs astride to capture the marbles as they rolled in. Marbles that leaped the outstretched legs or which rolled to either side were fair prey of lads temporarily out of marbles. With four or five boys rolling, sometimes two marbles would hit the agate at the same time. The resulting arguments often ended in fist fights which were even more enjoyable that the marble game.

"We played our smaller games involving six or eight boys near our homes. Only a few agates and 200 or 300 marbles were involve. The big games were played on West Broadway where the older "tough kids" congregated. Dozens of boys and thousands of marbles were in the continuing game.

"Passersby good naturedly walked around the maddening crowd of young enthusiasts.

"You could come into a game with a thousand marbles and leave destitute, or you could pirate a few strays, get into the game and come away with all the marbles. Skill, chance, effrontery, good sportsmanship and downright thievery were all included in marbles as we played. It was a prelude to the competition in adult life, and anyone large or small, strong or weak, could play. Its effects, salutary or invidious, are remember today by men, be they derelicts or senator. And to think, for shame, that a conspiracy of the press has kept our children from even knowing about this noble game!"

Ode to Marbles

I love the sound of marbles
scattered on the worn wooden floor,
like children running away in a game of hide-and-seek.
I love the sight of white marbles,
blue marbles,
green marbles, black,
new marbles, old marbles,
iridescent marbles, 
with glass-ribboned swirls, 
dancing round and round.
I love the feel of marbles,
cool, smooth,
rolling freely in my palm,
like smooth-sided stars
that light up the worn world.

by Max Mendelsohn
2004 by The Children’s Art Foundation. Reprinted from Stone Soup, May/June, 2004.

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