The true marble afficionado will recognize the specimens above as "agates." They were always my favorites. There was a time in our collective past, not too terribly long ago, when the term "shooter" didn't automatically conjure up the image of a sociopathic teenager who brought several guns to his school to wreak mayhem, or some urban nut case who opened fire at a theater or from the tower of a college building. A "shooter" was the marble used in a child's game to knock your competitor's marbles outside of the ring, and thus claim them as your own.
I used to own a whole bag of marbles. Don't ask me what happened to them...Like many things, they just disappeared over the years. Given away, traded away, thrown way, or just lost in countless moves. They still make them, however, as hard as that is to believe. And even more surprising, they still make them in America.
Just barely. There are only two companies left here that still make marbles. The largest of the two, Marble King, is located in Paden City, West Virginia...a small town nestled along the Ohio River, about half way between Wheeling, WV, and Marietta, OH. The Ohio River Valley has a long history of glass manufacturing, and marbles are just a tiny, tiny niche. And a rapidly disappearing niche.
Did you ever play marbles as a kid? Ever collect them? Ever wonder where they come from, or how they're made? What happened to them?
If so, this diary is for you.
Marbles. Such simple little spheres of glass. Today they exist mostly as home decor items, clear balls of glass spilled into a vase that serve as modernistic centerpieces or nondescript accent decor on a side table. But once they were entertainment. That aspect of their history has gone, largely, the way of pogo sticks, hula hoops and a ball and jacks. But the terminology of playing marbles has worked its way into the English language in ways you probably aren't aware of. Terms like "playing for keeps", "knuckling down" and, as the title of this diary alludes to, "losing your marbles."
I used to play marbles growing up, though I must surely have been on the tail end of that activity. It soon gave way to collecting baseball cards, and the competitive tossing of them against the school wall during recess to see who could get closest, or even end up with their card leaning against the wall. Sometimes both you and your opponent would both end up with their card leaning against the wall, in which case you had to determine the angle of the lean to determine which one won, and took both cards.
Marbles were a different game...but at the same time quite similar. You didn't risk your most treasured marbles without giving it some thought...and each marble was different. You had your pearlies, your steelies, your boulders, your cat eyes, your agates, etc.
In an age when baseballs, the essential equipment of America's past time, haven't been manufactured in the USA since 1969 (and even then, it was in Puerto Rico), it is almost amazing that something as seemingly simple as a marble is still manufactured here. But there are still two companies left which make them. The largest, Marble King, is located in Paden City, West Virginia, population about 2,600. It is not a particularly old company, as industries go...it was formed in 1949, in another WV town, St Marys (also located along the Ohio River, just 24 miles south). Today, they not only still manufacture marbles here in America...they churn out a million marbles each and every day. That's a lot of marbles.
As many as it is, however, it is dwarfed by manufacturers in China or Mexico, where much of marble production has, unsurprisingly, transferred over the years. Vacor de Mexico, a marble manufacturer located in Guadalajara, produces 12 million marbles a day.
Marbles date back hundreds of years, and used to be made of clay or polished stone. The modern glass marbles we are familiar with were born in Germany, in the 19th century, where glass making was a major industry and an invention called the "marble scissor" was developed. Molten glass rods were forced into a cup and sheared off, forming a marble. Those early marbles are recognized by the uneven ends where the cuts were made. The process was refined over the years to eliminate that imperfection, and the growth of the marble making industry in America, situated largely in communities along the Ohio River Valley, was fueled in part by the concentration of German immigrants in that part of the country. It was also fueled by the availability of raw materials needed to make the product: clay, silica, water, coal and natural gas.
The first marble maker on an industrial scale was located in Akron, Ohio, and the marbles produced there were made from clay. Samuel Dyke founded the American Marble & Toy MFG Co. there in 1891, and it became the country's largest toy maker in the 19th century. It's shooters, made from porcelain, gained a reputation as the finest to be found anywhere. His success spawned many competing marble making companies in the greater Ohio River Valley area, at at one time there were dozens of marble manufacturers along the river.
Today, there are only two. Marble King, located in Paden City, and JABO MFG in Reno, Ohio. JABO is a real young company...only 25 years old. When it started it employed 148 people, producing 3.5 million marbles a day. Today it employs about 9 people, making just 250,000 marbles per day...a quarter of Marble King's production. Children's tastes and choices in toys have undoubtedly changed over the decades, to compound the pressure of low labor cost competitors overseas. Today, both companies derive a significant amount of their revenue from non-recreational marble use. You know those spray paint rattle cans? Those aren't steel ball bearings inside the can. They are glass marbles. Steel is corrosive, while glass is not.
Still...I wish I had held onto my old marbles. I don't actually remember ever buying any, to be honest, though I must have. They were inexpensive. I mostly just "acquired" them, through playing for keeps and trading...and even just by finding them. Marbles were so popular and widespread for so many years from the 1880's through the first half of the 20th century, that you just found them on the ground, or digging in your garden. They seemed to be everywhere.
Every year in early May, Cairo, West Virginia holds an annual Marble Festival that celebrates the regions marble making history and offers collectors a venue for buying, selling and trading the glass orbs. If you happen to live in that neck of the woods, you might want to check it out. Spring time in that part of the country is awful pretty, so even if you aren't a marble freak, it would probably make for a nice drive and outing.
Joesmarbles.com: lot's of marble history, company profiles, good pics and more info
American Toy Marble Museum, Akron, Ohio
Marble King website