Losing your marbles

Losing your marbles

Painting by Karl Witkowski, Game of Marbles

Lately I’ve been re-watching my favorite vintage movies – Desk Set (adore the chemistry between Tracy & Hepburn), Laura (Gene Tierney’s beauty is truly haunting), and Easy To Wed (Lucille Ball steals the show from Esther & Van!). As you already know, we love a great retro flick around here. Older movies always offer something new to learn – whether it’s a cultural institution long forgotten or fashion no longer in vogue. No matter the genre, vintage plots inspire sparkling conversation. Watching Desk Set reminded me that the fear of having your job replaced by a computer program is nothing new, watching Laura reminded me that great beauty can blind a man from reason, and watching Easy to Wed reminded me that I know absolutely zilch about marbles (among other things). So instead of losing your marbles, let’s learn all about them!

While marbles are usually thought of as a vintage toy, they actually date back much further. Marbles were referenced in Roman writing (although sometimes walnuts were used in place of spherical stones), Egyptians played with little beauties formed of clay, and Medieval enthusiasts were forced by law to enjoy the game outside of the confines of villages. Apparently marbles, much like playing cards, caused quite the ruckus back in the day!

A lesson in lingo: in Northern England, marbles are sometimes called taws & big taws are called bottle washers

The origin of marbles remains a bit fuzzy, but it appears Germany is where the first official manufacturing occured. Made out of glass, these early examples were rather tedious to make. By the time the Industrial Revolution arrived, clay was reintroduced and American firms took up the cause, making both glass and clay varieties. The Danish inventor, Martin Frederick Christensen, patented a machine that made the work even easier for his company based in Akron, Ohio. By 1914, the firm was making a million marbles a month. Quite a feat for the early days of modern manufacturing! Demand for American goods was fueled even more by WWI and its negative impact on the German industrial scene. One other American company made marbles, based in West Virginia. To this day, the firm names have changed but the story remains the same – American marbles are exclusively made in two states: Ohio and West Virginia.

A lesson in lingo: In Australia, marbles are referred to as semi-bowlers and tom-bowlers

Now that we’ve learned a bit about how these little orbs are steeped in history, let’s delve into the actual role they play. The game of marbles is fairly high-stakes as you play for keeps (or keepsies) and players are passionate collectors, so you can imagine it makes for an interesting and adversarial atmosphere. There are different ways to play marbles, but the most traditional type is the ring game. Your first step is to define the playing field for the game by drawing a circle (extra points if you play in the dirt, using a stick to get the job done!). Next, you scratch a starting line that is placed apart from the boundary line. The players put a few marbles inside the circle and the goal is singularly focused: shoot the marbles outside of the ring. Everyone involved “knuckles down” to get the job done – named as such because shots are taken with knuckles on the ground. Quite simply what gets shot gets kept. As marbles vary in patterns, colors, and types – it becomes a point of pride to have a robust & diverse collection. In a particular Indian version of the game, a player could walk away with as many as twenty new marbles in their pocket!

A lesson in lingo: Uganda has adopted a special version of play known as dool

Losing your marbles

Ready to shot in 1920

As you can see, its popularity knows no earthly limits, having been embraced by nations big and small. A world championship tournament unites the most dedicated enthusiasts and is held annually in England. A Sussex tradition since the early 1930s, rumor has it the tournament began as a way for competing suitors to win the affection of a beautiful maiden (a milk maiden to be precise). The entire community was invested in this love triangle and arranged for a whole week of Olympic-style competitions. By the end of the event (which included archery and wrestling), the gents were tied. Marbles was just the ticket to break the score. Joan, the milk maiden in question, got to choose the marbles (as apparently she couldn’t decide on the husband) and one man emerged victorious. The event was paused during WWII, but by the 1950s it was more popular than ever. Controversy did come calling when, in the 1970s, women competitors were temporarily banned due to their choice of outfit: the mini skirt! (Mary Quant had no idea what she started once she raised those hem lines…)

A lesson in lingo: Humphrey Bogart popularized the phrase “losing your marbles” in the 1954 film The Caine Mutiny

Perhaps what is most interesting about the game is that children, rather than adults, dominate the playing field. The first champion of the British-based tournament (the one that took place after the fair milk maiden was well & truly wed) was a young girl by the name of Ellen and in 2000 the Americans won, comprised of a team of youngsters. It’s hard to name another sport that has so many children decorated as elite champions. Playing and collecting marbles was a way of life for many children growing up in the early – mid 1900s. Throwing their prized possessions into a repurposed coffee can or cloth bag, having marbles meant you were moments away from an event. Bullies could be humbled, playground politics would be formed, and friendships strengthened. What’s even more interesting is that this seemingly “old school” sport has found new life. On the simplest of stages, wisdom is found. As one modern day player noted to NPR – “Boys and girls are equal when they play together.” Equality. Focus. Skill. Pretty heady stuff for a little sphere wouldn’t you say? Further proof that even the most mundane scene in a vintage movie can inspire some sparkling revelations!

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