A Brief History of Marbles
Hey there, Xplorers! Welcome back. Tell us — what are some of your favorite toys from when you were little? Think back — did you play with Barbie dolls, Tonka trucks, or a play kitchen? Maybe you preferred your Nintendo 64 or Beanie Babies… uh oh, do we sound super old now?
Whatever it was, chances are good that you had a favorite toy or game when you were a kid, and that means you can relate to our post today!
For millions of kids throughout history and all over the world, marbles were a favorite pastime. Children have invented countless games and activities to play with marbles. They’ve collected, traded, and given marbles as prized possessions. They’ve even played so much that one German town had to ban them from the streets! (More on that in just a minute.)
And for you tinkerers and inventors out there, marble production itself has a long and fascinating history! Paul Baumann covers a lot of it in his book, Collecting Antique Marbles: Identification and Price Guide, so we’ll reference his work a few times in our post today. He details a lot of the cool history of marbles stretching back thousands of years.
Yup, here at TerraX, we think marbles are pretty cool, and we’re excited to share some more about some really cool ones we found at one of our recent job sites! Ready to learn? Let’s dig deep!
Let’s Talk History
At a recent mitigation we performed at a plantation house in Louisiana, our field techs recovered 15 marbles of different sizes and colors. Each one is beautiful, and our laboratory team did a fantastic job cleaning them up and taking good care of them until we could get them to a special curation facility. (Shoutout to our lab director, Raychel!)
Because glass marbles likely date back to the Roman Empire, it is difficult to identify these marbles' specific production dates. However, they’re still a super cool find! We’ve learned a lot about the history of marbles from that book we mentioned earlier, Collection Antique Marbles. Below is a brief summary, focusing on the production of glass marbles, from the book, but if you’re interested in learning more about the history, production, and value of marbles, we highly recommend giving it a read.
Marbles made of clay, stone, metals, ivory, porcelain, wood, and glass have been recovered from archeological sites. Baumann states that one of the earliest forms of marbles were small stones or pebbles that children would roll at targets during the Stone Age. It is also believed that Ancient Greek, Roman, and Jewish children would play games with round nuts. Archeologists have found clay marbles in Asia, the southwestern and northern plains of the United States, Northern Mexico, Egypt, and many other places. You could say that marbles were one of the world’s first global phenomena! Children everywhere have long found ways to play with marbles.
But nowhere have marbles been more popular than in Germany. Remember how we said one German town had to ban marbles from the streets because they had gotten so popular they were actually a problem? It’s true! By the 1500s, Nuremberg, Germany banned the game from the town's streets, requiring players to play in a meadow outside of town.
Not only that, but the first well-recorded instance of glass marble production comes from Lauscha, Germany, in 1848. Glass workers Johann Georg Wilhelm Greiner and his sons Elias and Adam created the "marble scissors." This tool was similar to glass scissors used to cut away at glass used by glassmakers, but this pair has a bowl-shaped end and a blade. This tool was likely an alteration of a tool used to make glass eyes. Multi-colored, hand-spun rods were decorative items that German glassmakers had been making for over a century. When the Greiners combined the two processes, hand-spun, multi-colored glass marbles were the result. In 1849, the three received a patent, and the Greiners became well-known marble makers, and over the next century, Lauscha became the marble-making capital of the world.
By 1921, Sears Roebuck and Company were advertising the sale of German-made marbles in its catalog. However, with the destruction and devastation that came with war, German marble factories did not survive World War I and II. This collapse allowed for companies like J. H. Leighton's Iowa City Flint Glass Manufacturing Company and Martin F. Christensen's M. F. Christensen and Sons Company to grow and dominate marble production of the twentieth century. In 1905, Martin Christensen, a Danish immigrant who settled in Akron, Ohio, modified a steel ball bearing machine that he had previously invented to create a device that could mass-produce glass marbles. By 1914, M. F. Christensen and Sons Co. produced approximately 1,150,000 marbles every month. That’s a lot of marbles!
Now Back to St. Amelia!
As we mentioned a minute ago, we found 15 marbles at the St. Amelia Plantation site. We found marbles in a variety of colors and with a variety of swirling patterns inside and with some variation in size. While we simply can’t tell exactly when or where these marbles were produced, they do give us insight into the lives of the people who lived at St. Amelia.
We know from our background historical research that the St. Amelia Plantation was privately-owned and active from 1848 all the way to 1859. That means that the house was full throughout the entire range of the Golden Age of Marbles, or the era when they were at their most popular here in the United States — the 1920s and 30s.
The very presence of marbles alone tells us so much about the people who called St. Amelia home. Whether they were produced in the 1840s or the 1940s, they demonstrate that St. Amelia played host to people who had both the time and the money for entertainment, which tells us how successful the plantation was. After all, the families who owned the land must have had a profitable operation if they were able to afford toys for their children!
We found thousands of household items at St. Amelia! Here are just a few.
Speaking of which, these marbles are also a testament to the families who owned and maintained the land for generations. They speak to the lives of the children who grew up there, many of whom went on to run the plantation operations themselves as adults. Through objects as seemingly small and insignificant as these marbles, we can imagine what it must have been like to grow up on a plantation like St. Amelia in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth.
We may never know when or where the marbles we found were produced, but they can still teach us something. These artifacts at the St. Amelia Plantation demonstrate the presence of children and adults who found time to play with others. We know that the families who lived there, just like so many before them, played games with marbles.
What Would You Like to Learn About Next?
TerraX and other CRM firms often find marbles at domestic historical sites. These recovers emphasize the popularity of marbles and their value to American culture through the nineteenth and twentieth century. While marbles may no longer be a common past-time game for American children and adults, the value of handmade marbles remains. So, if you find a marble while on a walk or while doing yard work, reach out! We at TerraX would love to tell you about it and demonstrate what a little glass orb can tell you about our past.
Please remember to reach out to us with any questions, comments, or requests! You can find us on Facebook, Instagram, or LinkedIn. And be sure to look out for more posts about fascinating artifacts in the future!
Until next time, keep learning!
— The TerraX Team