Marble competitions have been held on Good Friday in Tinsley Green, England, at least since the time of Queen Elizabeth I, making marbles the oldest sporting event in Great Britain. The British World Marbles Championship was been held there, in its present form, since the 1930s.
Information from the Marble Museum at Tinsley Green talks about how old marbles are. It points out that the French world "bille," meaning little ball, appears as early as the 12th century. The Dutch word "knikkers" also was used fairly early. But the actual word "marble" didn't come into use until marbles made from marble stone were imported from Germany in the 17th century.
Marbles has remained an exciting game for children ever since, although it has waxed and waned in popularity at various times.
A 1560 painting by Pieter Brueghel shows children playing marbles, as does a 1632 engraving by Hermann Saftleven.
An 1854 painting by American artist Christian Schussele at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts also depicts children playing marbles. And that painting has inspired the museum's Third
Saturday activity for May. Participants will learn about the painting and about marbles. They will get to decorate a bag in which to keep their marbles and will get to pick out a dozen or so marbles to keep.
The painting is always a favorite with children at the museum, says Megan Hallett, curator of education who is helping with the activity. "But most children have never played marbles. To them it is like a long-ago game. We thought it would be fun to teach them how to play and let them have their own marbles."
Over the years, the game of marbles has contributed a number of terms and phrases to the American lexicon phrases such as "lost your marbles," "all your marbles," "knuckle down" and "playing for keeps" all have a direct connection to the game.
"It's not played as much now," says Jackman, "but that's all we played in the '50s at Monroe grade school. There was nothing like the thrill of winning at marbles."
Not that he always won. "I remember when a girl moved into our class from Dugway. She had a style and a walk that was different from anything we'd seen. Most of us would get down on our knees and sight the marble with our shooters. She'd walk by and just flip her shooter. But within a week, every boy's marbles were gone. She had them all."
Those childhood memories are one reason that marbles are a popular collectible, says Jackman. Marbles were really popular in the 1930s up until World War II, he says. During the war, manufacturing was diverted to the war effort. "They came back again after the war. But in the late '50s, they kind of died out."
However, in the late '80s, they came back in a big way as a collectible, he says. A lot of the interest was nostalgic, but many collectors also consider marbles works of art. "A lot of the early glass ones are especially beautiful."
Another thing that's nice, says Jackman, is that marbles are widely available. Plus, most are fairly inexpensive.
You can get handmade clay marbles from the 1880s for about $2 apiece, he says. Marbles known as Benningtons, clay marbles with a glazed surface that looks kind of like pottery, can range in price from about $2 to $25. "They were made from the late 1890s to about the 1920s. With Benningtons, the value depends on size bigger is better and on whether there's any green or blue in the glaze. Those are more rare."
Glass marbles became more widely available in the '30s. "They are really collectible," says Jackman. "They have such vibrant colors and come in so many variations it can be mind boggling."
These glass marbles comes in a variety of styles and patterns, including swirl, ribbon, clambroth, peppermint swirl, mellonball, lutz and others.
Handmade glass marbles from Germany are especially prized, he says, although others are also sought-after. China also produced some early marbles.
You can tell when marbles are handmade because they have what is called a "pontil" mark the mark made by striking the marble and separating it from the end of the rod.
Glass marbles made by machine began appearing in the late 1800s. In the United States, Akron, Ohio, was the largest center of marble manufacturing. Between 1884 and the mid-1940s, some 30 marble factories were located in Akron.
Among the more famous was the Akro Agate Co. "Akro agates are very nice," says Jackman.
Other well-known manufacturers include the Dyke company, Christensens, Peltier and the American Marble & Toy Co.
One unusual kind of marble is the sulphide a clear marble with a figure inside. "Animals were the most common figures," says Jackman. "Numbers and people were also used. The people are really rare. If you can find an original one of those, it would sell for hundreds, even thousands of dollars."
Peltier also made unusual marbles, including some with comic figures. "Originals of those go for around $250," says Jackman.
But, he notes, a lot of the old designs are now being reproduced. As with any antiques, "you really have to know what you are looking for. Some of the new ones look like the old ones, but the patterns are just wrong. It's like finding a '57 Chevy and you think it is perfect, until you realize that the front is a Buick. It's easy to get duped."
On the other hand, if all you want is a bunch of marbles like you played with in your childhood, you can get lots of glass marbles manufactured in the '50s or so, for $1 or less apiece.
You can also get new marbles, which are still being manufactured and sold inexpensively. And a variety of glass artists are also producing one-of-a-kind art marbles that appeal to collectors and art lovers alike.
If you go ...
What: Third Saturday: Marbles
Where: Utah Museum of Fine Arts, University of Utah
When: Saturday, 2-4 p.m.
How much: free
E-mail: [email protected]