Ball games are popular, as we all
know. And then there are marbles.
Hold a marble in your hand and you hold a piece of history.
the game was once popular with all classes. Tradition, both at Oxford and Cambridge, attests that the game was formerly prohibited among undergraduates on the steps of the Bodleian or the Senate House. There is a similar tradition at Westminster School that the boys were forbidden to play marbles in Westminster Hall on account of the complaints made by members of parliament and lawyers. An anonymous poem of the 17th century speaks of a boy about to leave Eton as 'A dunce at syntax, but a dab at taw'. Rogers, in The Pleasures of Memory, recalls how 'On yon grey stone that fronts the chancel-door, Worn smooth by busy feet, now seen no more, Each eve we shot the marble through the ring'.
The allure of marbles is timeless and universal; spanning culture, generation, language, and class. The coloured glass ball in your palm is a descendant of the stone and clay balls that have been used for millennia. Archaeologists speculate that small clay balls found in the pyramid tombs of Egyptian kings were produced for marble games. Many believe that the Aztecs played a form of marbles. These spheres have been found in the Middle East and nearly every part of the ancient world.
Little white marbles and round pebbles, made of stone not found in the area, were found in Austria in caves inhabited by our Paleolithic ancestors. Stone balls and pillars forming an arch were found in a child's grave in Egypt dating from about 4000 B.C. The early Greeks played various games with nuts. One of these, called Omilla, resembles the game of Ring Taw which is still played today. There are frequent references to marbles and marble type games played with nuts throughout Roman literature.
Ovid describes various nut games in his poem 'The
Walnut Tree'. Children playing marbles appear in Roman murals in Bath,
England. Marbles used by Egyptian and Roman children before the Christian era
are to be seen in the British Museum. Probably some of the small stone spheres
found among Neolithic remains, which Evans (Ancient Stone Implements, 2nd ed.,
p. 420) admits to be too small for projectiles, are prehistoric marbles. It is
commonly assumed that the game which the youthful Augustus, like other Roman
children, played with nuts was a form of marbles, and that the Latin phrase of relinquere
nuces, in the sense of putting away childish things, referred to this game.
The earliest unmistakable reference to marbles in literature seems to be in a
French poem of the 12th century, quoted by Littr s.v. Bille.
Athenaeus the Roman writes of a game of marbles in which the suitors of Penelope in the Odyssey shot their alleys against another marble representing the queen. The first player to hit the queen had another turn and, if successful again, was considered to be the probable bridegroom.
Clay marbles have been found in a settlement in N W India dating from about 200 A.D. ; in prehistoric pueblo ruins in the South-Western of the United States and on the northern plains; and also in ancient Mexican ruins. The Ohio Historical Society has in their collection five steatite. or soapstone, spheres with incised designs which were found in American Indian mounds of the Hopewell culture, also dating from about 200 A.D. The balls were found with the cremated remains of a child and are thus thought to have been used as toys.
Glass marbles are thought to have been among the many glass objects made in ninth-century Venice. A 15th century manuscript refers to 'little balls with which schoolboys played'. In 1503, the town council of Nuremberg in Germany limited the playing of marble games to a meadow outside the town.
In France, troule-en-madame, a game in which small marbles were rolled into holes at one end of a board, was popular. This became 'troll-my-dame' when it crossed to England. 'Cherry pit' (a game in which polished stones are tossed into holes in the ground) is mentioned in Shakespeare's work.
During the Middle Ages the town council statutes of the village of Saint Gall, Northern Ireland, authorized the use of a cat-o'-nine-tails on boys 'who play at marbles under the fish stand and refuse to be warned off'. Children's Games (1560), a painting by Pieter Brueghel the Elder in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, shows a scene of children playing marbles. Marbles from this period appear to have been made of clay. It was not until the seventeenth century that water-powered stone mills in Germany were put to work. Coloured glass marbles are mentioned in German literature as early as the 15th century. They were known to have been made in Venice and Bohemia, often by glass-blowers for their children's use.
China and crockery marbles were introduced in about the 1800s and were produced in increasingly large quantities by the end of the century. By the 1850s, German glass blowers had invented a tool to cut marble canes more easily. These specially adapted shears facilitated large-scale commercial production.
An enormous variety of colours was used, creating intricate patterns within the glass. Stone, agate and marble marbles were mainly made in Germany in special ball mills. Clay marbles began to be produced in bulk from about 1870 onwards on both sides of the Atlantic.
In the 1890s the first machines for the manufacture of glass marbles were introduced. However, machine production remained low until the First World War in Europe cut off supplies of marbles to North America. This stimulated the production of machine-made marbles in the USA, to the detriment of European glass and stone marbles.
Playing marbles reached the peak of popularity during the first decades of the 19th century. Nowadays, marbles are made from all sorts of materials. Glass remains by far the most popular, as it lends itself both to hand and machine production and provides an article which is both appealing to the eye and to the touch. Beautiful ground agates and real marbles have become so expensive that only one or two mills in Europe and India still make them. A marble made of pure, ground marble, or other suitable stone, is highly prized and regarded as being the most accurate for shooting. For beauty, glass marbles remain the most sought after by the collector.
Fancy a game of marbles?
Three or four distinct games, with slight variations, were traditional. Strutt, writing at the end of the 18th century, describes these as follows:
(I) Taw, wherein a number of boys put each of them one or two marbles in a ring and shoot at them alternately with other marbles, and he who obtains the most of them by beating them out of the ring is the conqueror, The marbles placed in the ring whence the game is often known as ring-taw are usually of the cheaper kind known as commoneys, stoneys or potteys, and the marble with which the player shoots is a more valuable one, known as an alley, or alley taw, sometimes spelt 'tor', as by Dickens. Usually it is necessary that the alley should emerge from the ring as well as drive out another marble; under other rules the ring is smaller, not more than a foot in diameter, and the player must be skilful enough to leave his alley inside it, whilst driving the object marble outside.
(2) Nine holes: which consists in bowling of marbles at a wooden bridge with nine arches, Each arch bears a number, and the owner of the bridge pays that number of marbles to the player who shoots through it, making his profit from the missing marbles, which he confiscates.
(3) There is also another game of marbles where four, five or six holes, and sometimes more, are made in the ground at a distance from each other; and the business of every one of the players is to bowl a marble by a regular succession into all the holes, which he who completes in the fewest bowls obtains the victory. This primitive form of golf is played by Zulu adults with great enthusiasm, and is still popular among the car-drivers of Belfast.
(4) Boss out, or boss and span, also called hit and span, wherein one bowls a marble to any distance that he pleases, which serves as a mark for his antagonist to bowl at, whose business it is to hit the marble first bowled, or lay his own near enough to it for him to span the space between them and touch both marbles; in either case he wins, if not, his marble remains where it lay and becomes a mark for the first player, and so alternately until the game be won. In rural parts of England this was known as a going-to-school game, because it helped the players along the road.
The most common method of shooting a marble along the ground is known as 'fulking'. It goes like this:
The knuckle of the forefinger is put on the ground and the marble balanced in the bent forefinger.
The thumb is put behind the forefinger and then released with whatever force is required.
A second, more accurate method used by experts is 'knuckling down'. Here's how to do it:
The marble is held above the first joint of the thumb by the tip of the forefinger.
The top of the thumb is held by the middle finger.
The hand is kept quite still with the knuckle on the ground.
The thumb is released with the required force and great accuracy may be obtained with this method.
When aiming, the target should be steadily looked at and its exact position should be thoroughly taken in by the eye while the marble is held in the hand. The eye directs the brain which automatically directs the hand.
Knuckling Down (Hold it right!)
Mr F. W. Hackwood states that, in the middle of the I9th century, taverns in the Black Country had regular marble alleys, consisting of a cement bed 20 ft. long by 12 ft. wide and 18 in. from the ground, with a raised wooden rim to prevent the marbles from running off. Players knelt down to shoot, and had to knuckle down fairly i.e. to place the knuckle of the shooting hand on the ground, so that the flip of the thumb was not aided by a jerk of the wrist. The game was usually ring-taw. But marbles is now obsolete in England as a game for adults (Old English Sports, London, 1907).
In Belfast, during the 1850s, the marble
season extended from Easter to June, when the ground was usually dry and hard.
The marbles were stoneys, of composition painted; crockeries, of
slightly glazed stone-ware, dark brown and yellow; clayeys, of red brick
clay baked in the fire; marbles, of white marble; china alleys,
with white glaze and painted rings; and glass marbles. The two chief
games were ring-taw and hole and taw. Fans
of marbles in the 19th century included Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln. Tom Sawyer got
12 marbles as payment for letting his friends whitewash his aunt's fence.
About this time, marbles made of agate were nicknamed 'aggies' in Europe and America.
Modern versions of the game (US)
RING TAW (aka RINGERS, RINGO ) -- A one foot ring is drawn inside of a ten foot ring. Each player puts in a number of 1/2" marbles so that there is about a dozen marbles in the smaller ring. At the NMT, thirteen marbles supplied by the organizers are arranged in a cross at the center of the ring and there is no one foot ring. Shooting order is determined by 'lagging', shooting to see who can get closest to a designated line. The first player, starting outside the ten foot circle, attempts to thumb his 'taw' (a 3/4" shooting marble) to knock a target marble out of the large ring while keeping the taw inside the ring. If he succeeds, he shoots again from where the taw stopped. 'Sticking' or shooting seven consecutive marbles out of the ring and winning the game without giving an opponent a turn is usually good for two days of playground bragging rights. If the player fails to knock a target marble out of the ring, or his taw leaves the ring, his turn is over and next player takes his turn. At NMT, if your taw is in the ring at the end of your turn, you must remove it. In informal games, if your taw is in the ring, it becomes a legitimate target and any player who hits it out collects a forfeit from you. Players should agree in advance whether to use this rule. Play alternates until one player has knocked a majority of the marbles out of the ring. The process of picking the best possible position for starting is referred to as 'taking rounders'.
BOSS OUT (aka LONG TAWL ) -- First player shoots one marble. Second player tries to hit the first player's marble. If he hits it, he collects both marbles. If the two marbles are close enough, he can attempt to 'span' them. He places his thumb on his own marble and his index finger on his opponent's marble. He then draws his hand up while bringing his fingers together. If the two marbles hit, he collects both marbles. If he misses, the first player may shoot at either marble on the field. If a player collects the last marble on the field, he must shoot a marble for the next player to shoot at.
BRIDGEBOARD -- A board with nine cutouts along one edge is propped up on that edge to form nine archways. The numbers 6, 2, 3, 1, 5, 8, 7, 9, 4 are painted over the arches, one number over each arch. Players try to shoot through the holes and win the number of marbles indicated by the number above the hole. Any marbles which miss become the property of the board owner. The board may also be used to play NINE HOLES.
BUN-HOLE -- A one-foot wide hole is dug in the center of the playing field. Players attempt to get a marble as close as possible to the hole without going in. Whoever's marble comes closest without going in wins a marble from each player. Knocking in your opponent's marble is permitted.
CHERRY PIT -- This is the reverse of RING TAW. A one-foot wide hole is dug in the center of a ten-foot circle. Each player places a number of marbles around the hole so that there is about a dozen marbles surrounding the hole. Players take turns trying to knock marbles into the hole. Like Ring Taw, as long as marbles are knocked into the hole and the taw remains in the ring, players may continue to shoot. If a taw goes into the hole, the owner must forfeit a number of marbles and place them around the hole to 'buy back' his shooter.
HUNDREDS -- Both players try to shoot their taws into a one-foot hole. If both taws go in, players start over. If one player's marble goes in and the other player's marble doesn't, the player whose marble went in scores ten points. If neither player's marble goes in, the first player now tries to hit the second player's marble. If he hits it, he earns ten points and another chance to shoot his marble into the hole for ten points. If he misses either his opponent's marble or the hole, the second player tries to hit the first player's marble for ten points and another try at shooting his marble into the hole for ten points. Whenever a marble goes into the hole, both players start over from the starting line, otherwise all shots are made from wherever the marble stopped rolling. First player to reach one hundred points wins.
NINE HOLES -- This name is given to two different marble games. The first game is Miniature Golf played with marbles. Players construct a miniature golf course from materials at hand and take turns shooting their marbles around, through, and over the obstacles they've built. First player to complete nine holes wins.
A rose by any other name
Catís Eye, Corkscrews, Ades, Oxbloods, Swirls, and Bumblebees. These are just some of the exotic names of marbles. Pete Caparelli from the Land of Marbles website says the following; "Marble companies named some distinct styles when they were first marketed, such as "Guineas" and "American Cornelians." Other names were created by children who played with them, and some of those names came into widespread use. Cornelians were often called "Bricks," and black and yellow marbles were "bumblebees." Collectors still use those names today. Still other names were made up only by collectors-for example, "diaperfolds, "Cosmic Rainbows" and Flaming Dragons." Catís Eye marbles look striking like a catís iris.
For the marble fan(atic), there is also Amazon Valley Jasper, Australian Tiger Iron, Australian Petrified Wormwood, Blue Lace Agate, Botswana Agate, Brazilian Agate, Canadian River Plume, Dinosaur Bone, Fibre Eye, Glass, Gold Stone, Montana Agate, Petrified Palm Wood, Rutilated Quartz, Solidified Mud, Snowflake Obsidian, Tiger Eye, Turatilla etc etc.
Handmade marbles can be made by one of two processes. A cane or rod of glass is made that contains smaller rods of glass, specks of colour, mica or nothing. The end of the rod is heated and then rounded off with a hand held tool. The marble is then cut off the end of the rod with scissors that cut glass. As the end of the rod is rounded , it is twisted, producing the helix effect in the marble.
Another handmade method is called "single gather." A glob of glass is built up in layers on the end of a punty ( a long tube shaped stick). The glob is rounded to produce the finished marble and then cut off the end of the punty.
And, finally, as used in the National Marble Tournament held in Wildwood, New Jersey, US, every June:
RINGER is played in a ring
ten (10) feet in diameter, with thirteen (13) marbles arranged in the center in
a cross. The object is to shoot these marbles out of the ring, the player
shooting the largest number of marbles out of the ring in any game being the
winner of that game. No less than two and no more than six may play in one game
in RINGER, except in national championship matches two only play. All tournament
play is for fair, and marbles must be returned to owners after each game.
The playing surface shall be
a smooth level area of ground, hard clay, or other suitable substance. The Ring
is inscribed upon this area, 10 feet in diameter, and all play is within this
ring. (Note: The outline of this ring shall not be so deep or so wide as to
check the roll of a marble.)
With the center of the Ring
as a point of intersection, mark two lines at right angles to each other to form
a cross, which shall be a guide for placing the playing marbles. Place one
marble at the center and three on each of the four branches of the cross, each
marble three inches away from the next one.
The Lag Line is a straight
line drawn tangent to the ring and touching it at one point. The Pitch Line is a
straight line drawn tangent to the ring, directly opposite and parallel to the
All marbles in any one
playing ring must be of uniform size. The standard size shall be five-eighths
inch in diameter. Slight variation may be allowed by the referee for
Shooters shall be round and
made of any substance except steel or any other metal, and shall not be less
than one-half inch nor more than six-eighths inch in diameter as determined by
The lag is the first
operation in RINGER. To lag, the players stand toeing the Pitch Line, or
knuckling down upon it, and toss or shoot their shooters to the Lag Line across
the ring. The player whose shooter comes nearest the Lag Line, on either side,
wins the lag.
Players must lag before each
game. The player who wins the lag shoots first, and the others follow in order
as their shooters were next nearest the Lag Line. The same shooter that is used
in the lag must he used in the game following the lag.
On all shots, except the
lag, a player shall knuckle down so that at least one knuckle is in contact with
the ground, and he shall maintain this position until the shooter has left his
hand. Knuckling down is permitted, but not required in lagging.
Starting the game, each
player in turn shall knuckle down just outside the Ring Line, at any point he
chooses, and shoot into the ring to knock one or more marbles out of the ring,
or to hit or knock out of the ring the shooter of an opposing player, or
players, if any remain inside the ring.
If a player knocks one or
more marbles out of the ring, or hits the shooter of an opponent, or knocks an
opponent's shooter out of the ring he continues to shoot provided his own
shooter stays in the ring. He ceases to shoot after his first miss, and then is
credited with the marbles he has scored.
If, after a miss, a player's
shooter remains inside the ring, he must leave it there and his opponents are
permitted to shoot at it. If the shooter rolls outside the ring, he picks it up
and on his next shot he is permitted to take roundsters and shoot from any point
on the Ring Line.
Marbles knocked out of the
Ring shall be picked up by the player who knocks them out. If his shooter stays
in the ring he continues to shoot. If not, he stops, and his opponent starts
Whenever a marble or shooter
comes to rest on the Ring Line, if its center is outside the Ring, or exactly on
the Ring Line, it shall be considered out of the Ring; if its center is inside
the Ring. it shall be considered inside the Ring.
A player hitting an
opponent's shooter inside the Ring, but not knocking it out, shall pick up any
marble he chooses, and if his own shooter stays in the ring shall continue to
shoot. However, he shall not hit the same opponent's shooter again until after
he hits another shooter, or knocks a marble out of the Ring, or he comes around
to his next turn to shoot.
A player knocking an
opponent's shooter out of the Ring and stopping his own shooter in the ring
shall be entitled to all the marbles won by the opponent, and the opponent whose
shooter has been knocked out of the Ring is out of the game, ''killed.'' If the
opponent who was knocked out of the Ring has no marbles, the player who knocked
him out shall not be entitled to pick up a marble for the shot.
If a shooter knocks out two
or more marbles, or hits an opponent's shooter and a marble, or hits two
opponent's shooters or completes any other combination play, he shall be
entitled to all points scored on the shot.
When a shooter slips from a
player's hand, if the player calls ''slips'' and the referee is convinced that
it is a slip, and if the shooter did not travel more than 10 inches the referee
may order ''no play'' and permit the player to shoot again. The referee's
decision is final.
The game shall end when the
last marble is shot out.
For each marble knocked out
by a player, he shall be credited with the score of ONE.
For each time a player hits
the shooter of an opponent, and does not knock it out of the ring, he shall be
credited with the score of ONE.
For each time a player
knocks an opponent's shooter out of the ring, he shall be credited with all the
marbles, previously scored by the hit opponent.
The player having credited
to him the largest number of marbles at the completion of the game shall be the
winner of that game.
In games where more than two
players are engaged, if two or more players lead with the same score, those in
the tie shall play a new game to break the tie.
A player refusing to
continue a game, once it is started, shall be disqualified, and if only two
players are engaged, the game shall be forfeited to the offended player.
The score of a forfeited
game shall be 13-0.
The officials shall be a
referee and a scorer, if a scorer is available, otherwise the referee shall also
The referee shall have
complete charge of the play. He shall interpret these rules and have power to
make decisions on any points not specifically covered by these rules. He shall
have authority to disqualify any player for unsportsmanlike conduct. He shall
have authority to order from the playing field or its vicinity the coach or
other representative of any player, who conducts himself improperly.
The scorer shall keep a
record of the game, marking score of each player, shot by shot, and at the
termination of each game shall notify the referee of the score, and the referee
shall announce the winner. The scorer shall assist the referee in enforcing the
rule against coaching, and call to the attention of the referee any infraction
of the rules.
A player shall NOT: Lift his
hand until the shooter has left his hand. This violation is known as ''histing.''
Move his hand forward until
the shooter has left his hand. This violation is known as ''hunching."
Smooth or otherwise
rearrange the ground or remove any obstacles. He may request the referee to
Penalty (For any one of
these three violations): If any marbles were knocked out or dislocated on the
site, they shall be restored to their place, and the player shall lose his shot.
Change shooters during the
course of the game. He may choose a new shooter on each lag, provided he uses
that shooter in the subsequent game. PENALTY: The player shall be disqualified
from the game.
Communicate in any way with
his coach during the course of the game. PENALTY: Forfeiture of all marbles he
has knocked out of the Ring, said marbles to be returned to the game and placed
on the cross.
A coach shall not give
instructions to either his own or any other player engaged in the game. PENALTY:
Coach shall be ordered from the playing field if, after being warned once, he
continues this violation.
Players must not walk thru
the marble ring. PENALTY: After a player has been warned for violation the
referee MAY require the forfeiture of one marble; on a second offense, said
marble to be returned to the ring and placed on the cross.
The tournament is open to
boys or girls of 14 years or under.
A boy or girl who becomes 15
on or after July 1, 1931, is eligible to play, and one who becomes 15 any time
before July 1, 1931, is not eligible to play.
Rule of thumb: ♠ = Quotations (attributed or 'unknown') =
♣ = Trivia, Ephemera, Other People's ramblings =
♥ = Winnie's ramblings =
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