Are you a true mibster? Do you cherish your aggie as much as your taws? If you have no idea what I’m talking about, may I be the first to welcome you to the fascinating world of marbles! The little balls of glass have become as ubiquitous as apple pie in America, but what are they all about anyway? As it turns out, the history of marbles is as colorful as an onionskin shooter!
Strangely enough, nobody actually knows where marbles originated. They can be found in ancient tombs from Egypt to Europe to the Americas, but there’s not much historical record on where or when they were first created. Historical records mention marble games in ancient Rome, and they pop up in paintings and literature as far back as the 15th century. Back then, marbles were most likely made of clay, or other spherical items were used – like nuts, for instance.
Despite their ancient history, marbles weren’t mass-produced until 1884 when Sam Dyke of Akron, Ohio invented a device to make six clay marbles in the blink of an eye. Dyke and his 350 employees produced about a million marbles a day, drastically reducing prices and boosting the popularity of the toy. In 1914, another Akron man, M.F. Christensen, invented a machine to mass-produce glass marbles, popularizing the toy we know today.
A vibrant culture soon surrounded marbles. A lexicon of slang words for the new variety of marbles took hold of the tongues of the youth, in what remains a confusing and often-misunderstood language. First and foremost, there is no one official game called “marbles.” Marbles are marbles, and you can play a variety of games with them. The marbles themselves are often known as “ducks” or “mibs.” The big marbles with which you shoot at mibs are called either “shooters” or “taws.” People who play games with marbles are known as “mibsters” (not to be confused with “mobsters,” some of whom were likely mibsters themselves).
“Aggies” are marbles made of agate, while “alleys” are marbles made of alabaster. “Jaspers” are blue marbles made of china and “onionskins” are marbles with swirls of color covering the outside layer. A “sulphide” is a marble that contains a small figure inside.
While there is no official marbles game, recent history probably best associates them with a game called Ringer. In Ringer, two players set up an X of 13 mibs in the center of a ten-foot ring. One mibster at a time takes aim at the mibs with a shooter, trying to knock them out of the ring. The mibster keeps shooting until the shooter has left the ring, then it’s the other player’s turn. Each mib knocked out is worth 1 point. The game is played until the first mibster has reached 50 points.
Despite its secure spot in the nostalgic past, the marbles culture is still alive and well. At Kazoodles we sell a variety of packs of marbles that come with 24 mibs and one shooter for $2.99. All you need after that is a piece of chalk or a string to make a circle, and some fellow mibsters to challenge!
And there are plenty of young mibsters still playing. A massive Ringer competition, the National Marbles Tournament, is held every year for kids ages 7 to 15 at Wildwood, New Jersey. Adults can compete at the British and World tournament held annually in West Sussex, England. And in backyards everywhere, if you look past the kids on their phones, and groups crowding TVs, you might find a circle of chalk drawn on some sidewalk, a group of young mibsters shooting taws at ducks, reminding us all that fun can be as simple as a ball made of glass.