Marble Banner

History of Marbles

Marble Terms and Games

Some of the early terms used to described different types of marbles or parts of marble games are still used today. When classifying antique marbles it is often both interesting and useful to know what the original names were for the different kinds. In the earliest period, there were two main types of marbles with which people played. The first of these was the common clay marbles of commoneys. They were quite inferior to the alley-tors or alleys or taws, which were the prize shooters of that era. Actual marble was used to make these alleys, with blood alleys being named after the red and pink markings in the stone used. One theory of how these marbles received their name is simply that the word "alabaster," a stone later used to make these marbles, was shortened to alley-tor and then to alleys or taws. Another theory, however, is that the name came from the word "tor" which is Celtic for rock or stone.

Early books on games also mention large marbles of pottery ware, nearly as large as a tennis ball, which were painted different colors. These marbles were called a bounce or troller and were considered of little real value and unusuable in the games of the time since they were too large to be properly shot. China marbles with rings painted on them were often referred to as bull's-eyes.

While carnelians were made of carnelian, flints and moonstones were actually made of quartz and agate. Other early terms include glazed jaspers, brancies, and opals. The larger glass marbles were referred to as bowlers in the catalogs, which described the German spirals as threaded glass.

Present day terminology is also very confused because of the number of different terms used to describe the different antique marbles in various parts of the country. The glass marbles with spiral strands of color are usually referred to as German spirals, German swirls, of candy stripe marbles. Those glass marbles which are similar but have a solid color inside instead of stripes are called onionskins or end of day or are given the name of the particular state or company which supposedly made them. Clear glass marbles with flecks inside are neamed either snowflake or micas, while the glass marbles with the figures inside them are called sulphides. Crockery marbles are sometimes called Bennington, but the name is misleading.


Games involving marbles are as old as the marbles are themselves. The annual marble championship of England is the oldest sporting event now existing in the kingdom. This event is held each year at Tinsley Green. It has existed through eighteen reings since the year 1588.

Traditionally, the games are held in the courtyard of the Greyhound Inn on Good Friday. Eight teams participate with six men on a team. The first prize for this event is a suckling pig, with a barrel of beer representing the second prize. The game used for championships and also most commonly for entertainment was that of Ring-Taw. First a circle is drawn on the playing surface. Each player then puts a marble in the ring, making sure they are about equidistant from each other. A straight line is then marked off some six or seven feet from the ring. The players would have to shoot from this line which was called the offing, bar, or baulk. The first player then "knuckles down" or sets his shooting hand firmly on the line, and shoots his taw or shooter at the marbles in the ring. If one of the marbles is knocked out of the ring, it belongs to the player who knocked it out, and he may shoot again from the spot where his taw came to rest. As soon as the first player fails to knock a marble out of the ring it is the next player's turn.

There is one more important part of the game. If the taw of any player remains in the ring after the shot, that player is out of the game. He must also replace all of the marbles he has won plus one extra by way of a fine. Also, if a later player can hit the taw of one of his opponents, that opponent must give all of his marbles he has won to that point to this player. SInce having the first shot is a great advantage, the players usually "lag" for it. Whoever can shoot his taw closets to the center of the circle from the offing-line wins the first shot. Other game using marbles was known as Bridge-Board. Nine arches were cut in a piece of wood, each arch being labeled with a number from zero to nine. The lowest numbers were always towards the middle with the highest numbers towards either end. When the board was placed on the ground, the arches allowed paths through the board large enough for a marble. The players shot at the bridge-board from a given distance. For each shot the player would pay one person designated as the banker one marble. If the taw passed through one of the arches, the player would receive from the banker the number of marbles equal to the number written over the arch. When the taw did not pass through an arch the player received nothing, and if the taw missed the bridge-board altogether, the player paid another marble as a fine.

Three Holes was at one time a very popular marble game in England. Three small holes are formed in a row, with each hole being about two inches in diameter and an inch in depth. The distance between the holes can be three or four feet, or even more depending upon the skill of the players. A line is drawn about a yard from the first hole. As soon as a player has succeeded with the first hole, he may try for the next hole. Whenever a player whins a hole, he receives a marble from each of the other players. The first player to put his taw into all three holes wins the game. If one player hits the taw of another player, the player whose taw has been hit is out of the game and must forfeit all of the marbles he has won to the player who hit his marble.

Adults also played marble games to amuse themselves. Many of these games were indoor amusements to entertain guests. One such game consisted of rolling marbles into a pocket on a wooden disk. Small glass amrbles were known to have been used for this.

One game which is extremely interesting because of its early origin and the number of variations which have been dervied from it is that of Bowls. The original game was played outdoors with reasonably large earthenware balls. One smaller ball called a jack was used as a mark to bowl at with the larger balls or bowls. A jack was made of white earthenware and could not be less than three and one-fourth inches or more than three and three-fourths inches in diameter. Since this is the size of many carpet balls, the suspicion arises that carpet balls are actually jacks. However another theory, and one which appeals more to me, is that the carpet balls were the balls of a similar game which was played indoors. This would seem to be supported by the fact that there are a few carpet balls which are much smaller than the others (and also much smaller than three and one-fourths inches in diameter). These, of course, would have been the jacks for the indoor game.

The game of Bowls itself was played on a green designed for the sport. An umpire was appointed to mark the score and to decide any dispute arising during the game. The rules themselves are quite complicated. Briefly, however, the jack itself must first be bowled a proper distance down the green. The players then roll their bowls down the green trying to come as close as they can to the jack. Actually striking the jack is not the object and not points are awarded for it. If a player's bowl comes to rest against his other bowl (each player having two) or his partner's bowl (the game is often played by teams) he has lost a point. If however his bowl comes to rest against the bowl of an opponent, the shooter receives one point. In either of these cases on "end" of the game is considered finished, and the players pick up their bowls and begin again on a new end. One point is scored for the bowl which is closest to the jack, and for any other bowls of the same team which are nearer than the closest bowl of the opposing team. The game is over when a predetermined number of points is reached by one side.

A third version of Bowls was played either indoors or outdoors with large marbles called bounces. These marbles are made of pottery ware and are about the size of a tennis ball. They were used in the same way as the larger bowls, being rolled at a target marble. The smallest version of the game was actual marbles and was called Spanners. One player would shoot his marble out a distance of a few yards as a target for his opponent. It is interesting to note that the marbles are to be shot with the thumb rather than rolled or thrown. If the other player can hit the first player's marble, he wins one marble. He can also win a marble by placing his taw close enough to his opponent's that the distance between them can be spanned by the fingers and thumb and one hand. Attempting to win by the span is quite dangerous, for if you fail, your opponent is in an excellent position to either hit or obtain a span with your marble.

The last type of game which has been played with marbles since the early English period is that of Conqueror. One player lays his taw on the groun and the other throws his own taw at it with all his force. If the taw thrown at breaks, the other taw is known as the Conqueror of one. One half of the broken taw is then taken as a trophy by the more fortunate marble owner. If neither taw breaks the the other taw is set down to be thrown at. When one taw breaks another which has previously broken other marbles, all of these marbles which it had broken earlier are also added to the winning taw's score. For instance, if my taw had broken twenty marbles previously and it breaks your taw which had also broken twenty marbles previously, then my taw will rank as a Conqueror of forty-one. Now you know what happened to all of those valuable early marbles and hwy antique marbles are so hard to find today.

Marble games are still played today. In fact, many of them are little changed from those which were played a century ago. Instead of Ring-Taw, the game is now called Ringer, but the rules are basically the same. The first player to shoot seven marbles out of the ring wins. When the seventh marble is shot out the shooter must also leave the ring. If this does not happen, the seventh marble is placed back in the ring. Marble tournaments are still played in this country.

Chicago parks have their own marble tournaments every spring and the winners of these events go on to the area tournaments. The city championship matches were discontinued in 1966, however, because interest in the sport has recently declined. The National Youth Activities Department of the Veterans of Foreign Wars does conduct a national tournament each year. Over 1,500 local tournaments have 200,000 boys and girls trying their skill at the game. Players advance through the state and regional levels to the national meet. Many of the local meets are sponsored by organizations such as the Y.M.C.A. The winners of these meets then participate in the later stages of the national tournament.

Many of the larger marbles with more intricate work were never used for games even when they were new. Some were made as covers or tops for various vases or decanters. One theory on the sulphide marbles with the figures inside is that they were often given to babies to play with. The silvery figure inside would be attractive to the child, and the marble was too large for there to be any danger of the baby swallowing it. Of course, neither were there any sharp corners to worry about or much chance that it could be broken easily. Many of the larger spirals and sulphides were always used for purely decorative purposes, for which they are still well suited.

Some people are never satisfied with the common, lower class, everyay uses for marbles. In a woman,s journal of 1869 there is mention made of "that famous old man," Dr. Cornelius Scriblerus. This gentleman wanted his son Martinus to have only the very bet toys, meaning those "such as might prove of use to his mind, by instilling an early notion of the sciences."

Luckily marbles were among the selected few, since Dr. Scriblerus believed they taught his son percussion and the laws of motion. Some of the other toys which the good doctor managed to take the fun out of included nutcrackers, which taught the use of the lever; birdcages, which taught the use of the pulley, and tops, which taught centrifugal motion. Luckily most children are very reesilient and will survive this type of treatment with no major damage being done.

Song: "The Lion Sleeps Tonight (Wimoweh)"