The first marbles were fashioned from flint, stones, clay, polished nuts and wood. Through the centuries other amterials came to be used, many of which lent their names, or corruptions thereof, to the little balls. Marbles have been made from marble, agate or limestone (aggies); alabaster (alleys); baked clay (migs or mibs); painted, glazed or fired clay (clayeys, commonies, commies, kimmies or immies); porcelain (Chinees, crockies, or potteys); brass and iron and steel (steelies); glass (glassies); gems such as jade and turquoise and, most recently, plastic.
Generally, today's marbles are made of glass with pigments inserted for color, a continuation of *glassie* tradition which has been credited to Venetian glassblowers. Most of these marbles come from plants in five West Virginia towns, were sand, soda ash and natural gas for firing ovens are plentiful and cheap. Master Glass in Clarksburg, Vitro-Agate of Parkerburg, Marble King of Paden City, Heaton Agate of Cairo, and Champion Agate of Pennsboro, as well as plants in central Illinois, produce an estimated 350 milllion marbles each year at the rate of 200 a minute.
The best consist of fresh silica and soda ash and about 20 other ingredients from aluminum hydrate to zinc oxide, a mixture which is allowed to cook for up to 18 hours at 2,300 degrees until it achieves the consistency of molasses. Once molten, it is poured down a trough that oozes it into a forming machine that makes the batter into balls. Once formed, they harden quickly and move on rollers through sizers and through an inspection process. One factory turned out 2.6 million marbles in one day and another claims it shipped 14 million marbles just for Chinese checkers games in just six months.
The best marbles are not all used by children or in parlor games. They are inserted in road sign reflectors, used in oil filters and for graining lithographic plates. Some are used as beds in fish hatcheries and others are "fried" to make costume jewelry. In this process the marbles are exposed to direct intense heat, then plunged immediately into icy water. The process leaves the surface intact but produces intricate cracks and textures inside. Marbles are useful in mausoleums where they have been found to be ideal for sliding caskets into wall crypts. They are used in pinball machines and are remelted by fabric manufacturers to create fiberglad the is in everything form drapes to Corvette fenders. They aree used as agitators in aerosol spray cans, and of course they are hoarded by collectors.
The finest marbles - of agate and limestone -- still come from Germany. Today's aggies, regarded as the best shooters come from Oberstein and Coburg where immense water- powered millstones round off cubes of quarried stones at the rate of about 800 an hour. Factories in Nurembuirg still produce glassies. Germany was virtually the only major manufacturer of stone and glass marbles until about 1900, when glass marbles came under production in the United States, and then 15 years later this country began to take glass marbles manufacturing away from Germany.
The first manufactured American marbles were made of clay, and are believed to have been produced around 1884 by Samuel Dyke of Akron, Ohio; the first American company to make glass marbles in quantities was the Navarre Glass Marble and Specialty Company of Navarre, Ohio, in 1897. The company, which produced its marbles by hand, failed, reopened in Steubenvilled in 1902, and failed again, and it was not until 1905 when M. F. Christensen bought out the Navarre works and introduced the mechanization and the assembly line that serious competition with Germany began.
Today the U. S. has the glass marbles market virtually cornered, but Germans still make the fine aggies. To most marbles players the aggie is the keystone of a collection. It is never bought, but somehow "comes" into a player's possession. Asked where his aggie shooter comes from, a player will say simply, "Germany, but I got it from somebody." And where did "somebody" get it? "I didn't ask."
Though prized by players, aggies do not rank as high among serious collectors. They may be rare, but are not truly scarce. Marbles collectors are not adverse to paying as much as $50.00 for mint specimens of rare marbles. Two of the more prized marbles sought by collectors are the Lutz swirl and the sulphide. The former were made between 1869 and 1888 at the Boston and Sandwich Glass Company in Cape Code, Massachusetts. They were handmade and consisted of different colored swirls mixed with mica flecks coated with copper. The latter were made only for collectors and are really examples of bisque carvings encased in the glass of the marbles. They are rumored to have originated in China or in France, but it is known that they were made by the Chinese and exported to the United States in the ninteenth century.
They were made by taking the carved figure -- usually animals, but also trains, and often children's heads -- and repeatedly dipping it into marble "batter," building up the sphere to the desired size. According to Trudy Laing in Glass Magazine, the most sought-after sulphide is one containing a bisque carving of President McKinley issued in 1901 after his assassination, and a fine example can fetch $100.00.
Another rare collectors' marble is the Indian swirl*of black glass, made in India and never exported. Among the clay marbles prized by collectors are those from the Bennington factory in Vermont which used waste clay dipped in glaze and fired. Of the same type are the end-of-day marbles of the glass factories. These were made of leftover glass by workmen, generally as prizes for their children. They were never produced for the retail market and thus are available only through other collectors.
Other kinds of glass marbles sought by collectors are the swirled band, candy swirl, clam broth, mica, candle swirl, candy spiral, peppermint swirl, purple slag, vaseline and of course cleareys. Berry Pink's small clear marbles, produced in the 1920's by the millions, are, despite their numbers, prized by collectors because of the many various colors. According to Ms. Laing, the most notable marbles collector in our history was Thomas Jefferson, who not only was an avid player but often exhibited his finest marbles to guests.