In simpler times, with the annual onset of Spring, the fancies of most younger men used to turn to marbles. No more. Oh, you'll find players -- kneeling, squatting and knuckling down -- in America's southern, western and border states and in isolated pockets in the east, and generally they'll be arrayed around a perfectly drawn large ring shooting tournament marbles, trying to eliminate each other so that they can be local, city, state, regional or national champions. But few youngsters -- boys or girls -- play for fun, or for keeps, just to kill time, simply for the hell of it.
Why not? Once-empty lots are covered with apartments and whatever space is left over is blacktopped. Alleys are concrete ramps dipping into the darkness underneath buildings. Neighborhoods no longer exist, really. Dirt is something called soil and is packed in plastic for you to buy yo punt in window plant boxes. Curbs are rarely seen these days. They're for parking cars or for propping garbage cans. There is so little space, and each year there is less. And kids' heads have changed. Marbles? What for, when there are television and statically organized Little Leagues and GP and PG movies and elaborately packaged games that reduce cosmics to throws of the dice? What for, when there are cornet lessons and tennis instruction and planned after-school peer group interactivities? ....
In the United States the varities of marbles are vitrually infinite and the game is called variously,
Ringer or Immies or Mibs or simply Marbles. In England and in Scotland and Ireland it is Taw or
Boss or Span. In Brazil children play it as Gude; in parts of Africa it is Jorrah and in Italy, Pallina
di vetro. In West Virginia it's played with agate or glass balls. It has been played in Australia with
balls of polished wood and on the street of New York City with steel ball bearings. In Iran, Turkey
and Syria it's played with balls of baked clay or with the knucklebones of sheep. Chinese children
play at "kicking the marbles" and kids in Tasmania play at Pyramids.
It has been played with vigor and often excessive dedication by emperors and by overalled kids on
farms shooting clay pedabs; by presidents and by city kids shredding their corduroy knickers as
they hunkered down on cement sidewalks. It is believed to have spawned bagatelle and the
pinball machine, bowling, billiards (who will inform Minnesota Fats that he's really playing
marbles?), golf, Chinese checkers and Pachinko.
It is an ancient game; the guess is prehistoric. Exactly where and when marbles began is not
known, and the literature of marbles is skimpy and imprecise, but there do exist archaeological
and literary beacons which surface from time to time and tell us something of its origins and of its
historical course. Archaeologists have dug up small balls of clay, flint and stone in caves in
Europe and in the tombs of Egyptian pharoahs. Marbles have been discovered in the digs of the
Mound Builder Indians of Mississippi, and we are told that the Aztecs played a form of marbles.
Pre-Christian terra cottas and other statuary often depict children playing at knucklebones and
astragals, which are thought to be forerunners of marbles games. Those who have studied the
beginnings of various games say that generally games began in the lower valleys of the Nile, Tigris
and Euphrates rivers, spread to Africa and to Greece, thence to Sicily and to Rome, and with the
Roman legions to Britain and the norhtern European regions and to the Germanic tribes. From
Britain the movement of games coincided with the spread of empire.
According to several unattributed accounts, the suitors of Penelope are said to have rolled
marbles for her hand in Ithaca while Odysseus was wandering among the Lotus Eaters; and
marble enthusiasts say what David smot Goliath with was the truest of his collection of marbles.
Believe it. In Games and Songs of American Children, which were "collected and compared" by
William Wells Newel in 1883, the game of marbles is traced to Rome. Mr. Newel wrote: The first
of these games may be descended from a sport of Roman children, mentioned by Ovid, and still
in existence in which nuts are rolled down an inclined plane, with the object of striking the nut of
the adversary. The second seems to be the childish reduction of a game with the ball, similar to
"Golf." The Latin expression relinquere nuces -- putting away childish things -- probably refers to
that form of marbles played with polished nuts. And in The Sports and Pastimes of the People of
England, published in 1898, Joseph Strutt wrote, "It is said of Augustus when young that by the
way of amusement he spent many hours in playing with little Moorish boys cum nucibus [with
nuts]." Strutt also opines "marbles seem to have been used by the boys as substitues for bowls,
and with them they amuse themselves in many different manners. I believe nuts, round stones, or
any other small things that could be easily bowled along, were used as marbles. Those played
with now seem to be of more modern invention."
Marbles was known throughout Europe in pre-Elizabethan times. In 1503 the town council of
Nuremberg limited the playing of marbles games to a meadow outside of the town's limits; and in
the English village of St. Gall, the town council statutes authorized the sacristan of St. Laurence to
use a cat-o'-nine tails on boys "who played at marbles under the fish stand and refused to be
warned off." In France the game of Troule-en-Madame in which small marbles were rolled into
holes at one end of a board was popular, and it moved across the English Channel to be corrupted
into the children's marbles game called Troll-My-Dame.
Shakespeare mentions the game of Cherry Pit in which polished stones were tossed into holes in
the ground, and in Henry V he talks of times when "the boys went to span-counter for French
Crowns." Pieter Breughel the Elder's 1560 painting "Children's Games," which depicts about
eighty of these, is regarded by historians as a prime source for information about children's
games. It shows children playing marbles. Beaumont and Fletcher in Monsieur Thomas, Dekker
and Webseter in Northward Ho, and John Donne in his fourth Satire all mention marbles games.
And Richard Addison in one of his 1700 Tatler papers refers to "a game of marbles not unlike our
common taw." Strutt describes Taw as a game in which players put marbles into a ring and
attempt to shoot them out "and he who obtains the most of them by beating them out of the ring
is the conqueror." Taw was and is a community sport in many parts of England. In the Sussex
village of Tinsley Green, for example, marbles, as an organized championship-style event has
existed since Elizabethan times, and the village team (none of whose members is younger than
50) annually sends out blanket challenges to any team foolhardy enough to compete with them.
Two hundred-year-old clay marbles are preserved by the village for its tourneys.
Several years ago a crew of American sailors, christening themselves the "Swede-Bashers," were
beaten by the Tinsleyites 33 marbles to 16. The captain of the Tinsley team was 86-year-old
George Maynard and the star, 52-year-old Arthur Chamberlain, whose nickname is "Hydrogen
Good Friday in England was once celebrated as "Marbles Day," a defensive ploy by the English
clergy who considered a countrywide marbles day preferable to "moree boisterous and
mischievous enjoyments." Pubs and inns and taverns had built-in marbles "bowling alleys" for
their patrons' pleasure. But there was a measure of British restraint. For university students
there was no marbles playing permitted at the portals of Oxford Library; nor by law were marbles
games tolerated in the Great Hall at Westminster.
In the Traditional Games of England, Scotland and Ireland, a book of "Tunes, Singing-Rhymes,
and Methods of Playing According to the Variantss Extant and Recorded in Different Parts of the
Kingdom," published in London in 1894, Alice Bertha Gomme agrees that marbles had their
origins "in bowls and received their name from the substance of which the bowls were formally
Different kinds of marbles are alleys, barios, poppo, stones. Marrididdles are marbles made by
oneself by rolling and baking common clay. By boys these are treated as spurious and are
always rejected. In barter, a bary = four stones; a common white alley = three stonies. Those
with pink veins being considered best. Alleys are the most valuable and are always reserved to
be used as "taws" (the marble actually used by the player). They are said to have been
formally made of different colored alabaster.
Among the marbles games played by English, Scottish and Irish children were Boss-Out,
Bridgeboard, Bun-Hole, Cob, Ho-Go, Holy Bang, Hundreds, Lag, Long-Tawl, Nine Holes and Ring
Taw. Basically, in all cultures, marbles games fall generally into three categories: chase games
in which two or more players alternately shoot at each other along a makeshift meandoring
course; enclosure games in which marbles are shot at other marbles contained wihtin a marked-
off area; and hole games in which marbles are shot or bowled into a successive series of holes.
The English names and games crossed to this country and Americanization followed. Picking
Cherries is after all but a variation of Cherry Pit, and Ring Taw in England is Ringer here; Boss-
Out is Follerings, and Lag ir Laggers. And other terms have been coined, to wit Purgy, Zulu Golf,
Bounce Eye, Duck Taw, Mibs to the Wall, Patterson, Shoot the Shoe Box, Fat, Knuck and
Skelly. But the games are still either chase, circle or hole games, and have been played in
colonial times and throughout our still-short history.
George Washington was a marbles player, as were Thomas Jefferson and John Quincy Adams,
and we're told that Abraham Lincoln, when he reached the age of majority and moved out of his
parents' home in New Salem, became a marbles-playing terror, his specialty being Old Bowler. It
is often a surprise to Americans to learn that marbles is not a native game, that is was played
English-style in New England and in the fashion of the Netherlands in Pennsylvania. In his
Games and Songs of American Children William Newel talks briefly of these regional differences.
The game, when played to win the marbles of the opponent, is said to be "in earnest." If any
accident happens, and the opponent's play is checked, a Georgia lad will say, "King's excuse."
That this is an ancient phrase is shown by the corruption of the same cry in Pennsylvania,
Newell notes that "under certain circumstances a boy who puts down a second marbles is said
to 'dub' (double) a marble, or to play 'dubs.'" Dubs is also in various parts of the country another
name for Ringer or Taw. None of our games is new, nor are they unique to this country. What
are new are regional varieties, with the games and the names dictated largely by the terrain.
Thus in the western United States, in the south and in the southwest, where open space was an is
more plentiful, the game of Ringer, with its 10-foot-diamter ring, became the favorite, whereas in
the east, games which utilized smaller spaces and concrete sidewalks and urbs developed.
In many parts of the country, the spontanteous, unsupervised, catch-as-catch-can marbles
games we once played existed only in our memories. Fewer of these "let's get up a game"
marbles games seem to be played on streets and in those fields that still survive. It was with
certain sadness that one of our Mibs) correspondents wrote to me, telling of an abortive essay
into his marbles-playing childhood.
Recounting an incident that took place on a trip to Italy, Julius Rothenberg had to say: