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History of Marbles

And more history....
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 Thumb."

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 made."

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, "King's scruse."

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:

I did see the identical game [of Ringer] played in the rural area several miles from the Universita er Stranieri in Perugia . . . My nostalgia evoked, I tried to recall the rules as I watched, but in vain. Addressing these urchins in Italian, I asked how the game was played and what the rules were, but got the impression that there was a gap of a half- century and that I was offending their dignity and privacy in asking. And Italian kids are not generally rude. is the game of Italian origin? Or did immigrants returning to Italy bring back the game?

Maybe. Throughout Africa, for example, there exists a Troll-My-Dame type of game in which small stones are tossed rapidly and successively into a series of holes. It is called Mancala, and has over the years found its way to the Near and Far East. In Syria it is known as L'ab Akila or La'B Hakimi, and along the northern Mediterranean coast it is called Gabatta and Magji. In Bali it is Medjiwa, in Malaysia it is called Dakon, and in Ceylon it is called Chanka. In India it is Chongak and in the Philippines it is Chuncajon. By the time it reached Australia it became Nine Holes and is at once similar to Mancala, to scores of other English "hole" marbles games and to the American marbles game of Black Snake.

Nine Holes and other Australian marbles games have been studied and classified quite thoroughly by Dorothy Howard, an authority on children's games, who on a Fulbright grant looked over kids' shoulder as they shot marbles in Canberra and poured over marble lore in Perth and Melbourne. She unearthed a nineteenth-century book of childhood reminiscences by a Sir Joseph Verco called Early Memories which is laced heavily with his nostalgia for marbles and his joy that there were in those colonial days open spaces for marbles playing.

In those days [1860-1870] . . . the footpaths belonged to the small boys as much as to the city council, and they had no compunction in digging their "nuck" holes wherever they wanted to play, and neither the citizens nor the police ever interfered with their mining operations nor with their play.

Dorothy Howard says that with the coming of hard-packed sidewalks and pavement, concrete and macadam, hole games are disappearing and being replaced perforce by surface marbles games. She sees this as a gradual step leading to the eventual disappearance of traditional spontaneous marbles, and their replacement by standardized marbles games in international competitions. "Perhaps," she wrote, "the time may come when an Australian child, an American child and an English child will compete in a world marble championship tournament on a space platform anchored somewhere in the wild blue yonder. In this even, this world will surely be left a dull, brave new world." Miss Howard may perhaps be over-Huxleying it a trifle, but she appears to have a point. (Ferrettii)

Song: "I'm a Little Piece of Tin"