What do the people of the 2500 BC Indus Valley civilization, Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamun, and the extraterrestrial creatures playing with little spherical galaxies in the Men in Black finale have in common? They are all mibsters—which is what you call someone who plays with, or collects, marbles.
Marbles is one of the oldest and most ubiquitous games, and, like beautiful little time capsules, they’re one of the few toys that defy any and all iteration. It’s difficult to improve upon the marble.
Plus, marbles have all the elements of a childhood blockbuster: They’re small, light, portable, cheap, easy to find, lend themselves as well to collecting as they do to playing, and come in a wide, aesthetically pleasing variety. In fact, they remain fun well past childhood. While the most popular types of marbles are colorful globes made of glass, there are marbles made of clay, steel, and wood; there are big and small marbles; there are handmade and mass-produced ones—and the best part is… they come with a whole vocabulary.
So get your bumboozers (large marbles) and peewees (small marbles) ready, and practice your flick: We play for keepsies (the winner keeps the marbles). No quitsies (leaving the game) or fudgies (cheating), OK?
By the digits
6,000,000: Number of marbles owned by one collector couple, as reported in the magazine The Secret Life of Marbles
90%: Share of the global marbles market held by Glasfirma, a Guadalajara, Mexico-based maker formerly known as Vacor de Mexico
12 million: Glasfirma’s daily marbles output
2: Number of marble makers left in the US
1 million: Daily output of American marble factories in the late 19th century, after mass production became a thing
$25,800: Auction price of a rare pink opaque lutz marble sold in 2012
12: Number of teams that participated in the first post-covid British and World Marbles Championship in April 2022
001-203-209-7076: A US number you can text to get any marble identified. For real.
How to marble
Aside from the most elementary unit of the game—a small round globe flicked with a finger—there are as many variations of the game of marbles as there are playgrounds. Yet few marbles competitions around the world have established specific rules.
The World Marbles Championship, held in the UK since 1932, keeps up with a version of the game that allegedly started in 1588. Forty-nine marbles are placed on a six-foot-wide concrete ring, and the mibsters have to flick their tolleys (the marbles used to hit) to displace them. Every displaced marble is one point, and the first person or team to get to 25 wins the game. The World Marbles Federation’s tournament, historically held in Prague, follows different rules, where the goal of the game is to flick the marbles into a hole, like playing golf, but with fingers and a very, very small ball. Finally, the US National Marbles Tournament, which is for children, has rules so complicated (pdf) they might be hard for adults to understand.
Or you can join a different game. Josh Simpson, a maker of complex glass marbles called “glass planets,” has been hiding them all over the world since the 1980s. In 2000, he opened up the project: People can apply to become a participant and, if selected, will receive two planets, one to keep and one to hide. There are now glass planets hidden all around the world.
Toodles: [Searching for something on the floor] Lost, lost, lost.
Peter Banning: Lost what?
Toodles: I’ve lost my marbles.
—Hook (1991), screenplay by James V. Hart and Malia Scotch Marmo and directed by Steven Spielberg
Talk like a mibster
One of the most fun aspects of marbles (or “marleys” as they like to call it in northern England) is that mibsters have developed a whole vocabulary to discuss their precious finds. The slang covers everything from the posture when playing (knuckle down) to quitting a game (quitsies), and it includes dozens of names to identify the marbles based on their material, color, and origin. Here’s a sampler:
Alley: Made of alabaster
Aggie: Made of agate
Commie: Made of clay
Steelie: Made of steel
Bumbo: Very large
Onionskin: Antique, handmade, German—with colored swirls extending across the marble
Toothpaste: With one curvy core resembling toothpaste out of a tube
Sulphide: Antique, shaped as a large clear glass sphere with a little figurine (usually an animal) inside
Beachball: Colorful, striped
Bumblebee: Yellow and black striped
Shooter, taw, bonker, dobber, tronk: Larger marble
Mib, duck: Smaller marble
Jasper: Blue, made of china
Lutz: With bands made of finely ground copper or gold flakes
Clambroth: Opaque base and equidistant colored bands
Ade: With a fluorescent base
Bennington: Made of glazed stoneware or crockery
Nobody does a soothing “how they’re made” bit like the late American children’s entertainer, educator, and cardigan-rocker Fred Rogers. This 1983 episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood gets into how marbles are made around the 8-minute mark.
Essentially, marbles are made of various raw materials, including some scrap glass, heated to dizzyingly high temperatures. That mess of melted stuff goes into a tank into which molten colored glass is injected at varying speeds to make different swirls and designs.
Little chunks of this molten mixture get pushed out of the tank, cut into equal pieces, and roll down special spinning cooling ramps, becoming a sphere in the process. If, during inspection, the marble is flawed—back it goes to be remelted.
What do you see in this Little Planet marble, made by Josh Simpson Glass?
A. A field of strawberries next to a field of blueberries next to a field of salmon sushi
B. Darth Vader wearing a red necklace and a purple flower as a headpiece
C. Something else entirely (drop us a quick line and let us know)
~2500 BC: Stone marbles, later identified by archaeologists, were used for playing by the Indus valley civilization.
~1300 BC: Young pharaoh Tutankhamun is buried with his belongings, including marbles that he likely used to play with, or maybe just gaze into while in a royal trance. Who can say?
17: Ancient Roman poet Ovid mentions playing with walnuts as marbles in his poem, Nux.
1503: Nuremberg, Germany limits the playing of marbles to a meadow outside the town.
1588: A marbles tournament is held in Tinsley Green, West Sussex, UK, a precursor to the present-day British and World Marbles Championship.
1815: The first book of marbles is published in England.
1846: A German glassblower invents marble scissors, which can cut glass in a marble shape.
1884: The first machine-made marbles are produced in Akron, Ohio, by Samuel C. Dyke.
1905: M.F. Christensen, also of Akron, Ohio, gets a patent approved for the first automated marbles machine
1932: The current version of the World Marbles Championship is held for the first time at the Greyhound Inn in Tinsley Green, West Sussex.
1972: NASA publishes the Blue Marble picture of Earth, taken by the Apollo 17 astronauts.
Some old marbles glow under ultraviolet light because they contain a small quantity of uranium. They are safe to touch because the radioactive chemical is encased in the glass.
As a child, were you a mibster?
- Oh boy! And jacks, too, as soon as I’d finished my paper route!
- Heck, I’d play them right now if my knees could handle it.
- No, marbles are just for looking at in astonishment.
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Today’s email was written by Annalisa Merelli (just played marbles with her brother-in-law after failing to interest a toddler in the game) and edited by Susan Howson (mibster-curious).