The Magic of Marbles

Today’s guest post was written by Jim Casada.

the-magic-of-marbles

Jim Casada Copyright 2016

THE MAGIC OF MARBLES

During the halcyon days of my Appalachian boyhood in the 1950s, youngsters playing marbles were as sure a sign of coming spring as swelling pussy willow buds, dainty white blooms adorning bloodroot plants, or the first hints of gold showing on forsythia bushes. The game was a ritual of spring, one that began as soon as fickle March weather permitted and continued until about the time barefoot season arrived in late May.

For the observant eye, identifying a serious marbles player was the essence of simplicity. He sported knuckles so deeply encrusted with grit no amount of scrubbing with Octagon soap would remove it all. The pockets in his jeans or overalls bulged with tell-tale lumps and sometimes even showing faded circles, and britches knees were dirty and worn. There was a time, a half century and more ago, when mountain boys, and occasionally a “tom boy” from the female side, considered these springtime badges of honor.

When winter’s doldrums finally began to give way to warming weather, high country youth shook off the mullygrubs and that miserable ailment known as cabin fever by turning to the simple, satisfying pleasures of marbles. The basic game required nothing more than two (or more) players with marbles and a circle drawn on a smooth dirt surface. Some of the rules were made up on the spot and because there were seemingly endless variations arguments were commonplace. Participants might have the ability to make certain calls that gave them an advantage, there was frequent “fudging” to gain an illegal edge, and playing for keeps, never mind parental strictures to the contrary, brought an irresistible bit of naughtiness to the whole process.

Marble playing ran as a bright strand through the entire fabric of my boyhood. The passage of decades has dimmed some of my memories, but the game as I recall it mixed considerable flexibility in terms of rules, participants, and the like with a general understanding of certain basics. The essential equipment involved nothing more than a pocket full of marbles and a smooth patch of bare ground. Games began by drawing a circle in the dirt, with a clay surface being ideal because it allowed marbles to roll fast and true. Sometimes the circle was swept with a broom and any pebbles or clods were carefully removed. The idea was for each player to place the same number of marbles in the middle of the circle, where they were bunched together, and then knock them outside the circle. A shot at a straight line from a distance of two yards or so, known as lagging, determined who went first. The shooter placing his marble closest to the line (but not beyond it) got the first turn. He held his turn as long as he knocked one or more marbles out of the circle with each shot. When he failed to do so the next shooter took his turn.

Games proceeded until all the marbles were knocked from the circle, with each shooter setting aside or pocketing marbles from successful shots. When playing for keeps, a simple form of gambling that most parents forbade in the strongest of terms (and boys routinely ignored), the marbles stayed with the player who knocked them from the ring. Otherwise, at game’s end they were returned to the original owner.

So long as weather permitted, there were daily marble sessions at recess and frequently after school as well. For example, the well-worn ground beneath a basketball hoop in the yard of my parents’ home made a seasonal transition from hoops to knuckling down, and early spring days invariably found a bunch of boys congregated there for some late afternoon fun.

Weather permitting, that simple pleasure continued until about the time school let out for summer. Then, at least on a personal level, within a week or two the marbles I had accumulated through purchase, playing for keeps, or swapping vanished. That was because they not only furnished raw material for a game; marbles also made ideal slingshot ammunition.

That required restocking at some point prior to the next spring. Sometimes there would be a new bag of 25 marbles for Christmas, and those would be supplemented, as the first harbingers of spring touched the high country, with a trip to the local 5- & 10-cent store to replenish my supply. Any suitably size ball bearings (“steelies”) or marbles found while piddling around formed a welcome bonus. On at least one occasion there was also a surreptitious raid on the family’s Chinese checkers game.

Those days belong to a world we have to a considerable degree lost, because this simple, supremely satisfying, and inexpensive game has vanished in the face of computers, I-Phones, I-pads, and other supposed marvels of modern technology. With them came a degree of regrettable loss in the innocence of mountain childhood.

Once though, marbles reigned supreme at the time of earth’s annual reawakening, and unbeknownst to most the game remains deeply ingrained in our way of speech. Everyone recognizes that “playing for keeps” means serious business. Likewise, “knuckling down” indicates bringing determination and undivided attention to the task at hand, while the phrases “playing for all the marbles” or “lacking all his marbles” variously describe a matter of great importance or a state of mental instability. Today’s world may not immediately link these phrases with the game of marbles, but a half century ago the connection would have been readily apparent. At this time of year, even if only through a session of daydreaming, it’s nice to go back to those simpler days and simpler ways.

SIDEBAR

A MARBLES GLOSSARY

Aggie—A marble actually made of agate or from glass resembling agate.

Cat’s eye—A marble colored in a way that resembled the eye of a cat.

Dough roller—An oversized marble, roughly twice as big as standard ones, sometimes used as a shooter.

Fudging—Putting one’s shooting hand inside the circle or being guilty of heisting.

Heisting—Shooting with knuckles off the ground. In certain situations this was considered legal if you propped your shooting hand on the wrist of the other hand.

Keepsies—Playing for keeps. A form of gambling where participants kept the marbles they won in the game.

Lagging to the line—A means of choosing which shooter goes first. Players shot their taw towards a straight line and the marble ending closest to it without crossing went first.

Playing fair—Marbles are return to their respective owners at game’s end.

Plunking—Shooting to hit marbles on the fly. Often done on the break with a dough roller.

Rounders—Seeking the best possible position on the circle to make a shot.

Shooter—Also known as a taw, this was the marble a participant used to shoot at other marbles.

Steelie—A marble-size ball bearing sometimes used in the game.

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I hope you enjoyed Jim’s post as much as I did!

Tipper

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15 Comments

  • Reply
    Papaw
    September 14, 2018 at 9:48 pm

    Sorry I got here so late, I had to get prepared for a visit from Aunt Florence!

    I never learned to play marbles. I watched others play and tried to imitate them but I couldn’t do what they were doing. I am left handed. Everyone I watched was a righty. I tried shooting with my right hand but that was a total failure. I tried to adapt to a left hand approach but was never was successful.
    I did though collect some marbles to use in playing Jack in the Bush and Fox and Geese.

  • Reply
    Gigi
    September 14, 2018 at 6:24 pm

    We didn’t play marbles like that as kids. I seen them and they were pretty. Still pretty.

  • Reply
    harry adams
    September 14, 2018 at 4:38 pm

    I played marbles when I was 10 or 11 (1957), It was a fad that didn’t last long.

    In my adult work years, I got to see marbles being made and worked on the marble furnaces. The marbles were remelted into fiberglass. I also saw Jabo in Marietta and a plant in Mexico that made player marbles. I could never understand how anyone could say a marble was old or new.
    Jabo used cullet from Fenton which was across the river from them. Marble King is the only remaining producer in the US.
    I have several gallon jars full of marbles of industrial, old players and new marbles. I’ve tried to shoot marbles, but it hurts my fingers too much now.

  • Reply
    b. Ruth
    September 14, 2018 at 3:06 pm

    Tipper,
    Thanks for the memory…as I had written before on the game of marbles the words are all very familiar to this seventy seven year old tom boy….About the replenishing of the cache of marbles Jim refers to…a new bag of marbles and a home sewn marble bag was a favored Christmas present for my brothers…I never got one but knew that Mom was making them as I saw her material cut in the little rectangles….By the way, my doll also got a new skirt or dress out of the same material.
    I loved playing marbles with all the boys…Sometimes I was only allowed to play if I went in the house to fetch the broom and swept off the hard dusty ground where the boys had picked out to play…Most of the time a new place had to be chosen for if it had rained and Dads truck gone over…then the ground had a deep groove where the mud had left the tire track and dried…I have seen times in the early summer when hard grooves had to be shoveled flat with the wide coal shovel, stomped on and repacked then swept smooth…LOL Also remember Dad loosing ball bearings too, when a game was coming up that allowed “steelies” to be used. My brother one time had got hold of a large steelie that he would call out to use…all the other boys were jealous of the big Toe…soon no one allowed it in the games and it disappeared somewhere…my brother said he traded it for thirty marbles. Sad for me because I thought it was the biggest and most beautiful steel marble I had ever seen…I wanted it formyownself..LOL
    We called the large marble a Toe or maybe it was Taw as Jim said that broke the marbles like playing pool….Most of the times the big boys played for keeps…Only if someone shouted “no keepers” did we play “forgive” and give back the marbles…There was always the big oldest bullying boy that would agree at the start of the game to play “no keepers’ but then at the end when and if he won marbles run off with your marbles….I remember one time that the other boys saw him coming…and when he got there decided on the spur of the moment to just play rolly bat instead of marbles…Yeah, he couldn’t play rolly bat worth a hoot…LOL
    Enjoyed this post Tipper and Jim…I myself could write a book on outdoor and indoor games (for that part) of the forties and fifties…
    Thanks Tipper,
    PS….Guess it will be “weathery” at your house by the weekend…due to the “Hurry-cane”! I sure dread all the rain, of course thankful all the while that it is not as bad as our brothers and sisters in NC and SC…

  • Reply
    Joe Penland
    September 14, 2018 at 1:51 pm

    Thanks for refreshing my memory. I have forgotten much of the game and the glossery made me realize how many terms I have forgotten.

  • Reply
    Ken Roper
    September 14, 2018 at 1:31 pm

    Tipper,
    and Jim,
    I just love marble playing, either Rings or Pig’s Eye, but when we played with Edmond Holloway, if he got to go first, you could forget it. When we played in a Circle, he’d place one hand on top of the other, and comfluey, that’s all she wrote. He could shoot harder than anyone I’ve ever seen.

    We”d draw a straight line, get behind the line and whoever got closest to the Pig’s Eye got to go first. What fun we had at recess! …Ken

  • Reply
    Dana
    September 14, 2018 at 11:57 am

    Wonderfully written memory! I related to every detail. Thanks for that.

  • Reply
    Larry Proffitt
    September 14, 2018 at 9:36 am

    Thanks Jim you have a great memory. We slipped around and always played for keeps. We played marbles so long our knuckles stayed raw. My mother kept my marbles after we quit playing for good. Norma just said I have your marbles in a quart jar your mother gave me. As Archibald said “Those were the days” of the late 40’s and early 50’s in the mtns of far East Tennessee. Shoes hurt our feet when school days rolled around again after Labor day.

  • Reply
    aw griff
    September 14, 2018 at 9:23 am

    I got to thinking about playing marbles for keeps at school and I don’t remember the teachers stopping us for playing for keeps. The teachers were lenient on the playground, but strict in the classroom.
    The marble that Jim called the dough roller is what we called them but also called them jakes.
    Sometimes we placed several marbles in a small circle and took turns shooting them out. If your shooter got stuck in the circle we called that stuck in the fat, but don’t remember if you automatically lost the game or lost a turn.

    I find marbles sometimes in the garden spot and occasionally while metal detecting. I haven’t found a cat’s eye marble for years.

  • Reply
    Miss Cindy
    September 14, 2018 at 8:32 am

    I loved marbles as a kid, and to tell the truth I still love them. They are just so pretty and smooth! I didn’t get to play much cause, you see, I’m a girl. But that never stopped me from enjoying all the pretty marbles I collected.

  • Reply
    Jim Keller
    September 14, 2018 at 8:16 am

    I always enjoyed marbles as a child. I wonder if anyone still plays ? Can’t remember the last time I seen any children playing.

  • Reply
    PinnacleCreek
    September 14, 2018 at 8:01 am

    `Thanks to Jim Casada for the story nd education on marbles. I remember it was played on our school ground bythe young boys in fifth grade. I don’t know if it was just in my little school. but it was common for the young boys to give some marbles to the young girls they might be sweet on. I had my share of marbles, and they have always conjured up such sweet memories.
    My practice of having my back yard tilled for gardening has turned up many marbles and small boy treasures. Not much new after all these years! I wonder often about the young boys who may have once occupied this house. On reading the history of this particular area. it was part of a large farm, and very near an area where once a Civil War Squirmish took place. I found a small hard ball once with a hole it which has since been discarded. I wish I had kept it and made more of an effort to find out what it was. I find it comforting to try to imagine all the events of history that may have played out right here in my own back yard including young boys playing marbles.

  • Reply
    Gayle Larson
    September 14, 2018 at 7:33 am

    I was one of the tomboys that played marbles. I was always striving to beat my brother. I still have a bag of marbles that I inherited after he passed. Being the only girls in the neighborhood I am sure it was not good for the boy’s egos when I did happen to win a game. That made it more special and I have to admit I did rub it in. Thanks for the memories.

  • Reply
    Sheryl A. Paul
    September 14, 2018 at 7:01 am

    I never played marbles. They were beautiful to me though and of course I had to get a bag just wo wonder over. Strangly enough all the girls in our group played. Boys and girls together. The best player was a girl

  • Reply
    tmc
    September 14, 2018 at 5:38 am

    I always enjoyed finding old marbles around an old home place and wondering the stories that it could tell only if it could speak, and that this was once held by a child and where is that child, and did life treat it well, or did it die defending our freedom or did it live long and prosperous and things like that.

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