For most toys, pinning down the era in which they originated is an easy task. The longer a toy has been around, however, the more challenging the task becomes. In the case of marbles, it’s literally anyone’s guess. In a nutshell – they’ve likely been around for as long as man has been able to roll little balls into each other.
Games that used stones or fruit pits or even balls of clay go back at least as far as the Egyptian and Roman civilizations. Emperor Agustus of the Roman Empire, for example, described a game that he played as a child that consisted of rolling nut marbles. Things become somewhat easier to trace in the past few centuries. The National Marbles Tournament, for example, has been held in Tinsley Green, England, for at least a few hundred years and many works of literature from the 1800s mention the game. Suffice to say that playing marbles could be a contender for “oldest game in existence.”
About 150 years ago, all those nuts and clay balls started being replaced by much spiffier and easier-to-roll glass marbles. A patent exists in Germany during that time for marble scissors, which were used to cut the molten glass. Italy and England also produced glass marbles during this time. Still, trying to determine who rolled out the first glass marbles isn’t really any less arduous a task than determining the origins of the game itself.
What is known is that German glass company, Elias Greiner Vetters Shon, the same company that patented the marble scissors, started offering marbles with swirled designs before the turn of the century and many of these were exported to the United States. By creating a rod which contained strands of different colored glass, then cutting it with those handy marble scissors, what was left was a glass orb similar in design to what most people think of as a marble today. These handmade works of art are quite sought after by collectors today and can fetch a handsome price.
In the 1920s, the Industrial Revolution led to the manufacture of machine-made marbles from American companies including Akro, Peltier Glass, and Agate. Besides glass, materials such as steel, plastic and onyx were also used. The benefit of machine-shaped versus handmade marbles was significant in that they were much more likely to roll straight than their beautiful but often flawed predecessors.
The names given to these marbles were dependent on a number of factors and based on their particular function (such as “shooters”), the material used (Ally’s from alabaster, Steelies from steel) or even their appearance (Corkscrews, Cloudies, etc.).
The “Cat’s Eye” marbles, which gained enormous popularity in the 1950s, were a product of 1940s Japan. In recent years, marble production has moved to places like Mexico and various Asian countries, relying more on mass production than the craftsmanship of yesteryear, but occasionally a company will take a spin at the handcrafted variety – much to the delight of collectors.