Marbles: The Mountains’ Classic Children’s Game

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Wolcott, Marion Post, photographer. Mountain children playing marbles after school in Breathitt County, Kentucky. [Sept.?] Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, .
Wolcott, Marion Post, photographer. Mountain children playing marbles after school in Breathitt County, Kentucky. [Sept.?] Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <www.loc.gov/item/2017757406/>.

A half-dozen mischievous looking boys gathered in a circle, some squatted while others watch closely from a standing position — their pant legs are rolled up above their shins and the dirty Appalachian ground covers their dusty bare feet.

The well worn and dried earth outside their one room school house may be void of life, but it provides an excellent playing surface for a simple yet generation defining game: Marbles.

Recess doesn’t last forever, so they hurriedly aim and shoot, each intent upon finishing the game with more simple glass balls to place in their bag than when they began.

The image described above could have been one seen in nearly any part of America in the early 1940s, but the photograph featured at the top of this article was taken in September 1940, in Breathitt County, eastern Kentucky.

American baseball can be traced to New York, American football to the college campuses of the Northeast, and hockey to Canada, but if there was ever an Appalachian sport than can be traced to yesteryear, it would be the game of marbles.

Though not invented in Appalachia — marbles, as we know them today, have been known to have existed for thousands of years (even being mentioned in early Roman literature and found in ancient Egypt) — their influence on the lives of Appalachian children has been extremely understated.

According to historians, marbles arrived in Britain during the medieval era and by 1503, marbles had become so popular that the town council of Nuremberg, Germany, limited the playing of marble games to a meadow outside the town.

Germans excelled in marble manufacturing over the next 400 years and in 1846, a German glassblower invented marble scissors, a device for making marbles.

In the years ahead, countless Germans would immigrate to the United States, many of whom would settle along the Ohio River.

Soon, Akron, Ohio’s population of Germans had grown and with this influx came industrial minded entrepreneurs and inventors.

In 1883, the city birthed the modern toy industry when a local journalist launched the Akron Toy Company. A year later, the first popular toy was mass-produced: clay marbles.  Other popular inventions include rubber balloons, ducks, dolls, balls, baby buggy bumpers, and little brown jugs.

With an influx of German immigrants who had grown accustomed for marbles, the demand for glass playing balls excelled along the Ohio River and by the in the 1890s, no fewer than four marble manufacturers were shipping out marbles from Akron.

In 1903, Martin Frederick Christensen—also of Akron, Ohio—made the first machine-made glass marbles on a machine he patented.

Glass marbles were relatively inexpensive to mass produce, easy to ship, and were enjoyed on a mass scale, making them the perfect toy to ship downriver to the children in Appalachia, whose families were often impoverished.

Today, there are only two American-based toy marble manufacturers: Jabo Vitro in Reno, Ohio, and Marble King, in Paden City, West Virginia.

Though the popularity of marbles has waned in the face of electronics, modern toys and a host of other entertainment items, there remains a generation who grew up, “playing for keepies”.

Do you like Appalachian History? Then you would love Appalachian Magazine’s Mountain Voice: A Collection of Memories, Histories, and Tall Tales of Appalachia!  Click here to check out the book on Amazon!

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