Children have played some of the same games since the earliest historic times. Marbles is a perfect example. This game has been popular for thousands of years and with cultures throughout the world. Whether the marbles are made of clay, glass, wood or metal, they have delighted boys and girls of all ages for thousands of years.
You can see examples of the earliest marbles, from about 4000 B.C., at the British Museum in London. Archaeologists have found very old flint, stone and baked-clay balls from Rome and ancient Egypt. Marbles made from china and real marble have also been found, the latter perhaps giving the balls their name. Many Roman stories and historic reports also mention these children's gaming pieces. It is believed that Romans spread the word about this form of entertainment throughout their empire. Clay marbles have been found in Egyptian tombs, Native American burial grounds and the ancient Aztec pyramids.
Marbles continued to be popular even during the Middle Ages, when children were not encouraged to play games. In fact, in some communities, the children were not allowed to play in the town and had to go out into the countryside to enjoy themselves. Despite this, the game is mentioned in subsequent literature and the arts. In his plays, Shakespeare mentioned entertainment similar to marbles, such as the cherry pit game, where players threw polished stones into holes in the ground. Marble-playing was also depicted in early artwork, such as the 1560 painting "Children's Games" by Pieter Brueghel the Elder of the Netherlands.
The popularity of playing marbles increased considerably once they were produced in large scale by factories. A German glass blower invented a marble-making mold in 1846, which made it much easier to produce marbles and considerably reduced the cost for popular use. This trend continued in the 1890s, when the first marble manufacturing machines were made. Before factories, most children could not even afford a clay marble. However, once these balls were produced in large quantities, a child could buy a couple of them with a penny. Akron, Ohio, was one of the first cities that produced marbles in large amounts. The factories could make as many as one million marbles per day--enough to fill a railroad boxcar.
In the 1950s, the Japanese invented a marble called "cat's eye" that was a solid marble with eye-shaped swirls and designs. Other types of marbles include the aggie, short for "agate," with patterns; onionskin, which is swirled and layered like an onion; turtle, with streaks of yellow and green; steely, made of steel and mica; and clear, with patches that are opaque.
Marbles are often auctioned off in the hundreds of dollars range, depending on their rarity. Although some of the first balls were made from clay and stone, these are not necessarily the ones that are most desirable. Normally, the marbles that dealers want most are the ones handmade from glass in the 1850s. Some of these were over two inches in diameter, especially the ones from approximately 1850 to 1870. These were made for an adult game that was played on carpets in Victorian homes. Many of the early handmade and factory-produced American marbles are also very collectible. A marble from the Christensen Agate company, which went out of business after the Depression, is called the guinea. It was never that popular with children, so very few were made. Today, one of these can sell for as much as $500.
There still are a couple of American marble factories. The toys are also manufactured in Mexico. A number of artisans in the United States now make handmade marbles, which are pieces of art rather than playthings. Some of them are as large as six inches in diameter. Their vibrant, rich colors and unique designs make them one-of-a-kind beautiful objects to enjoy.