Curio Vol 2 | Issue 11
If you are old enough, the image of marbles often conjures a enjoyable pastime between children whilst sitting on the ground. Seeing this played in modern times however, is a little less common with the amount of LED screens surrounding us. While marbles could be considered a nostalgic ritual and relic of yesteryear, they are often objects of great beauty and warrant great appreciation.
The aesthetics of these tiny spheres are often abundant with colour, sometimes opaque, and sometimes glassy. Laid out on the floor with enough space, they resemble an array of planets shrunken down to the size of the handheld, clicking and clacking together as they knock into each other.
As collectible items in themselves; marbles also allow people to develop their own curated collection over time, which can sometimes extend far into adulthood.
‘Playing’ with marbles isn’t actually a singular game, as there are literally hundreds of variations on what you can do with these round spheres. The number of games are only limited by one’s imagination, though they often usually involve ‘firing’ marbles into each other or set targets. The official tournament name for this type of marble play is ‘ringers’.
In ‘ringers’, two players arrange 13 ‘ducks’ (scoring marbles) in an X formation in the centre of a ring that is 10 foot in diameter. Then the players will fire their ‘shooter’ marble (think of this like your personal cue ball) into the ducks and scatter them, with each duck that leaves the ring worth one point each. If the player’s shooter remains in the ring they can continue to keep shooting ducks to score more points. If one player’s shooter exits the ring, it is the next player’s turn. Play continues until one person reaches 50 points.
National Marbles Tournaments have existed for decades, with the famous US tournament being held in Wildwood, New Jersey since 1922. In the UK, it has been held in West Sussex every Good Friday since 1932. Legend says that the legacy behind the West Sussex venue traces back to 1588 when two young men played a game of marbles for the hand in marriage of a woman.
Marbles are found across many different cultures and the truth is is that there is no consensus from archaeologists on when the first marble was made or from which region.
Game boards and playing pieces (little white marbles and/or round pebbles) have been found in Egyptian tombs, Middle Eastern graves and Austrian caves to name a few, though these are a little more crude in nature than their contemporary evolution.
The Roman poet, Ovid, describes various ‘nut games’ in his poem ‘The Walnut Tree’, which are very similar to the game of Ringers. A popular theory is that the legacy of marbles owes a lot to the Romans for sharing this form of entertainment across the reaches of their empire.
Marbles can be made out of a number of different materials, although the most common elements in modern usage tend to be agate, plastic, clay or glass.
Hand made marbles required different techniques depending on the material at hand. Stone and ivory marbles were ground into shape, whilst clay and ceramics were rolled into balls and then dried and fired. Glass marbles are made through making glass rods and often contain other melted glass strands that create the swirls and patterns inside of them. Glass marbles tend to the be most aesthetic of all of their brethren, with many art marbles
Mass produced marbles began in the mid 1800’s in Germany, with machine production beginning in the early 1900’s. The technology was based on the invention of Martin Frederick Christensen who first patented a machine that made steel ball bearings. Using a similar concept, he was able to pioneer a system that allowed for molten glass and coloured pots to drip downwards over wheels and be cut off at the correct points. Using this process, approximately ten thousand marbles could be produced in a ten hour day.
An artisan of the hand-made marbling community; legendary artist Josh Simpson is responsible for one of the more amazing creative projects in recent memory. Crafting one of a kind pieces for over 40 years, Simpson is glassblower of immense talent, and he refers to his marbles as ‘planets’ too.
Simpson started an amazing initiative known as the Infinity Project in 1976, making this year the 40th year he has continued this project.
Soliciting applications from across the world; Josh has created over 3000 3000 Infinity Project planets, gifting them to people that have place them across Earth in all manner of places; mundane historic, inaccessible, dangerous and the sublime.
Josh gives two planets to a successful applicant, one to leave behind and one to keep. The genesis of his idea came when he had discovered five handmade glass marbles in an old garden bed outside his kitchen door. Simpson tells of how they were just as bright and vibrant as they’d been when they were left there, perhaps by children a generation earlier.
Simpson’s motivations are one of slight mischief. He recounts a story about peculiar glass goblets (tiny — the size of a thumb) that were found in Ancient sites in the Middle East, baffling scientists and archaeologists for decades. Theories included that of cosmetic use, religious or perhaps even tiny oil lamps, but it was only in the late 1970’s that a scientist went over Aghanistan by chance and witnessed a glassblower making these objects in an ancient furnace. It turns out that these tiny chalices were created to use water and seed for caged birds. The original guesses weren’t even close.
Josh hopes that one day, centuries later, a person will stumble across his planets and wonder what these oddities are — and who left them behind.
Maybe you have a few marbles lying around in a dusty cupboard somewhere in your house. Take some time and look at them. See how they capture light and reflect it with quiet, unassuming beauty.
Curio is published weekly on Mondays *usually*. Words and Illustration by Robert Lee