“Basically, in all cultures, marbles games fall generally into three categories: chase games in which two or more players alternately shoot at each other along a makeshift meandering course; enclosure games in which marbles are shot at other marbles contained within a marked-off area; and hole games in which marbles are shot or bowled into a successive series of holes.” Fred Garrett, The Great American Marble Book
At the opposite extreme from golf, a game in which you smack a small ball a long distance on a vast landscape, is marbles, a game which uses small glass (originally wooden) balls in the confines of a bounded playground, dirt lot, or small room. In my early childhood (1950s) older boys still played marbles outdoors in playground settings or on sidewalks. But by 1960 public marble games were very, very rare. However, within the confines of my room, between the ages of 7 and 13 (1957-1963), I played marbles indoors for hours.
One great things about marbles is that you could get a lot of them. Even kids could afford them. After several years of collecting marbles or receiving them as gifts, I had several hundred. They were colorful, pleasant, even beautiful to look at (I especially enjoyed translucent marbles that I could hold up to the light), they made a great sound when knocked against each other, and each marble had its own special qualities. At the peak of our marble playing and collecting (my brother and I were mainly in this together), we had an entire community of marbles, each distinctive for its size, color, speed, condition, and overall attractiveness. There were some nondescript marbles. But some marbles had remarkable characteristics, even an identity, and that identity emerged or evolved as the marble was more or less successful in play. As it grew in stature, it revealed an unfolding narrative.
We had one steel marble, undoubtedly a renegade marble from some other game, appropriately named “Steely” whose speed and slickness presented a streamlined efficiency as captain of your marble team. There was “Whitey,” just a plain ordinary sized solid white glass marble. You saved Whitey for clutch moments as he always seemed to succeed. Grandpappy was an oversized catseye with a white spiral in a clear glass. You didn’t want to overuse him because of his age, but you could always count on him to capture several marbles. We had four other oversized catseyes whose sheer size made them formidable. How could I forget “Peewee,” an undersized marble with super speed and finesse!
We played several kinds of home grown marble games. Some involved only a few marbles with games that emphasized accuracy and capture. There was a game which required you to roll your marble as close to a wall as possible. We loved using marbles along with our building blocks, setting up mazes, ramps, and tunnels, and all sorts of contraptions, similar to the ball castles we liked to build on the beach. There were games that involved shooting marbles around the house, trying to get from one room to another with the fewest rolls, taking into account different floor surfaces and spatial arrangements. Block baseball used marbles and we invented marble football and ice hockey.
The game that we played most often was a shoot and capture game of our own invention. It was best scaled to my brother Peter’s room as there was a good carpet for marbles, it had smallish dimensions, and I seeded the floor by randomly tossing out ten marbles. Each player would choose fifteen marbles to shoot at the others. If you struck one or more you would retrieve them all and they would become part of your stock. If you missed, the marble remained on the field. The game ended when all of the marbles were captured. When you shot “Grandpappy” you took on the persona of an old man who still had strength and power, all saved for one great shot. You would talk like him, truly becoming “one with the marble.” Peter loved Grandpappy and would always choose him in our pre-game draft. I would choose the bulky oversized marbles as I wanted their capturing bulk. My brother went for speed and personality.
I also had favorite marbles, although I valued them less for their “athletic prowess” and more for their astonishing beauty and mystery. Marbles taught me the concepts transparent, translucent, and opaque. I took great delight from admiring a colorful translucent marble that I could hold up to the light and then bring close to my eye, peering into a world that became incredibly near, that I could hold in my hand, but could never quite enter. Still, I could imagine myself inside the marble, bathed in its mysterious light, knowing I couldn’t fully enter its magnificent translucency. I had one marble that reminded me of pictures I had seen of Jupiter in my treasured book, The Golden Guide to the Stars. I had others that looked like Uranus and Neptune. How could it be, I wondered, that a marble and a planet could look so much alike, could have so much in common, be so close to me, and yet so distant and unknowable? How I adored the correspondence between Neptune and my translucent marble, depicting a world outside myself that I could only enter through imagination and wonder. I had marbles that resembled the ocean surface and some that looked like the desert. Many years later when looking at a translucent green ocean I would remark to my kids that the ocean reminded me of a marble that I had as a child, repeating that idea so often that it became a family joke and cliche. As a young child, it was easy to move from marble to planet to ocean and then back again. These were the marbles that I held most dear and I still own some of them today, residing in a glass jar containing marbles of memory.
We stopped playing marbles some time in early adolescence. It was surely no longer cool and it seemed tedious and awkward to be crawling around on the floor. We literally outgrew the marbles and they were no longer the right scale for our play. When my kids were small we tried rolling marbles on the floor but it didn’t work as well for them, perhaps because I was too cautious with some of marbles that contained my cherished memories, as if a fracture or chip would somehow diminish the very best moments of my own childhood. Or perhaps because there were now new toys, invented by my contemporaries, that involved infrastructures specifically designed for use with marbles, plastic conglomerations way beyond the capacity of wooden blocks. My kids had remarkable marble towers and chutes and they loved playing with them. These were toys with ingenious architectures, designed for racing marbles down winding paths.
I took my most cherished marbles, put them away in a glass jar, and gave the rest to the kids. I don’t know whether their marbles had the same magic as mine, or spun similar narratives. I never bothered to ask them. However, I know that my children (like countless others) were best left on their own to discover unique ways to play with their toys. I know they invented complex stories and characters, and learned similar lessons of scale and pattern, although not necessarily with marbles.
As I write this I’m sitting on the floor of our living room, my back propped against the low platform that holds the wood stove. There’s a tightly woven wool rug covering the floor. Its perfect for playing marbles. There’s an 8x8 area, bounded by couches and walls. With just a few modifications it could be a perfect marbles playing field. I’ve retrieved my childhood marbles and carefully spilled them onto the floor. They lie huddled in a nine inch diameter circle. There are exactly one hundred and fifty marbles. I took the time to count them, holding each one in my hand, reconnecting with the cumulative narratives. Yes, Grandpappy is here! He hasn’t aged a bit. The red, oversized catseye is here too! I don’t see Peewee or Whitey. Peewee was so small that he probably got lost. Whitey was just too generic and probably got swept up by some other game.
There are marbles here that I received as gifts. There’s a batch of lovely nineteenth century ceramic marbles. There are several oversize marbles, laced with interesting spiral patterns, designed so that if you roll them they take you on a whirring, spiraling journey. There’s a marble designed in the shape of a small globe with a map of the world imprinted on it. It’s a planet marble. You can roll the earth around in the living room! Yet as much as I admire these newer marbles, they just don’t move me as much as the ones that I used to play with. By playing with the marbles I entered their world, or at lest projected my identity onto marble play narratives. They were my extension, a means not just for exploring stories of childhood and early adolescence, but they provided me with a visceral understanding of space and time.
I notice the marbles that were my planets—Jupiter, Saturn, and Uranus. Sitting elegantly in the midst of this lovely pile that now resembles so many things—a coagulation of planets, a multicellular organism, a weave of color and pattern. And there’s the green marble planet Neptune, at once a planet, and then the color of a swirling ocean on a cloudy day, that emerald silver-green you notice under the waves just as they crash to shore. I hold the marble up again and travel backward in time, back to childhood, and then outward in space to Neptune, and back to New England across the hills and valleys to the rocky shore of Maine to the timeless Atlantic as I once viewed it from Monhegan Island every May. This marble is now a portal to the way our planet might have looked several hundred million years ago when the continents were swirling on a restless ocean. I roll the marble across the room, gently with caution and reverence, and then I put it back with the others, in the marble community where it belongs. I roll the marbles all together, cradling them in my hands, watching their shifting shapes and colors. There are marbles that resemble the sky at dawn, small mountain lakes, city streets. There’s one that even resembles an old friend. I listen to the gentle clack of the marbles knocking together, blending with the wood chimes on my porch, punctuated by the crispy patter of rain falling on the roof. I pick each marble up, examine it, and then place it back in it's resting place until such time, many months or years from now, when I will beg their reacquaintance.