American children have played with marbles since the Civil War era, when most were manufactured in Germany. Around 1910 an American named Martin Christensen, who held the patent on the first machine for making ball bearings, got the domestic marble industry going with another mechanical device, an invention that he said would turn molten glass into “perfectly formed spheres.” After having been handmade of glass or ceramics for millennia, as far back as ancient Israel and the pharaohs’ Egypt, marbles met the machine age, and America became the leading producer.
For the next half-century few adults paid attention to marbles. Then, in the 1970s, a Connecticut businessman named Stanley Block, disappointed by the insignificant assortment on display at the great glass museum in Sandwich, Massachusetts, founded the Marble Collectors Society of America.
Today Block and his son Robert are Most Valuable Players in a large league of marble collectors. Robert Block’s well-illustrated book, Marbles: Identification and Price Guide , quickly conveys the lure of these little orbs. If they’ve managed to avoid the schoolyard of hard knocks, marbles can be lovely indeed.
Some of the most attractive are the vibrantly colored ones made in the late 1920s and very early 1930s. After that, the Depression led companies to cheapen manufacturing, and hues faded. America’s role in the industry diminished when the Japanese moved in after World War II, and Mexico is now the principal supplier.
More than 95 percent of all marbles are worth just a penny or two, and it’s still possible to build a handsome collection with examples that cost less than $10 each. Robert Block, who has an Internet site devoted to marble auctions, reports that more than half go for less than $100 while only a handful in any sale exceed $500. The very best pieces spin into the five-figure bracket.
Marbles fall into a variety of evocatively named design categories. Indians have banded patterns over dark bases, while the milk white backgrounds of clambroths contrast with their colorful ribbonlike strands. Lutz marbles, lit by glittering flakes of goldstone, are named for a nineteenth-century artisan at the Boston & Sandwich Glass Company. There are cat’s-eyes and patches; micas and mists; slags, submarines, sulphides, and swirls.
Bright color is crucial to an old marble’s value, and collectors grade condition by subtracting fractions of a point—and whole dollars—for each chip or flake. Remain on the lookout for reproductions, and beware of repaired marbles. Ironically, glass craftsmen now find it worthwhile to restore damaged machine-made pieces by hand.