Playing for keeps: Collecting vintage marbles

Those growing up in the mid-1900s probably recall springs when marble bags came out of hibernation. “Knuckling down” wasn’t getting busy with homework, but getting your knuckles on the ground, ready to shoot.

Since “mib” is Latin for marble, a youngster playing marbles was a “mibster.” By the mid-1960s, the game had lost much of its appeal, likely due to the television. But if the turnout at marble shows is any indication, many adults continue to be mibsters today. Only the game they play has changed.

In 1964, 5-year-old Brian Estepp found a box of his aunt’s marbles during a game of hide-and-seek. She hadn’t lost her marbles, she was just storing them as reminders of being her high school’s champion marble shooter. Estepp went home that day with approximately 3,000 marbles. That gift started his marble fascination. After college, he began researching and trading up. Estepp recommends new collectors do the same. Buy what excites you and is affordable. When something comes along that’s higher end, sell or trade in order to purchase it.

As Estepp’s collection grew, he began specializing. For him, how many marbles you own isn’t as important as what kind you own. Online purchasing holds no interest for this enthusiast … and never will. Most of the marbles he buys are from collections being sold off. Word about serious collectors spreads quickly, so leaving a business card with respected dealers/collectors is a good idea. Some of his more than 1,000 marbles and boxed sets are photographed in Paul Baumann’s Collecting Antique Marbles and Everett Grist’s Big Book of Marbles.

Marble sizes range from 1/2 inch to 3 inches, with 5/8 inch being standard. Within the footprints of supply and demand, Estepp says, “The larger the marbles, the higher their prices. The more colors within a marble, the more it will bring. Age doesn’t always increase value, it depends upon what kind of marble it is.”

In her book Aggies, Immies, Shooters, and Swirls, the Magical World of Marbles, Marilyn Barrett wrote, “Hold a marble in your hand and you hold a piece of history … The allure of marbles is timeless and universal, spanning culture, generation, language and class.”

The earliest marbles were clay balls. Barrett wrote of those discovered in Egyptian pyramid tombs and of five found with a child’s cremated remains in a 200-300 AD Indian mound. The latter are now in the Ohio Historical Society’s collection.

It was the 17th-century German invention of water-powered mills that ushered in marbles made of stones. Alabaster, marble and semi-precious stones such as carnelian, tiger’s-eye, agate and bloodstones were ground into marbles.

Marbles made of agate became so popular during the last half of the 1800s that in America, all those made of stone became known as aggies; in Germany, they were called clickers. Even those made of semi-precious stones are aggies. It was during this time that America began competing with Germany in marble production. Since there’s no way to determine if aggies are antique or machine-made, all tend to be valued in the same ballpark.

Clay marbles are also called commies, because they were so common. Barrett wrote of one Ohio factory producing commies at the rate of 100,000 per day by 1840. Antique clays/commies continue to be both common and affordable. German-made and American ones cannot be told apart. Grist wrote, “They were like two pennies being carried in separate pockets. Once you took them out and laid them side by side, you couldn’t distinguish one from the other.”

Stoneware marbles are nicknamed Benningtons because most are brown spheres wearing the same blue glaze as Vermont’s 19th-century Bennington pottery and were produced by a similar method … only in Germany, not Vermont. To be considered Benningtons, these marbles must have “eyes” where the wet marbles touched each other during firing. Grist lists a 5/8-inch Bennington for $2, and a 1 3/4-inch for $50.

In the early 1800s, some German factories, specializing in china and porcelain, began making china marbles. When these kiln-fired marbles cooled, they were hand-painted, usually with flowers, leaves, stars and geometric designs, then re-fired. By the mid-1800s, chinas were being made in America. According to Grist, in 1886, clay marbles sold at 90 cents per 1,000 while porcelains went for 20 cents for 100. They remain pricey today, especially rare flowers.

Although glass marbles were being made earlier in the 19th century, it wasn’t until marble scissors were invented in 1846 that it was possible to produce them in large quantities. These scissors cut glass rods into marble-sized pieces. The slightly hardened segments rotated in a wooden barrel to become rounded before heading into an annealing oven for cooling, 10-20 marbles at a time. Pontils were formed where the glass was cut, two per marble. Those marks show the spheres were handmade.

Handmade swirls or spirals created by twisting multi-colored rods, required exceptional glass-making skill. The majority of older marbles are swirls and are highly valued by collectors. Originally selling for pennies, some 5/8-inch ones in Grist’s book are valued near $100, yet many larger ones are into the thousands.

Onionskins are marbles made when a clear glass core was covered with a thin layer of opaque color, then a thin layer of clear… repeated layering of glass like an onion’s layering. Accent speckles were created by rolling the heated piece over crushed glass. Onionskins are prized by many collectors, including Estepp. One of his 1 3/4-inch tri-colored onionskins pictured in Grist’s book is valued at $1,200. Mica flakes adds value, as shown with Estepp’s
1 3/4-inch having lots of mica but few swirls, $2,500.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, glassmakers sometimes used leftover glass at the end of the day to make individual marbles that were taken home. They were layered like onionskins, but had only one pontil mark, where the solitary marble was cut off its gathering rod. No two end-of-the-days were alike. Among examples in Grist’s book is a 1 3/4-inch from Estepp’s collection, valued at $2,750, and a 1 7/8-inch with mica, $4,000.

Sulphides have white to silvery figures of birds, animals, human figures or numbers suspended in the center of clear, glass spheres. Figures are molded or carved from sulphide salts; their silvery appearance due to trapped air between the figure and glass. This process took two glassmakers, one to gather the glass and one to insert the molded figure. Before buying sulphides, do your homework. Grist’s book is an excellent resource as it lists all sulphide figures known to date.

James Leighton’s 1896 invention of a mold on a pair of tongs was the first step towards machine-made marbles. These imitation stone slags of glass are called transitions, coming between handmade and machine made. They had one pontil, most of which was ground or melted down. Within a few years, marbles were being made entirely by machine with Martin Frederick Christensen’s invention for creating balls from glass.

These machine-made marbles that many of us associate with childhood were mostly produced by M.F. Christensen and Son; Akro Agate Co.; Peltier Glass Co.y; Christensen Agate Co.; Ravenswood Novelty Co.; and Marble King. Grist wrote that machine-made marbles fall into two categories – early (1900-1925) and automatic man-made (1925-present).

Marble production reached its peak in the late 1920s-1930s. Competition between American companies meant cheap marbles … and lots of them. According to Barrett, “Ten thousand marbles could be made in a 10-hour day.” This period is referred to as the Golden Age of Marbles. Berry Pink, the “Marble King,” promoted the game (and his marble company) during the Great Depression by sponsoring tournaments and giving away thousands of marbles.

Most of these marbles aren’t easily distinguished from one another. According to Barrett, “Only 2 1/2 percent of all machine-made marbles are sought after by serious collectors.”

American dominance in marble production was brought to a halt in the 1950s by cat’s-eye marbles from Japan. Children considered them must-haves, driving many American companies out of business.

While marble playing is generally thought of as a boy’s game, Estepp’s aunt would have assured you differently. Some companies marketed to girls with special colors such as Oriental green and Persian turquoise. Grist wrote of a highly sought after lavender opaque, which was only produced for two days in 1917. Estepp belongs to the Buckeye Marble Collectors Club and says 30-40 percent of their 600 members are women.

Peppermints, ribbons, gooseberries, toothpastes, turtles, glimmers, bloods, bird’s eggs, clouds, lemonades, comics, bumblebees, jennys, cub scouts, fluorescents, micas, corkscrews … a mere start in listing the numerous marble nicknames. Until they catch on to the special language of marble enthusiasts, beginning collectors might relate to a Charles Schulz cartoon where Charlie Brown’s playmate, when asked what kind of marbles he had, replied, “Round ones.

Today landscapers and builders often discover these colorful round remnants from days when children knuckled down around those hastily drawn circles of their youth.

Brian Estepp’s advice for beginners:

“Research and read,” suggests marble collector Brian Estepp. “But the best thing to do is go where you can see marbles and ask questions of those who are outstanding in the field of marble collecting.”

One of the best places to begin would be your regional marble club. These clubs promote the hobby of marble collecting. Annual marble shows are held where you can meet reputable dealers, plus have an opportunity to see outstanding exhibitions.

Estepp’s club is the Buckeye Marble Collector’s Club, Their next show is in Worthington, Ohio, July 31-Aug. 2, 2008. Participants are urged to come earlier in the week if possible. For information, call 614-975-1203. Estepp reports there will be about 40 reputable dealers and exhibitors attending.

Visit the American Toy Museum in Akron, Ohio. The museum’s mission is to “preserve, display, interpret and disseminate the history of the American toy industry as it developed in Akron, Ohio.” For those of you unable to go to the museum, its Web site, contains a wealth of information.


Animal figures are the most common, with domestic animals more common than wild ones. Rarest figures are inanimate objects like trains. Next rarest are religious figures and people. Marbles containing more than one figure bring more than those with just one. The rarest sulphides are the colored marbles containing more than one figure.
Examples of sulphides from Everett Grist’s Big Book of Marbles:
All marbles listed below are 1 3/4-inch in size.
Child and dog: $1,000
Rabbit: $250
Cherub: $1,000
Peacock, blue and white bird with black wings, green grass: $8,000.
Numeral 2: $400.
Blue-colored marble with 2 doves: $5,000.
Green-colored marble with child: $4,000.
Cross: $650.
Dog with bird: $1,100.
Clown: $1,000.


Aggies, Immies, Shooters, and Swirls, The Magical World of Marbles by Marilyn Barrett
Big Book of Marbles, third edition, by Everett Grist
Collecting Antique Marbles, by Paul Baumann
Collecting Early Machine-made Marbles, by Robert S. Block
Glass A to Z, by David J. Shotwell
M.F. Christensen and the Perfect Glass Ball Machine, by Michael C. Cohill

Marbles by the bag

But is that bag old or new? According to Mark Chervenka’s Guide to Fakes and Reproductions, knowing the difference between old and new plastic bags and headers will help you catch most fakes. In the 1940s, the majority of marble bags were made of mesh; clear plastic wasn’t used until the early 1950s. Look at the seams of the plastic ones. The old have wide vertical seams up the center of the bag; new ones have narrow seams. Fake headers, printed to look old, often advertise products that didn’t exist during earlier periods.