Playing for “Keepsies”: Marble Play

Night after summer night, my friends and I would gather under the one streetlamp in our small hamlet to shoot marbles, devising our own simple games with the materials at hand. We didn’t know that the game of marbles, in one form or another, has endured for centuries. Even the Romans played marbles. In 1560, painter Pieter Brueghel the Elder depicted children playing marbles in his masterpiece “Children’s Games.” More recently, marbles have served as playing pieces in the misnamed board game Chinese Checkers (invented in Germany in 1892 and based on an earlier American game called Halma) and Aggravation. Marbles have also served as ammunition. Boys with slingshots used them to knock hapless sparrows off their perches. (I should know; I was one of those boys. So was Opie Taylor, if you recall The Andy Griffith Show. And Opie turned out okay.) Scholars have chosen marbles to represent games that effectively facilitate Machiavellian brain-building since marble games provide nearly all of the basic social interactions necessary to promote development of social intelligence and understanding. No wonder marbles hold a place of honor in the National Toy Hall of Fame at The Strong.

Though the game of marbles is ancient and played worldwide, mass-production of marbles themselves (made first from clay) didn’t begin in this country until the 1870s. Glass marbles became available only after the turn of the 20th century. Marbles’ popularity peaked during the first half of the 1900s. The first U. S. National Marbles Tournament was held in 1922 in Wildwood, New Jersey, where it still occurs annually. There, “mibsters” (marble shooters) compete annually for national honors, college scholarships, and numerous prizes and awards, while playing more than 1,200 games over a four-day period. Elsewhere, interest in the game has waned in the decades since the 1950s, partly because other, mostly electronic entertainments have, if you’ll pardon the intended pun, bumped the game aside.

In my boyhood, we usually played marbles only after we had tired of the evening’s earlier amusements: shagging flies, shooting hoops, and flipping baseball cards. We played a game called ringer mostly, each of us in turn trying to knock our buddies’ marbles outside the circle we had drawn in the dirt. As with many children’s games, the rules could be easily changed to fit better with the immediate environment. Another game we played, unnamed to us at the time, was rolly hole (also known as or rabbit hole or poison hole) in which the objective was to shoot the marbles into target holes in the ground. We always played for “keepsies.” The point, after all, was to acquire all of your opponents’ marbles. “Winner keeps, loser weeps!” went the chant. Winners hoarded marbles because there were so many different ones, and because they were such beautiful bounty. Even if you lost your marbles, it sure made a fun way to spend a warm summer night in the middle of nowhere with your friends.