1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Marbles

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MARBLES, a children’s game of great antiquity, wide distribution, and uncertain origin, played with small spheres of stone, glass, baked clay or other material, from one-third of an inch to two inches in diameter. The game was once popular with all classes. Tradition, both at Oxford and Cambridge, attests that the game was formerly prohibited among undergraduates on the steps of the Bodleian or the Senate House. There is a similar tradition at Westminster School that the boys were forbidden to play marbles in Westminster Hall on account of the complaints made by members of parliament and lawyers. An anonymous poem of the 17th century speaks of a boy about to leave Eton as

“A dunce at syntax, but a dab at taw.”

Rogers, in The Pleasures of Memory, recalls how

“On yon grey stone that fronts the chancel-door,
Worn smooth by busy feet, now seen no more,
Each eve we shot the marble through the ring.”

Defoe (1720) writes of the seer Duncan Campbell: “Marbles, which he used to call children’s playing at bowls, yielded him mighty diversion; and he was so dexterous an artist at shooting that little alabaster globe from between the end of his forefinger and the knuckle of his thumb, that he seldom missed hitting plumb, as the boys call it, the marble he aimed at, though at the distance of two or three yards.” The locus classicus on marbles in the 19th century is in the trial in Pickwick, where Serjeant Buzfuz pathetically says of Master Bardell that “his ‘alley tors’ and his ‘commoneys’ are alike neglected; he forgets the long familiar cry of ‘knuckle down,’ and at tip-cheese, or odd and even, his hand is out.” Many similar passages might be adduced to prove the former popularity of marbles with the young of all classes. In some rural parts of Sussex Good Friday was known as “marble-day” till late in the 19th century, since on that day both old and young, including many who would never have thought of playing marbles at other times, took part in the game. There was some traditional reason for regarding marbles as a Lenten sport—perhaps, as the Rev. W. D. Parish suggests, “to keep people from more boisterous and mischievous enjoyments.”

The origin of the game is concealed in the mists of antiquity. Marbles used by Egyptian and Roman children before the Christian era are to be seen in the British Museum. Probably some of the small stone spheres found among neolithic remains, which Evans (Ancient Stone Implements, 2nd ed., p. 420) admits to be too small for projectiles, are prehistoric marbles. It is commonly assumed that the game which the youthful Augustus, like other Roman children, played with nuts was a form of marbles, and that the Latin phrase of relinquere nuces, in the sense of putting away childish things, referred to this game. Strutt believed that nuts of the roundest sort were the original “marbles.” The earliest unmistakable reference to marbles in literature seems to be in a French poem of the 12th century, quoted by Littré s.v. Bille.

The marbles with which various games are nowadays played are small spheres of stone, glass or baked clay. In the 18th century they were mostly made from chips of marble (whence the name) or other stone, which were ground into a roughly spherical shape by attrition in a special iron mill. Nuremberg was then the centre of the trade in marbles, though some were made in Derbyshire, and indeed wherever there was a stonemason’s yard to afford raw material. The “alley taw,” as its name indicates, was made of alabaster. In the first decade of the 20th century English marbles were all imported from central Germany, and the alleys, or most valuable marbles, used for shooting, were mostly made of coloured glass, sold retail from ten a penny to a penny each. Coloured stone marbles and so-called china marbles—really of baked clay—were sold at prices varying from forty to a hundred a penny, though even the cheapest of these were painted by hand with concentric rings. The well-made and highly valued alleys of earlier times were no longer procurable, owing to the decline in popularity of the sport. In the United States, however, much more expensive and accurately rounded marbles were still manufactured, the latest being of hollow steel.

There has never been any recognized authority on the game of marbles, and it is probable that, in the past as in the present, every parish and school and set of boys made its own rules. There are, however, three or four distinct games which are traditional, and may be found, with trifling variations, wherever the game is played. Strutt, writing at the end of the 18th century, describes these as follows: (1) “Taw, wherein a number of boys put each of them one or two marbles in a ring and shoot at them alternately with other marbles, and he who obtains the most of them by beating them out of the ring is the conqueror.” The marbles placed in the ring—whence the game is often known as “ring-taw”—are usually of the cheaper kind known as “commoneys,” “stoneys” or “potteys,” and the marble with which the player shoots is a more valuable one, known as an “alley,” or “alley taw,” sometimes spelt “tor,” as by Dickens. Usually it is necessary that the alley should emerge from the ring as well as drive out another marble; under other rules the ring is smaller, not more than a foot in diameter, and the player must be skilful enough to leave his alley inside it, whilst driving the object marble outside. (2) “Nine holes: which consists in bowling of marbles at a wooden bridge with nine arches.” Each arch bears a number, and the owner of the bridge pays that number of marbles to the player who shoots through it, making his profit from the missing marbles, which he confiscates; or the game may simply be played so many up—usually 100. (3) “There is also another game of marbles where four, five or six holes, and sometimes more, are made in the ground at a distance from each other; and the business of every one of the players is to bowl a marble by a regular succession into all the holes, which he who completes in the fewest bowls obtains the victory.” This primitive form of golf is played by Zulu adults with great enthusiasm, and is still popular among the car-drivers of Belfast. (4) “Boss out, or boss and span, also called hit and span, wherein one bowls a marble to any distance that he pleases, which serves as a mark for his antagonist to bowl at, whose business it is to hit the marble first bowled, or lay his own near enough to it for him to span the space between them and touch both marbles; in either case he wins, if not, his marble remains where it lay and becomes a mark for the first player, and so alternately until the game be won.” In rural parts of England this was known as a “going-to-school game,” because it helped the players along the road.

Mr F. W. Hackwood states that, in the middle of the 19th century, taverns in the Black Country had regular marble alleys, consisting of a cement bed 20 ft. long by 12 ft. wide and 18 in. from the ground, with a raised wooden rim to prevent the marbles from running off. Players knelt down to shoot, and had to “knuckle down” fairly—i.e. to place the knuckle of the shooting hand on the ground, so that the flip of the thumb was not aided by a jerk of the wrist. The game was usually ring-taw. But marbles is now obsolete in England as a game for adults (Old English Sports, London, 1907).

A writer in Notes and Queries (IX. ii. 314) thus describes the marbles used by English boys in the middle of the 19th century: “In ring-taw the player put only commoneys in the ring, and shot with the taws, which included stoneys, alleys and blood-alleys. Commoneys were unglazed; potteys glazed in the kiln. Stoneys were made from common pebbles such as were used for road-mending; alleys and blood-alleys out of marble. The blood-alleys were highly prized, and were called by this name because of the spots or streaks of red in them. In Derbyshire, where large numbers were made, they had relative values. The stoney was worth three commoneys or two potteys. An alley was worth six commoneys or four potteys. Blood-alleys were worth more, according to the depth and arrangement of colour—from twelve to fifty commoneys and stoneys in proportion.” “A taw with a history was prized above rubies,” another correspondent observes (IX. ii. 76). “All the best-made marbles were taws, and no commoneys or potteys were used for shooting with, either in ring-taw or the various hole-games.” In Belfast, 1854–1858, the marble season extended from Easter to June, when the ground was usually dry and hard. The marbles were stoneys, of composition painted; crockeries, of slightly glazed stone-ware, dark brown and yellow; clayeys, of red brick clay baked in the fire; marbles, of white marble; china alleys, with white glaze and painted rings; and glass marbles. The two chief games were ring-taw and hole and taw; in the latter three holes were made in a line, 6 ft. to 12 ft. apart, and the player had to go three times up and down according to somewhat elaborate rules (Notes and Queries, IX. iii. 65). The stoneys and crockeries were sold at twenty a penny; the clayeys were cheaper and were not used as stakes; the marbles proper and china alleys, used as taws for shooting, cost a halfpenny and a farthing respectively. In other parts of the country the phraseology of marbles affords some interesting problems for the philologist. We hear of “alleys, barios, poppos and stoneys”; of “marididdles,” home-made marbles of rolled and baked clay; in Scotland of “bools, whinnies, glassies, jauries”; of “Dutch alleys,” and so forth. “Dubs, trebs and fobs,” stand for twos, threes and fours. To be “mucked” is to lose all one’s “mivvies” or marbles. When the taw stayed in the ring it was a “chuck.” “Phobbo slips” was a phrase used to forbid the correction of an error.

The fullest account of the various games of marbles played by English children is to be found in Mrs Gomme’s Traditional Games of England, Scotland and Ireland (London, 1898), under the headings Boss-out, Bridgeboard, Bun-hole, Cob, Ho-go, Holy Bang, Hundreds, Lag, Long-Tawl, Marbles, Nine-Holes, Ring-taw, Three-Holes. Other games are known as Plum-pudding, or Picking the Plums, in which one shoots at marbles in a row; Pyramids, in which the marbles are arranged in a pyramid; Bounce About, Bounce Eye, Conqueror, Die Shot, Fortifications, Handers, Increase Pound, Knock Out, Rising Taw, Spanners, Tip-shears; Strutt’s Sports and Pastimes, ed. J. C. Cox (London, 1902). Much information will also be found in Notes and Queries, passim—especially the 9th series. For marbles in France see Larousse, s.v. Billes. See also Solitaire.  (W. E. G. F.)