Playing for Keepers

Reader Contribution by Sam Moore
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Sam Moore

Readers may think I’ve “lost my marbles,” but this is about a game that used to be extremely popular with most boys – and some girls – but that’s almost unheard of today.

Just about every boy carried in his pocket a small cloth sack filled with brightly colored round marbles made of glass or clay. At every school recess, a group of kids could be found kneeling around a circle scratched in the dirt with a stick.

The object of the game is for each player to place one or two of his marbles in the center of the circle so the target marbles, or “mibs,” form a cross. Turns are determined somehow, often by seeing who can shoot a marble closest to a line. The players then take turns rolling their favorite “shooter” at the target marbles and trying to knock one or more out of the circle, while their shooter stays inside the line. The shooter holds his shooting marble in the crook of his index finger, with his thumb behind the marble. He kneels or hunkers down and places the hand palm up and knuckles touching the ground, takes careful aim, and flicks the marble with his thumb toward his chosen target.

If the shot is successful, the shooter picks up the knocked out marble and shoots again from wherever his shooting marble stopped inside the ring. If his shooter stops in the ring and he fails to knock out a mib, his shooter stays where it is and becomes fair game for the next shooter. It was a coup to win an opponent’s shooter, as most kids had a favorite that they prized highly.

When all the mibs have been knocked out of the ring, the player with the most marbles is the winner and the marbles are returned to their owners. If, however, the game is “keepers,” or “keepsies,” each marble becomes the property of the player holding it.

Standard marbles are 5/8-inch in diameter, while “shooters” are usually a little larger. Some kids favored steel ball bearings as shooters, as they had the advantage of more weight, but “steelies” are banned from tournament play.

In an 1881 supplement to the Scientific American is the following description of how marbles were made in those days.

Marbles are named from the Latin word “marmor,” by which similar playthings were known to the boys of Rome, 2,000 years ago. Some marbles are made of potter’s clay and baked in an oven just as earthenware is baked, but most of them are made of a hard kind of a stone found in Saxony, Germany. Marbles are manufactured there in great numbers and sent to all parts of the world.

The stone is broken up with a hammer into pieces, which are then ground round in a mill. The mill has a fixed slab of stone, with its surface full of little grooves or furrows. Above this a flat block of oak wood of the same size as the stone is made to turn round rapidly, and, while turning, little streams of water run in the grooves and keep the mill from getting too hot. About 100 square pieces of the stone are put in the grooves at once, and in a few minutes are made round and polished by the wooden block.

China and white marbles are also used to make the round rollers which have delighted the hearts of the boys of all nations for hundreds of years. Marbles thus made are known to the boys as “chinas,” or “alleys.” Real china ones are made of porcelain clay, and baked like chinaware or other pottery. Some of them have a pearly glaze, and some are painted in various colors, which will not rub off, because they are baked in.

Glass marbles are known as “agates.” They are made of both clear and colored glass. The former are made by taking up a little melted glass on the end of an iron rod and making it round by dropping it into a round mould, which shapes it, or by whirling it around the head until the glass is made into a little ball.

Colored glass marbles are made by holding a bunch of (different colored) glass rods in the fire until they melt; then the workmen twist them round into a ball or press them into a mould, so that when done the marble is marked with ribbons of color.–Philadelphia Times.

Not all marbles were commercially made, however. I found the following brief account in the memoirs of Frank Steele, who grew up in my old western Pennsylvania neighborhood and penned his recollections in the 1970s when he was in his seventies. He’s telling about his experiences in a one-room country school.

We used to make all sizes of marbles. We dug the clay across the road from the school and mixed it with water then rolled them round and put them to dry under the stove or out in the sun. In a couple of days we would put them in the stove and burn them until they would be as hard as a rock. Some were two inches in diameter.

Marbles as a game seems to have died out in our electronics-crazed society, but I found an app for the iPhone and iPod called “Play Marbles,” that lets you play the game without getting your knees dirty or your knuckles skinned, so it may stage a comeback.

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