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Back in the day: Shooting marbles brought joy and tears

March 17, 2018 GMT

If you read my column last week, you will recall that it focused on young people playing with toy cowboy and Indian figures. Comments from a number of our readers indicated that they went beyond playing with these toy figures and incorporated other little boy and little girl play activities from the days when many of us were young. Several offered a number of suggestions for future columns. Of the suggestions I received, I became focused on one which I personally engaged in and occasionally observed my sisters and other little girls participating in as well. So, I am certain that many of you recall shooting marbles, back in the day.

I have learned, over the years of writing this column that not everyone can relate to some of my back in the day memories. Thus, explaining my generation’s actions in the past is sometimes a requirement. So, as it relates to today’s column, let me begin with an explanation of the game of marbles; a game that consumed the time of so many little boys. This game of marbles resulted in both some happy little boys going home with lots marbles and others with tears in their eyes and no marbles in their pouch or pockets. If you were like me, you had a net bag full of marbles. There were times when I also had large jars and cookie cans from which I selected the marbles to play a game. When preparing to play marbles, I clearly remember going outside to find a dirt area; a dirt area out in the open or an area against a wall. I understand that some little boys played marbles indoors, on a rug or even on a table. I never recall playing marbles in this manner as my games were always outdoors. If you played marbles, you needed at least one other player but there could as many as six. Six players appeared to be a bit cumbersome for my marble games.

My preference, in playing marbles, was to challenge one other person. It was a must for a player to have marbles and then he had to locate, as a challenger, someone else who had marbles. My main opponent was my first cousin who sent me home in tears, with no marbles, on numerous occasions. On this issue of crying, discussions with a number of friends also revealed stories of others going home in tears after playing a game of marbles. I will pursue this experience a little later. But, for both winners and losers, you recall that once you located a marble opponent, you found the perfect outdoor spot to be designated as the area for the marble game. The same spot was usually selected over and over again. A stick was then located to draw the area for the game. I favored an area in the front of a wall. A circle without a backdrop was not for me. Some boys in my neighborhood lined their marbles and the marbles of their opponent in a letter “T.” My preference was to scatter the marbles, usually nine placed in the designated area by each of the two shooters. Determining who would shoot first could be done in several ways. One way was for each participant to shoot his marbles from a line outside of the circle to see who could get closest to the line inside of the box; the person coming closest went first when the game began. When I played, we used a common practice of the past where each player at the count of five would display one to five fingers. The person who displayed the lowest number of fingers went first.

The question is often asked, “What is the origin of shooting marbles?” An online article by Rob Lammie, posted on Nov. 3, 2015, titled “A Brief History of Marbles (Including All That Marble Slang) points out that no one really knows the history of marbles. His article indicates that marbles have been found in the ashes of Pompeii, in the tombs of ancient Egyptians and were played with by Native American Indian tribes. He further points out that the earliest examples were simply stones that came from a running river and by artisans who made marbles by hand. While there is a deep history of marbles, there is nothing concrete with regard to its origin. There are various rules and names for shooting marbles; more than I can elaborate in this column. In fact, there is no single definition for shooting marbles as many argue that any activity where marbles are used is considered shooting marbles. I suspect that those of you that were avid marble shooters may not be familiar with some, if not most, of the various marble games. Are you familiar with Boss Out also known as Long Tawl, Bridgeboard, Bun-hole, Cherry Pit, Hundreds or Nine Holes? I suspect that the answer is no. However, you are probably familiar with the game or the variation that most of us played; although we did not know it by the name of Ringer. Do you recall picking a shooter which was bigger than all of your other marbles, had a colorful pattern and was your favorite of all of your marbles? Did you have a name for your shooter or favorite marble? Some called their shooting marble Aggie, Boulder, Steele, King and Middleman. Or, perhaps your favorite shooting marble was a cat-eye marble! Some little boy’s favorite shooting marble was black and was called “black beauty.” You may remember that some marbles could not be used as one’s shooter. “Boulers” and “Steelies” were in this category as they would damage other marbles when they were hit. At times, marbles would break in pieces when hit by a Bouler or Steelie. I had other names for my non-shooting marbles. Here I am, some seventy years later still remembering names of some of my past favorites such as “Tommy-troller” and “pee wee”; but I think that every marble player had a pee wee in their collection. While the rules vary for shooting marbles, the manner in which my neighborhood playmates and I played, was very basic and simple, back in the day.

There are other unique details which dictate how the game of marbles is played. When the playing area is in front of a wall or structure, a line would be drawn to indicate the players starting place for the game. This line would be approximately eight feet from the box. While some marble games started with dropping the shooter in the playing area or the shooter kneeling on the edge of the circle or box, my games started from this line. Players would aim their shooter, something we called “eye dotting” in an attempt to hit a marble out of the box. If successful and the shooting marble remained in the box, the player would continue shooting at other marbles. If he knocks another marble out of the box and his shooter continued to remain in the box, the shooter would continue; he would continue shooting until he missed. If the shooter ended up outside of the box even if another marble is knocked out, the other player would begin shooting and continue in an attempt to knock out other marbles. Interestingly, if the shooter’s marble remained in the ring or box and was knocked out by the other shooter at his turn, this shooter would take all of the marbles in the box. Some players created obstacles, such as holes and stones in the shooting area, to distract shooters from hitting other marbles. Games that I have reviewed on shooting marbles or information received from others that engaged in shooting marbles had other variations of how others shot marbles with their friends or opponents. In spite of the idiosyncrasies, one rule applied to all marble shooting games. It was a critical decision that had to be made before the marble shooting began. The players had to decide if they are going to play “for fair” or what my crew called “funnzies” or to play “for keeps.” Playing for fun meant that you did not keep marbles that were knocked out of the box or circle. Playing for keeps resulted in keeping the marbles that one knocked out of the playing area. This is a perfect segue to my earlier comment regarding returning home in tears, with no marbles after playing a game. As suggested earlier, I know that I am not the only one that had such an experience; an experience that I had on numerous occasions. While I loved playing the game, I was not a good marble shooter. The good marble shooters would cradle the marble on their knuckle with their knuckle touching the ground. The release of the marble would be some two inches off of the ground and shot with great velocity. My method of shooting was characterized as “cony thumb,” a technique where the marble would rest on the thumb which was resting directly on the ground along with the top portion of the finger. It was hard to control as well as shooting the marble. So, most of my opponents had little or no difficulty defeating me. In a game of “for keeps,” it is not hard to understand how I regularly lost my marbles and had no alternative but to go home in tears. As I write this line, I am reflecting on the day I went home, after losing all of my marbles, excuse the pun, and my sister was so upset until she located my cousin, the young man that beat me, and made him return my marbles to me. This was such a hurtful experience that my sister forbade me from shooting marbles with my cousin again. Lots of little boys lost their marbles, literally, back in the day. One of my colleagues told me that he never had this type of experience, but he did lose one of his marbles; no, not in a marble game but by putting a marble in his mouth and accidentally swallowing it. He has no idea why and how this happened, but he does remember that he was so afraid until he refused to share this experience with his parents. He never had a problem after swallowing the marble and assumes that it came out of him with the help of “mother nature.”

I cannot recall the last time I saw little boys shooting marbles. However, shooting marbles remains a desired activity among some individuals. This is evident by the National Marble Tournament, where shooting marbles continues to hold great interest. While men from my era may not engage in shooting marbles as they once did, collecting marbles, especially the hand-made ones, is an activity that consumes the attention and interest of many because of the love they developed for marbles. If you wish to check out some of today’s collectible marbles that were simply used for playing the game, go to the Baumann Collection on the Morphy Auctions website. There you will find marbles that many of us played with and had big fun, back in the day.