The age-old game of marbles

By JAMES W. SPAIN

For the Monitor

Published: 01-27-2021 9:23 AM

Many of our ancestors arrived from overseas with little more than the clothes on their backs and a dream under their hat. The immigrants arrived from across the ocean carrying their worldly possessions in a canvas sack and a scant few items in their pockets.

My very own great grandfather Martin Spain arrived in the north end of Concord in 1850. A victim of the potato famine in Ireland, he left in search of a better life. He traveled aboard a small ship with his brothers Thomas, Michael and James Spain, arriving in Boston harbor before venturing north in search of employment.

Like my own family, many newly arrived men and women sought to settle in Concord and with relief shared their stories with those willing to listen. They spoke of their loss overseas, the families they left behind and fondly of their very own childhoods. My grandfather played his fiddle and taught the youngsters the games he himself played in the old soil of the Ireland of his youth. A favored game that he played in the early 19th century was that of marbles.

Marbles have been around for as long as children have enjoyed them. They are of great antiquity and uncertain origin. A popular game in the United Kingdom, which was played by both the children as well as the adults, was quite captivating. Marbles have been referenced in history dating back to Egypt and Rome and show no social class. Equally enjoyed by royalty and the common people, it was treasured and supported by both the participants and suppliers that manufactured the marbles. A small sphere measuring from two-thirds of an inch to two inches in diameter, marbles were manufactured with glass, baked clay, stone and other materials. The game was played as a tradition at Oxford and Cambridge and in every yard across our nation, too.

In 1720, one popular game of marbles was called bowling when the player would shoot the large marble from between the end of his forefinger and the knuckle of his thumb. The player aimed for the plumb, another marble within a circle. When the player knocked his targeted marble out of the circle, he would claim ownership of his newly acquired prize.

There were as many games as there were styles of marbles over the centuries. Some of the old games from Ireland were called ring taw, strutt, and just taw. The marbles in varying sizes also attracted names such as commoneys, stoneys, potteys and the large coveted alley or popeye.

Two centuries ago, many of the marbles destined for Ireland, Scotland and England were manufactured in Germany. Many were made of colorful glass, stone or clay. The clay marbles were called China marbles and known to be more affordable. The colorful glass marbles manufactured in Germany cost one cent for ten marbles.

There were places both overseas and in the United States in the mid-19th century where marble games were played by very dedicated people on structured teams. Some taverns featured alleys consisting of a cement bed 20 feet long by 12 feet wide, elevated about 18 inches above the ground. A raised wooden rim prevented the marbles from running off the playing surface. The players knelt down to shoot, where they would knuckle down with the shooting hand on the ground. Many an affordable clay marble left Concord in the pockets of the Civil War soldiers departing from the Concord train depot destined for war.

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On a warm summer day, my grandfather could be found under the shade of a large Concord oak tree where he gathered with his friends. His objective was simple, to return home at the end of the day with more marbles than he had left with that morning. A simple game that entertained children for over a thousand years, from Egypt to Concord, captivating children generation after generation.

Sometimes life’s simple pleasures are the best.

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