Losing Your Marbles—The Old-Fashioned Way
originally published June 2008 in Georgia Mountain Laurel
"I couldn't impress upon you how serious boys were about marbles, and how much they loved to play." —Bill Henry
The size of a player's collection was a pretty good indication of
the player's skills—so it's no surprise Bill Henry had a basket
full of marbles on hand when Foxfire students came around.
The earliest marble games were played with marbles made of fired clay—not always perfectly round, hard to tell apart, and easily broken. Glass marbles, for obvious reasons, were preferable. Glass marbles replaced clay very quickly, so that most of the descriptions we heard specified glass marbles.
"Law', yeah! We played marbles—not much going to school, but on the way home, 'cause there wasn't any buses. We walked home. We'd just shoot marbles coming home, you know. I reckon every house where there were children had 'em a little ol' course laid out..." —Fred Kelly
As everyone made clear, marbles was played "for keeps," so the size of a player's collection was a pretty good indication of the player's skills.
"You were never without your marbles. We just carried them around in our pockets. A few of the little dudes had little leather sacks that they'd carry theirs in, but most of the boys just carried them in their overall pockets. They'd have a sling shot around their neck and one hip pocket full of gravel for ammunition for the sling shot, you know, and marbles in the other." —Bill Henry
The variation of marbles called "Bull Ring" begins with the players depositing
marbles in the center of a large circle drawn on the ground. Each player begins
his turn outside of the circle, and flips his "taw" (shooter) into the ring, trying to
knock other marbles out of the ring. Bull Ring is played "for keeps—meaning
every player gets to keep each marble he knocks outside of the ring.
There is a feature of "for keeps" that adds a dimension that might be overlooked: the aesthetics of the marbles. Every interview revealed an appreciation of the beauty of marbles, and evidently the players tried to win unmarred, pretty marbles for their collection.
"You wouldn't pick up one that was chipped and somebody wouldn't try to beat you out of yours if it had a little fleck out—a little chip on it, you know." —Ray Hicks
Most players had a favorite shooting marble, usually a larger marble, referred to as a "taw." Some players used steel ball bearings as taws, especially in tournaments. Bill Henry, first runner-up in the 1946 Oak Ridge city marbles championship, provided instructions for one of the predominant variations of marbles, called "Bull Ring."
We'd draw a big ring, called a Bull Ring. There was nothing critical about the size, probably about eight feet in diameter. We decided how much we were going to play for and everybody put that number [of marbles] in. The total number would go up to fifty, something like that. They're all up for grabs now—it doesn't make any difference whose marbles they were.
Then we'd "lag." You draw a line out there and we'd roll or flip our marbles to the line. The one that got closer to it would go first. "Laggin' for the line." It was kinda like pitching pennies, you know.
"And you would have calluses—marble calluses right along
the first knuckle of your thumb."
The man that won the lag would shoot. He'd shoot with his taw, usually a steel bearing, 'cause it was heavier and would knock more out. I can remember spending weekends trying to find an old rear end of an old car and trying to crack them things [bearings] out of there.
If you shot your taw in and you knocked a marble out of the ring—and your taw stayed in the ring—you kept shooting. Every marble you shot out that way, you kept. Once you shot your taw inside the ring, then you shot again from inside the ring until your turn was over.
Your turn would continue until you failed to knock a marble out, or if you touched one [a marble in the ring], or if your taw went outside the ring. Then it was the next person's turn.
You played until all the marbles were knocked out, or until the bell would ring [recess was over].
"But, like I say, marbles were just big, real big. Nothing I ever did in my life when I was a kid was quite as exciting as playing marbles. It's kinda sad we've gotten too affluent over the last couple of generations. It's sad that games like that die out. It'd take something for a game like marbles to be popular again: Pac-Man would have to die, I guess." —Bill Henry