Beautifully crafted glass is one category of collecting that appeals to a wide range
of people because of its illustrious history and extensive range of designs and applications. Too vast to cover in one article,
so let’s start with one of the most affordable glass creations to collect: marbles.
Of all the art glass to come out of the 17th century, marbles have to be one of the most colourful. In a time when the art
of glassmaking was undergoing a shift in creativity and craftsmanship, glass marbles became ever more popular and collectible:
a prize item to be won in a game of marbles.
Originally, a collection of marbles was more of an organic nature and made from stone, pebbles, clay, wood, and nuts. Anything
that met the size requirements and was uniformly spherical satisfied the collector of marbles.
The Game of Marbles
It is believed that the game of marbles was first played in 270-330, from a Roman frieze depicting a game in play among
children of the time. Many archeological digs have found examples of marbles dating back as far as the Egyptians and Ancient
The rules of marbles are easy to follow and it’s a game anyone can enjoy anywhere, anytime. It has always been popular with
children who love a fun bit of competition and it’s a chance to develop new skills, like hand-eye coordination. There’s
even a Marbleympics and the famous British and World Marbles Championship has been around since 1588. The history behind
these colourful pieces only adds to their appeal.
Marbles are used in many games, like Chinese Checkers for instance. They come in all sizes from ½ inch to 12 inches (though
these are more intricate designer pieces, too delicate for playing but perfect for displaying). Larger marbles were often
referred to as Allies, and were used to knock your opponent out of the ring.
The Origins of Marbles
The game of marbles that we know today is one that was first played in the 1500s in the Netherlands. They used marble to
create the spherical game pieces, by grinding it down to the perfect size and shape, hence the name. In addition to marble,
craftsmen used semi-precious stones, grinding them down to create the perfect spherical shape and size.
As the popularity of the game started to spread worldwide, the composition of the marbles changed and was somewhat influenced
by regional resources. For example, Germany created their marbles from agate; these were called Aggies. When the ceramics
movement hit Europe in the 1800s, marbles were created from clay and were decorative pieces, beautifully glazed and hand
painted. Larger versions of these beauties were used to play carpet bowls in the wealthy homes of the Victorian age in England.
Not many of these delicate marbles survived the knocks and bumps of the games played over the centuries, but those that
do find their way to auction often fetch a considerable amount of money for their rarity.
German Influence on Glass Marbles
During the 1800s, Germany was making leaps and bounds in the art of glassmaking and glassblowing, and already had a reputation
for making high quality glass toys for children, particularly in the region of Thuringia. In 1846, with the invention of
a scissor device by an artisan called Elias Greiner, long canes of molten glass could be shaped and cut in the perfect size
of a marble. This made producing marbles on a mass scale possible. It also allowed for the layering of different colours
and swirls like the popular Onionskin marbles.
The easiest way to identify marbles from this era is the pontil mark left behind from the scissor technique.
Between the mid-1840s to the mid-1920s, German glass blowers experimented with different designs, inventing innovative techniques
and creating more and more intricate, layered patterns like the famous Latticino Core Swirls. By adding colourful glass
rods to the molten glass, they created marbles with spirals and three-dimensional effects. These intricate spheres became
highly collectible objet d’art and were displays of incredible craftsmanship and imagination.
The rarest of these antique German Core Swirl marbles include four main types:
- Solid core
- Divided core
- Ribbon core
- Complex core
Artisans continued to work with these ideas, adding complex and colourful strands to the core of the marbles and experimenting
with different colour combinations like the much-loved Peppermint Swirls and and very rare opaque glass marbles. Precious
metals like copper were added to the molten glass to give an iridescence as in the Lutz marbles with their coppery sheen,
or the silvery flakes of mica that was added to marbles of the same name.
Marble-Making Moves to Ohio, USA
By the time the industrial revolution was in full development, marbles were being mass produced in factories. The first
of these marbles were created in Akron, Ohio, and were called Transitionals because they required both the craft of glass blowers
and the machine to complete.
In the early 1900s, marble-making machines became very popular in the U.S. and a different generation of marbles was produced.
The Akro Agate Company made some of the most popular marbles in the U.S. called Corkscrews. Using a process of adding several
streams of coloured glass at once to the molten mixture during manufacturing, these marbles took on different swirls or
corkscrews of colour so that no two marbles looked the same.
In 1925, the Christensen Agate company employed a talented glassmaker who had worked at the Cambridge Glassworks company
in Ohio. He was skilled at producing the finest quality glassware for society’s elite. His most recognized method of creating
marbles was using Slags. This is a process whereby a glass base of clear or coloured transparent glass is combined with
swirls of white opaque glass. The high quality of craftsmanship and glasswork in these creations make them some of the most
sought-after marbles in the world today.
The End Of The Art Glass Era Of Marble-Making
Though the game of marbles remained ever more popular during the next century, production moved to Japan after World War
II. The result was mass-produced, cheaply made marbles that lacked the creative ingenuity of earlier designs. Cat’s Eyes
were the marbles most recognized from this 1950 era. They featured one to three ribbons of colour at their core and were
made of inferior quality glass and were much less vibrant. However, that didn’t stop the game of marbles’ popularity, which
continues around the world to this day.
So if you love the idea of owning an antique glass creation from yesteryear but don’t have the bank balance to justify a
purchase, consider collecting some of these beautiful and colourful masterpieces.