When Students Learned and Marbles Were Winners


This is the time of year that tries men's souls.

Every June at graduation time, I try to come up with a better explanation for the academic woes of my students. They weren't trained adequately in the three Rs in elementary school; their math and science education went to pot in high school; they watched too much TV -- and so on.

Well, now I'm certain I've hit upon the reason for their intellectual travail. It's marbles.

That's right, marbles -- or the lack thereof. This may not soun like big news to most Americans over 50, but this economic rite-of-passage isn't what it used to be. Out of a recent college class of 45 students that I taught, only seven had played marbles as a kid. Marbles, you see, is in a deep recession.

But in the old days, everyone who was anyone played marbles The first form of rolling stones, marbles goes back to antiquity. Plato played marbles, and before him Socrates. Every president of the United States played marbles. The same holds true for the great business barons of the late nineteenth century. Before Frank Sinatra uttered his first do-be-do-be-do, he played marbles in Hoboken.

The object of the game is to make capital by hitting the mos marbles out of a ring with a shooter. Once a marble is knocked out, the contestant keeps shooting. However, if the shooter goes out of the ring or a marble doesn't make it outside, another contestant gets a try.

But there are strict rules that over the years inculcated a sense of economic discipline in players: smoothing (cleaning up the ground in front of the shooter) is not allowed, nor are histing and hunching. The former relates to a player raising his hand from the ground when shooting, the latter to moving the hand forward.

Kids used to learn microeconomics from marbles. They grew t appraise the different investments in Immies, Moonstones, Marines, Rainbows, and Cat Eyes, to name but a few. They gained the techniques for speculating through lofting, that is, shooting the marble in the air to hit a target.

During summer months when the game was played from daw to dusk, evenings were reserved for trading, although some kids made deals, a form of insider trading, during the game. In that way losers in the daily games could end up winners at night, by learning the strategy of holding back the glamour stock and unloading at the right time.

Marbles taught millions of youngsters to keep in shape, for ther were only two forms of shooting, cunny-thumb and knuckles down.

Cunny-thumb meant that the marble rested on the cuticle of the thumb in shooting; knuckles-down would find the marble placed on the knuckle of the thumb with the forefinger as the pivot. Well, cunny-thumbers suffered from real sore cuticles. And in the days before wonder medicines, one learned to tough it out, perhaps by soaking in a little Epsom salts and shooting knuckles-down for a few days.

Because one had to hunker down to play marbles, the gam built up muscles in the legs, tummy and back. A player couldn't let the knees touch the ground. For two reasons, one a matter of protocol, the other practical. First, a knee-stance was viewed as a cheap shot; second, the tactic would more than likely grind in a ton of dirt, bringing forth the wrath of mothers.

Marbles also had a way of building character. There wer winning days and losing ones. And it was hard for the first-time loser to hang up the marble bag at the end of a long day. Or to taken by a hustler (Steubenville Skinnies, as they were dubbed in the Ohio Valley). Or to contend with the family dog that delighted in swallowing the marbles -- one of the worst adversities.

But one learned from the experience to take care of assets or attempt to recoup losses the next day in the back yard.

Unfortunately, there are only five marble factories in the Unite States today, four in West Virginia and Ohio, and one in Ottawa, Illinois. And marble tournaments in big cities are rare, with smaller towns contributing most of the good rollers at the National Championship.

Few Americans recall the history of the first national tournament in 1922, when Bud McQuade's shooter broke one marble in half, causing officials to rule that that ole Bud had to hit the halves out of the ring. Like a real champ, he did, and won the top prize.

Even harder to find is the born-again marble advocate, one wh takes the time to to preach the fine points of the game to 10-year-olds (believed to be prime cunny-thumb material).

And the nation may be losing more than its marbles by this sa trend.

Thomas V. DiBacco is a historian at the American University in Washington.

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