A little trivia question for all you 20th-century memorabilia buffs out there: What do Superman, Spider Man and Green Hornet have in common with Girl Scouts, Cub Scouts and zebras?
The answer is they are all collector names for the brightly colored, machine-made glass marbles that were produced in America during the 20th century.
In days gone by, spring was the season for marbles. As soon as the school yard thawed enough for kids to form a "potsy" in the dirt with the heels of their shoes, recess competition began. Many of us remember with great fondness toting our marble bags to and from school, and the excitement of feeling that bag grow heavier as the days grew longer.
Barry Bonnevie, my brother-in-law, remembers his days at Livermore Falls Elementary School in the 1960s, when kids would line up all along the playground in recess competitions where marbles were won and lost, traded and bargained for.
"You didn't want to lose your shooter," he said. "A shooter was worth about 10 regular marbles. If you lost your shooter, you would have to either trade marbles to get it back or come up with a nickel to go to Wilson's Five and Dime to buy another."
These days, Bonnevie's grandsons, Ethan and Evan Pelletier, are learning to play the game. In recent years, marbles have fallen out of favor with the younger set. Some schools have even banned marbles because they can be used as weapons: That's a shame, because marble playing is one of the greatest spring-time activities ever invented.
Marble games give kids the opportunity to play outside in the fresh air and interact with one other in a friendly, competitive way. Kids learn to follow the rules and develop important strategy and bargaining skills. Real-life lessons can be learned while playing marbles. Even today, we often quote familiar phrases such as "losing my marbles," "knuckling down" and "playing for keeps."
When it comes to collecting, it's not just the nostalgia factor that makes the hobby so popular; many marbles are miniature works of art, especially antique handmade marbles.
So perhaps you've still got all your childhood marbles and you want to learn more about them. The first step is identification: Marbles are either handmade or machine made, and they were fashioned from glass, stone, steel and clay.
True stone marbles are rare and desirable to collectors, and chances of finding one are slim but not impossible. Most steel marbles are really industrial ball bearings that found their way into child's play.
Clay marbles, both glazed and unglazed, are plentiful because they were mass produced between 1884 and 1950. They are called "commies" because they were so common. Unglazed commies have a smooth, dull appearance and come in muted shades of tan and brown. Painted commies can be found in green, red, purple, brown and tan and often have a mottled appearance due to surface chipping from play.
Glazed clay marbles are called "Benningtons" and "chinas." Benningtons, named for the glaze that resembles that of the Bennington, Vt., pottery, are salt-glazed stoneware in shades of blue, green, tan and brown. They have a mottled, shiny appearance. "Fancy Benningtons" are harder to find then single-color examples because they are tri-colored. "Chinas" were made from white kaolin clay and hand painted with fine-line patterns, circles and sometimes miniature scenes.
When it comes to glass, handmade antique marbles are most valuable. They can be easily identified because they have a tiny scar, or pontil mark, where they were cut from the glass rod while being made.
Some of the rarest handmade antique glass marbles are called "sulphides." These are large, translucent marbles that have an encased miniature figure in the center. The figures were made from clay rather than sulphur, as some early collectors mistakenly thought. Flowers, animals, people and other objects can all be found in sulphides.
There are many other types of antique handmade marbles that have names describing their decorative appeal. "Solid core," "swirl," "latticino," "end of day," "onion skin," "Indian," "lutz," "opaque" and "mica" are all names that refer to the style, coloring or technique used in their creation.
Vintage machine-made marbles were cranked out in the millions during the 20th century by companies such as Akro Agate, Peltier, Marble King, Christiansen Agate, Champion, Vitro Agate and more. They were made in varied sizes, in hundreds of color combinations and styles, with special names like "corkscrews," "swirls," "aggies," "cats eyes," "ox-bloods," "corals," "ades," "puries," "rainbows," "bananas," "beach balls" and more.
Collectors have given identifying names to these machine-made orbs that reflect their coloring; for instance, "bumble bees" are black and yellow, "zebras" are black and white and "liberties" are red, white and blue.
When it comes to collecting, condition is everything. Some mint in-the-box marbles from the 1930s can sell for as much as $5,000 (the boxes are rare), and a single marble can sell for $30 if perfect. It is only fit for play, however, if it has a tiny chip.
Julie Robards is an antiques journalist and dealer living in Upper Jay. She is the author of two published books on celluloid, an advisor to several antique price guides and a writer for AntiqueWeek Newspaper since 1995. She may be reached through her websites www.redbarnantiques.org or www.celluloidforever.co.