Marc Armitage - Thought Crime

Whatever happened to marbles and jacks?

Whatever happened to marbles and jacks?

a \‘shȯrt-rēd’\ piece

When I was at school I distinctly remember playing seasonal games with ‘collectables’. Mainly this involved games of marbles, played strictly during ‘marble season’ only you understand, although at home we played jacks often as my mother was an absolute expert at the game.

So, where are marbles and jacks now, I hear you ask. Let me tell you a story.

Many years ago (I’m so old) I ran a research project that resulted in a long out-of-print book. The project was about the game of marbles and it involved two main phases. One led to me travelling the length and breadth of the British Isles interviewing groups of children in schools about the game. I was asking them about the kind of marble games they played, where they played them and them and how. I also asked them what they called their various different marbles.

You might remember that all marbles have names and also usually a points value. The more unusual or rare a marble the higher its points value so you could literally have two, uneven handfuls of marbles but each with the same points value.

Although the names differ from place to place there are some commonalities in these names. The most basic low scoring marbles are usually called things like ‘ordies’ (as in ordinary) or ‘crappies’ (as in ... well, you get the picture); variations of ’glammy’ or ‘glamog’ is also common (which might come from the Latin ‘to roll into a ball’) and similarity ‘potties’ (a throwback to when basic marbles were made of clay).

Other more dramatic marbles can have equally dramatic names which often reflect the nature of the object: plain glass marbles are often ‘cats eyes’ (for historical reasons that some people will get), ‘beachballs’ are those with a twist of multicoloured glass inside, transparent marbles with a dark brown tinge become ‘cokies’ (as in the drink cola) and odd-shaped or distorted ones become ‘eggies’ (as in, erm, an egg).

Marble Games

The other facet of the project was to look at changes and consistencies in marbles games and the playing location which included recording when ‘marble season’ began and ended. To do this I spent a spent a number of regular extended periods of time in two schools so as to watch the game in more detail.

This ‘seasons’ title is a bit of a misnomer though as, with a number of folkloric rituals, marbles might come back every year though not necessarily at the exact same time. But the word season here implies that come back every year it does.

The two primary schools I was following were at either end of one of the longest streets in my home city and I visited them often to record what was happening in the playground. For each of the four years that I followed them closely, the playing of marbles appeared annually, but, as expected, not at the same time of the year. In fact, the marble seasons at each school started anywhere between February and May. Curiously, marbles always started at one of the two schools first and then appeared in the other within two to three weeks.

It took ages to work out why this was so and it was a chance conversation with a local resident that led to finding out why.

There was, opposite one of the schools, a small corner shop. This shop sold marbles which it would restock once a year - but not necessarily at the same time every year. The shop was right opposite the school in which marbles always began first and, guess what: the appearance of marbles in that school coincided with when the shop restocked its marble supply.

Working out how marble season ended was more clear cut. Sue, the headteacher at one of the schools (the one opposite the corner shop) told me that when the teaching staff were getting fed up of dealing with marble-related issues she would make an announcement at school assembly along the lines of, ‘Now I see from my diary that it says marble season ends a week on Friday’ – and end it would! Typically, within four or five weeks, marble playing ended at the second school too.


There should be some big clues here about what influences the way children play with collectables in general and more specially on the question of why we sometimes don’t see games like this happening. But here’s another clue for you.

For a series of training sessions I ran in Australia only recently I needed to put together a box full of marbles and jacks. This proved almost impossible to do. The number of toy shops and department stores I had to visit before finding what I needed surprised me.

At about the same time, the teaching staff at an Australian primary school I was working in reported never having seen marbles being played and therefore assumed this was a long dead game, yet another one that had been killed off by ‘the screen’. So, I showed a group of their children some example marbles from my own collection. Not only did they name each of the marbles but they also stated the points value for each with consistency across the group. What they also said was that none of them had played marbles at school recently because they simply couldn’t find them to buy.

The point is, not seeing a particular game being played can lead adults to conclude that the game has died out and exists only in their own nostalgic play memories. The reality is that games based in collectibles are highly dependent on those collectibles being available.

Seeing as children are not usually in charge of the retail supply chain I think we could all agree that if we don’t see marbles and jacks being played it is not because today’s children see no value in collectible based play. The proof of that is in just giving children access to a bunch of marbles and ‘poof’, almost like magic, the ‘long-lost’ names and marble games suddenly reappear.

Try it.

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2nd April 2020

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The photos above taken by Marc are from the 'Marbles Project' in 1994. The one on the left shows two handfuls of marbles with the same 'points' value in each; on the right, marbles being played on a round drain cover - a very common arena for marble games. 

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