Marbles Come to America and Make a Splash… of Color!
In our last article we pointed out that marble collecting is basically divided up into two categories, handmade marbles made mostly in Germany before 1900 and machine made marbles made in America starting around 1900. These dates and geographical locations are simply generalities as marbles were made all over the world at different times. But to keep things a little simpler we will deal with the basics. The first article dealt with handmade marbles and this section will deal with machine marbles, made primarily in the United States.
I told myself we’d keep this simple, marbles can be a real head spinner for a lot of people, including myself. Yes, there are the transitionals, cats eyes and a myriad of different marbles outside the basic handmade/machine made format but in this article we will deal with the mainstream marbles collectors are most interested in collecting today. The machine made marbles differ from handmade marbles in a number of different ways. The most obvious is their size. When companies began producing their machine made marbles they concentrated on really two sizes, 5/8” and ¾”. This is truly a relative statement as you can find machine mades in numerous sizes both bigger and smaller. This new generation of marble makers realized that most children wanted a marble they could hold in their hand and shoot as easily as possible. The ¾” marbles were and are today often called shooters. They are, depending on the marble more desirable to collectors. So if you have identical marbles and one is a shooter and the other 5/8” you’ll see collectors going after the larger marble every time. The machines made marbles are mostly about appearance. Some collectors may argue that Christensen are the prettiest but as we all know beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Finding a four-color Akro corkscrew is a tough acquisition and so some collectors may concentrate on those. There’s an unlimited quantity of different marbles out there and for each his own. Cost can also be a factor in deciding what someone wants to collect. You can buy some marbles for way less than others so it definitely becomes a factor in what you go after. Condition is very important and the perfect “wet mint,” marbles are much harder to find than a played with version that may have a great deal of wear and scratching. Remember, these were children’s toys. They have wear from being put in kids pockets and banging around in their marble bags, it can be very hard to find perfect machine mades but not as hard as hand mades because they are so much older.
Why did the production of marbles cross the Atlantic and begin production in the United States? Well like anything, it came down to money. With the help of some early pioneers in the U S who developed machines that could produce beautiful marbles at a rapid rate made it economically feasible; there was money to be made. The first marbles made here is a question with many answers. Depending on whom you talk to or even what you read, you’ll get as many different answers as questions. From the reading we’ve done, the first patents for marble-producing machines began around 1900. They were issued to Martin F. Christensen, a Denmark immigrant who came to the states in 1867. At first Christensen began making tools and knives but by 1880 he landed in Akron, Ohio. Christensen’s knack for inventing new ways to do things first came in the form of a machine that could produce perfectly round steel ball bearings. This was obviously important as one can just imagine the importance of finally being able to utilize bearings that were less prone to breaking down the machinery that they were used for. Christensen sold four-fifths of the patent for $25,000, a lot of money for the late 20th century. By 1902 he applied for his first marble machine patent. Hey, if you could make steel into perfectly round balls why not glass? Christensen’s son, Charles, soon joined the business and it was now known as M.F. Christensen and Son Co. By 1910 Christensen had over 30 employees. The information included here was found in a diary kept by Christensen himself, and was found by Mike Cohill when he purchased the factory in 1989. What Cohill found was a treasure trove of information on glass formulas and sales information. Interesting to note was his list of products and the companies he sold them to included Sears Roebuck, Montgomery Ward, Woolworth’s, Sears and Milton Bradley.
The peak of production came in 1914 when the factory turned out 2,300,000 American carnelian marbles during a two-month period. The carnelian’s sold for $7.70 per 1,000 up to $11 per 1,000 for the larger size, or size 4. During this period, a man named J.H. Leighton served as a consultant to M.F. Christensen who supplied him with glass formulas. When M.F. Christensen died in 1915, the company continued until 1917 under the management of Charles, his son. As the war began, factories were ordered to shut down, the supply of gas was restricted to homes and so came the end of M.F. Christensen & Son Company.
Although we look at Christensen and Son as the first of the mass produced marbles in America, they were made in only a few different styles and colors. His most popular marble as we see in collections today were slags. Although we included at least one picture of a slag in the handmade section, we will also include pictures here. They were essentially machine made/handmade marbles in truth because they required the use of workers to closely supervise the ebb and flow of marbles coming out of the machine and more importantly started on a metal rod like all the marbles before them other than cane hand-mades. Slags are known for there “9” pattern with the same base color (amber, green, aqua, blue, yellow and some red) with swirling white patterns throughout the glass. So in essence, the true M.F. Christensen marbles were hand gathered on a metal rod and rounded on his machine. Some people call them transitionals, others the first mass-produced marble made by machine, take your pick.
The Akro Agate Company had a keen eye on Christensen’s work and in fact bought the remaining marbles left over when the company went under. They were also located in Akron, Ohio; in fact their name is a derivative of that city. Their trademark, a crow flying through the letter “A” meant to imply that their marbles rolled as straight as a crow flies. Akro ordered their marbles from Christensen and sold them in cellophane bags, another first in the world of marbles in America. Horace Hill was the new entry into the Akro Agate group, backed by two businessmen who gave him the money to move the company to Clarksburg, West Virginia in 1914. With plenty of silica, sand and natural gas, Hill had a perfect scenario to begin production of his own marbles. The only catch was that he’d stolen a great deal of Christensen’s ideas including formulas and plans for a new marble-making machine. He was caught but the court allowed him to work despite a nine-year prison sentence, in order to pay the money back he’d stolen from Christensen while acting as his bookkeeper in 1912. Hill died in 1916 but not before he hired George Pflueger who was a top-notch marketing whiz. Basically from start up to this period Akro was just buying marbles from Christensen, repackaging them and selling them with their label. That makes it almost impossible to tell which marbles were made by which company as Akro later began producing their own products very similar to Christensen.
So today the main marbles machine made marble collectors go for are;
1) Akro Agate started in 1910
2) Peltier began in 1919. Originally began as The Novelty Glass Company in 1886.
3) Christensen (not to be confused with M.F. Christensen) began in 1925 and moved to Cambridge, Ohio in 1927.
4) Alley Companies were located in various locations between 1929 and 1949.
5) Marble King started in 1949
6) Ravenswood started in 1932.
There were other companies that were either purchased or resold or combined with other companies and we are by no means implying these were the only companies that produced marbles. However you can see the oldest of the producers of machine made marbles and therefore the top three are really the mainstay of today’s collector’s interest. Peltier, Christensen and Akro are the most popular marbles to collect. Once again, I’m sure there’s someone out there screaming at the top of his or her lungs that this statement is simply not true. As I pointed out at the beginning of this article, we will try and keep it simple and from what I see being sold on Ebay and other marble auctions, these are the majority of marbles we see from the machine made category up for sale. Machine made marbles were also being produced in Mexico, Japan, and Europe and were a continual source of various types of marbles. The companies listed here are the more popular choices of collectors today and we will concentrate on them. Just as a side note, when Japan started selling the well-known cats eye marble, it put quite a damper on U.S. production. They were inexpensive and a new and colorful marble. Other U.S. companies tried to copy them but they couldn’t begin to match Japan for all out production. Some people say that it was the beginning of the end of American marble production. True or not, when someone tells you they have marbles it’s likely you’ll find at least a few cats eyes.
Each company had their own types of marble produced, as you can see from the pictures they vary quite a bit. This was due to the formulas and machines they used to make them. Some companies made similar marbles, almost everyone made slags for instance. The Christensen Agate Co., not to be confused the M.F. Christensen Co. but named possibly for the association with the latter, made their marbles for a relatively short period of time, from about 1927 top 1931 according to some sources. They are considered harder to find than some machine mades although they made quite a few marbles for only being in business a few years. They were known for their beautiful colored designs including slags, fancy slags, diaper folds which was simply the end of the marble folding over like a diaper, flames, submarines and maybe the most popular of all, the guinea. Some Christensen marbles have and almost electric color to them and are even referred to as electric yellow or orange. In addition, by chance sometimes you’ll see a Christensen marble with a “turkey,” or at least what appears to be the head of a turkey, we’ve included some pictures of various examples of this phenomena. It was merely the result of how the marble was made and was not intentional.
Hybrids abound in all the various marbles not only made by Christensen but by all of the marble producers of the time. That is a marble that fit into more than one category. Some collectors concentrate on one particular company while others collect simply what they like. Some brands are more expensive and although we will touch on values, some very beautiful marbles can be had for a relatively small amount of money. You don’t have to be rich to collect marbles. A nice looking collection can be had on an average budget. Just one of the advantages of collecting marbles.
Akro Agates were known for their corkscrews, snakes, Popeye’s, sparklers and oxblood’s. What the corkscrews collectors look for are as many different colors in the marble as possible. With the oxblood’s you can find them in numerous colors and patterns, some rarer than others. Sparklers are a beautiful marble as you’ll see and Akro’s use of oxblood made them a favorite for a lot of boys and girls.
Peltier made a lot of marbles including their National Line Rainbow series, the comic series which were pictures of cartoon characters of the time including Little Annie, her dog Sandy, Betty Boop and other popular newspaper comic celebs of their time. Their use of a shiny black powder called adventurine enhanced the look of a lot of their marbles and even rarer examples with green and blue adventurine have been found. The National Line Rainbow line started with the use of the Miller machine. It produced an almost seamless very complex patterned marble. They are the earliest and rarest of the NLR series and can be very beautiful, especially with adventurine. This line of marbles were made in both two-color and three-color styles, the earlier examples are a combination of mixed up colors that can be had for relatively little money. As the patterns became more distinct or uniform, they were given names depending on their colors. A white, red and green marble is called a Christmas Tree for instance. Red, yellow and white a Ketchup and Mustard. Red, blue and yellow made a Superman while a green based marble with orange and red became a Flaming Dragon. In addition, you had two-color examples with distinct lines of black or adventure with different colored base colors. These became Zebras, Tigers, Bumblees and a yellow marble with brownish bronze adventurine is called a Bronze Bee. The combinations are almost endless and collectors today try and get as many as possible. Finding a Zebra for instance with a bluish adventuring is much harder than plain black. A black and yellow design on blue is called a Blue Galaxy and a yellow base with a red and black pattern is today’s Golden Rebel. These marbles come generally in the standard 5/8” and ¾” and are considerably harder to find in the larger shooter size. Discovering a Miller shooter in the larger size with adventurine is quite a prize for the Peltier collector in today’s marble collecting world.
I mentioned I would touch on value in marble collecting. For sure, if one has the money they can spend thousands on one marble. But marbles are a wonderful collectible just for that reason. You can buy complete sets with maybe a hundred marbles for $50. You can go through them and divide them up by brand that’s usually what collectors do. So you might buy a small collection on Ebay and then pick up a few that strikes your fancy for $20 apiece. As you continue to amass marbles, keep track of what they are. Look them up and study the seams and the different patterns that make a marble distinct. Christensen, one might argue, can be the most expensive marbles or at least some of them. Their guineas usually run around $500 but can go for more or less depending on that all important condition and example or appeal. The reasoning behind Christensen being the more expensive marble is simply that less of them exist. But there are very affordable Christensen marbles out there and if that’s your interest some nice examples pop up all the time for reasonable prices. Peltier are a good marbles because there are a lot of them and they made a great variety. You can purchase a nice Zebra or Bumblebee with adventurine for around $50. That may seem a little high but we are talking a perfect example with plenty of eye appeal. There are the Peltier rainbows which are a multi-colored and very pretty marbles that sell for under $5 or $10 dollars. Akros are also a good choice as you can find some nice corkscrews for relatively little money. There are really two ways to go in, start out by buying the very best, getting one marble at a time or buying small collections and dividing them up. I started this way; buying old cigar boxes full and digging through them looking for certain types that appeal to me. Like anything it takes some time and patience, learning marbles is a little complex. But so was algebra in school and look how well you handled that! You’ll learn a lot buying that way as there’s no replacement for actually holding an example and examining it with a loupe. There are some things you’ll need, a caliper to measure it, a flashlight and a loupe or magnifying glass. There are lots of ways to display them, you’ll discover what you like. So you might check out Ebay or some of the marble auctioneers like Morphy Auctions. There’s a lot to choose from and price ranges vary from thousands of dollars to just a few bucks.
So as we show you examples of the various marbles, keep in mind that you are looking for condition, rarity, size and above all appeal. Like any collecting hobby, you’ll start discovering new types of marbles and usually one will strike your fancy. Some collectors go after anything that appeals to them and others stick with one brand name. But whatever you decide you like, make sure you deal with reputable dealers, go to marble shows, and read. There are lots of books out there that will give you a load of information on marbles. There is a lot of information on them out there, both hand-mades and machine made marbles have loads of books written about them. Now all you have to do is look. Good luck!
By Jeff Wichmann