Being beaten by a girl was humiliating. To a nine-year-old boy in 1958, such a thing was unheard-of. She didn’t beat me in a fight. She beat me at marbles, on the school playground, at recess, in front of my friends.
Her name was Margie. She was the cutest girl in the fourth grade, and a bit of a tomboy. When she challenged me to a game of marbles, I thought it was my chance to gain some respect. I accepted, and she made short work of me. She won all the marbles I had with me that day.
Fortunately, she didn’t get any of my collectible marbles
I never played marble games with my favorites. Instead, I used cheap glass marbles that could be bought by the bag at Woolworth’s for about a dime. I carried them in a burlap Bull Durham tobacco pouch I got from my uncle (my mother made me remove the label; “Little boys don’t carry tobacco pouches,” she said). Most of my playing marbles were chipped and worn.
I kept my favorite marbles in a mayonnaise jar on my dresser. They were pristine. When the light poured in through the window, the jar of marbles sparkled and threw colors against the wall. From time-to-time, I’d dump the jarful onto my bed, inspect each marble individually, and polish each with a cloth.
My favorite marbles were…?
Of course, when I was a boy, I didn’t know the names of many of these marbles. I just thought they looked neat-o. Cat’s eyes were the most common, made of clear glass with colored vanes inside. I also liked clear colored-glass marbles (clearies). I enjoyed holding them up to the light and peering through them, turning the world blue or green or red. I had others that were opaque, with swirls and patterns on the outside surface.
And then there were none
As I grew into a teenager, my interest in marbles waned. The jar on my dresser was replaced by an 8” x 10” framed picture of The Beatles. I shifted from accumulating marbles to accumulating records. What happened to my antique and vintage marbles? Only my mother knows, and she’s been gone twenty years. I suspect that my marbles went the way of my comic books and baseball cards.
Rediscovering my antique and vintage marbles
Over the years, while browsing in antique stores, I’d pick up a marble and declare: “I used to have one of these!” Rediscovering the marbles of my youth has become a favorite pastime. I’ve even learned some of their names. I’ve learned about aggies (agate), and Benningtons (bennies), and onionskins, clay, cobalts, and swirls. Run-of-the-mill marbles were called commies (meaning common), but in the 1950s, calling anything a “commie” would raise eyebrows.
There are more types of marbles than I ever encountered in my nine-year-old world. In the 20th century, tens of millions of machine-made glass marbles were manufactured. Plus, studio glass artists regularly created hand-blown art marbles. Marbles have been made for hundreds of years from all sorts of material: glass, clay, stone, and steel.
Vintage marbles can be worth a lot of money
I attended my first estate auction when I was in college. I had moved into a big house with four other guys, and we needed some essentials. You know the drill: kitchenware, chairs, a table, and so on. It was 1970. We pitched in $100 each, thinking that would buy everything we needed. It did, and then some.
As lots passed the auction block, we would decide as a group what items we wanted to bid on. Eventually, the auctioneer offered a gallon jar filled with marbles. We had no interest in marbles, so we waited for the next item while watching the auctioneer cajole the bidders. He asked for a starting bid of $50. I choked. Who was he kidding? I used to buy those for a dime a bag. He dropped the price and accepted a bid of $5. Then $7.50. Then $10. A bidding war erupted between two bidders. Step-by-step, the bidding increased to a sold hammer price of $125 for the jar. Clearly, the bidders knew something about marbles that I didn’t.
After the auction, I asked the winning bidder why those marbles were worth the selling price. He replied that the jar contained (here he rattled off a bunch of names that were meaningless to me). But, I got the message: some vintage marbles were rare and were worth a lot of money.
From that time forward, I began to pay attention to marbles whenever I was in an antique shop or at an auction. I even bought a few. But, since America was twenty years away from publicly available internet, and eBay wouldn’t exist for twenty-five years, buying marbles to resell them was entirely off my radar.
Fifty years after my first “expensive marbles” experience, prices are still good for collectible marbles. In July 2020, a single rare German handmade lavender sulfide marble in mint condition sold for $5,200 with 77 bids. The WorthPoint® database shows a single antique onionskin lutz marble selling for $8,000 in February 2018. Of course, most antique and vintage marbles don’t sell for anywhere near that much. Like all other collectibles, if you know where to look and what to look for, you can turn a nice profit on your purchases.
Finding collectible marbles
Vintage marbles are found everywhere that used household goods are sold: yard sales, auctions, antique stores, thrift shops, estate sales, and so on. Finding antique marbles is a bit more problematic. The supply of genuine antique marbles is limited, and collectors have been hoarding them for decades.
Marbles are abundant online. I never liked buying marbles online. I don’t recommend that a beginning collector buy online unless they know that the seller is qualified and honest. Whenever a description reads, “I don’t know anything about marbles, but…” you can be sure that they are selling a lot of dubious marbles. Why buy someone else’s mistakes? Bulk marble lots sold on eBay have been stripped of the “good ones.” Collectible vintage and antique marbles sold on eBay are offered individually and can be expensive.
I preferred to find marbles at yard and estate sales. Most sellers at these events can’t tell an aggie from a bennie, so collectible marbles are often thrown into a jar or drawer with “all the other marbles.” The trick to finding worthwhile collectible marbles at household sales (and antique malls) is to have a system for sorting them.
A novice’s guide to sorting marbles in 5 steps
This guide is for folks who don’t know much about marbles. If you’re a marble collector, you already know these basics. If you have suggestions and would like to share your expertise, please do so by leaving a comment in the box below. Our readers would love to hear from you.
If, on the other hand, you are faced with a big box of marbles that you don’t know what to do with, this sorting method will give you a place to start.
- What are they made of? This step is a general “first sort.” You don’t need to be very specific at this point. Sort as follows:
- Sort the clear glass. Clear glass may be colored or have designs inside.
- Sort the opaque marbles. Opaque marbles may have designs, but you can’t see through the marble. Opaque marbles are generally made of stone, porcelain, and clay. Occasionally, you might find some made of steel, but these are not marbles; they are ball bearings. I’ve read of polymer (plastic) marbles and wooden marbles, but I’ve never seen any.
- Sort by size. Some collectors are fanatical about marble sizes. If you plan to sell your marbles, you’ll need to know their sizes. The Moon Marble Company offers a sizing chart and some handy tips about sizing marbles.
- Sort for handmade glass marbles. You probably won’t find any, but you might be rewarded with a big payoff if you do. Handmade marbles have a pontil mark, a slight imperfection where a marble was separated from the glassblower’s rod.
- Take a second look at the opaque marbles. This time around, take your time. Here’s what to look for:
- Unglazed clay marbles: Unglazed marbles are generally a dull brown or tan color (like hardened clay). Sometimes these marbles are painted. If so, the paint is often chipped and worn from use. These have been made since the 19th century. It’s unlikely that you will find any, but you might.
- Glazed clay marbles: Sometimes called Benningtons or Chinas, these marbles are salt-glazed stoneware. Most often, they are found in single colors. From time to time, you might find a “fancy Bennington,” which is a marble that has been hand-painted and glazed.
- Stone marbles: Stone marbles are hand-ground from a variety of stones and minerals. The most popular is ground from agate and called an “aggie.” Aggies are popular because they are denser than other marbles and make great shooters.
- Set aside any marbles that are different from the rest, or that you are not sure about. These you will need to look up in a reliable reference guide. Suppose you are unsure whether a marble is made of stone or glazed clay. In that case, I advise you to refer to the guide found on the Marble Collector’s Society of America website or Everett Grist’s Big Book of Marbles in the WorthPoint Library®.
How much should I expect to pay for antique or vintage marbles?
That’s a tough question. In the past 60 days, vintage marbles have sold on eBay starting at 99 cents, up to $9,900 for a collection of 340 handmade German marbles.
The WorthPoint Price Guide shows the prices of decades of marble sales; 328,116 entries as of today. WorthPoint data aggregates eBay prices as well as that of bricks-and-mortar auction houses. When using WorthPoint to find a value, enter as specific a search term as you are able. For example, searching “marbles” in the Toys, Dolls, and Games category with Best Match sorting brings back 328,116 results. Searching for “clay marbles,” though, returns 11,483 results. Be as specific as you can be.
Between eBay and WorthPoint, you should be able to determine a price for almost any marble. Keep in mind that a marble is only worth the price agreed upon by a willing seller and a willing buyer, neither being under duress.
Five factors that affect the value of marbles are:
Of these five, the condition is paramount. Collectors prefer to collect the best examples of each type.
And that’s all I have to say about marbles
Even after decades of poking around for marbles, I don’t consider myself an expert. At best, I might be called an enthusiast. Although I enjoy perusing antique and vintage marbles in shops, I’m no longer interested in collecting them. Currently, my interest in marbles is purely sentimental. I’m in it for the nostalgia. We’ve downsized twice in the past fifteen years, so I’ve backed-off on collecting things. But I sure enjoy the nostalgic rush I get from revisiting my “old playthings” at the local antique shops.
Sixty-two years later, Margie and I are still friends. At our 50th high-school-class reunion, she teased me about beating me at marbles when we were nine. I accepted her jibes good-naturedly. I’m no longer humiliated by being beaten by a girl. Raised by a single mother and having been married for 47 years to a capable woman, I have come to accept that, from time to time, I’m going to (figuratively) get my butt kicked by a “girl.”
Wayne Jordan is WorthPoint’s Senior Editor. He is the author of four books: The Business of Antiques published by Krause Books, Antique Mall Profits for Dealers and Dabblers, Consignment Gold Rush: the Ultimate Startup Guide and Relocate for Less published by Learning Curve Books. He is a regular contributor to a variety of antiques trade publications. He blogs at sellmoreantiques.net.
WorthPoint—Discover Your Hidden Wealth®