I used to be a crack shot at pitch (marbles) as a kid. I learned from my dad. We'd draw a circle with a piece of chalk, and "pitch" our taws at each other's pieces, which is how the game gets its name in Trinidad. Our goal was to knock each other's pieces out of the ring—though he rarely, if ever, seized one of my marbles. In the schoolyard, however, when I could get into a game, we pitched for keepers—losing one's marbles carried a lot of weight with it, as it very well should.
Marbles are small, smooth balls about 1.5 cm in diameter, though they can range in size with some of the larger pieces (e.g., a taw) getting as big as 7.75 cm. They have been made from a variety of materials, including stone, clay, glass, wood, and metal. And they span time and space: Stone and clay marbles have been found in caves in Europe and in China, for example. And though they crossed the globe following colonial routes, it's likely they were already a recreational feature of the New World: they have been found in the burial mounds of Native Americans in Mississippi.
From Africa to Belize some form of the game is played in childhood—and sometimes beyond—for entertainment. And why not? Marbles are within everyone's reach. They are easy enough to make if you can't buy the mass-produced variety—roll clay into balls and let them bake in the sun. And the game itself is just as flexible. It's easy to set up (any surface will do), the pieces are highly portable, and there isn't a standard, singular way to play marbles: players can set rules that apply to their particular match.
I haven't played in well over two decades but while cleaning out my office on Saturday, I came across a bag of marbles I had purchased on vacation. (I know, I know: In some circles you're supposed to win your pieces.) Rolling a few of the cool, smooth spheres in my palm, they took me back. I could see the circle drawn on the ground, feel my brow furrow in concentration, and almost hear the clink of contact. These marbles aren't anything particularly special—mostly crystal with a few glass aggies and catseyes for variety. They're nothing I would have lost sleep over losing at any rate, but having found them, they are also a reminder about the importance of some childhood games. The accessibility and versatility of marbles, for example, teaches children rules governing risks and competition.
Childhood games are exercises in socialization, allowing children to test the boundaries of expectations as they negotiate rules and consequences of play:
One way to understand games and play is to see them as social fictions. Like any good fiction, games can reveal truth about the human condition. In their world of make-believe, games do not replace reality, but they do suspend the consequences of real life for the duration of play. Often the games we play mirror, if only obliquely, our real lives, and in the context of play the suspense, conflict, and uncertainty of life become easier to manage (Smith 1984: 124).
Marbles are a competition, but one where skill and luck are tenuously balanced, which are features that mark most children's games because they broadens participation. Less skillful players can participate knowing that there is a small possibility for success (as opposed to game largely related to skill, like chess, where there would be little to no chance of a win). Though playing for "keeps" emphasizes claiming the property of others, these are also exercises in loss, fairness, and status building:
Cheating, though possible, was frowned upon, and winners and losers were expected to finish the match with grace and sportsmanship. The courage needed to face a school yard champion was no small matter for a newcomer or a previous loser, but he knew that instant recognition and status could be obtained by virtue of his success in the fateful encounter of the game. To be sure, a player risked his marbles, but more important, he risked his pride (Smith 1984: 128).
The phrase "to lose one's marbles," then, is more than just an idiom about one's mental state. It becomes a particularly severe experience. To lose one's prize taw or other cherished piece carries both personal and public prices that detract from both reputation and respectability. And it is no mistake that someone who has "lost his marbles" idiomatically also suffers these sorts of losses.
We prize status markers, and games like marbles teach us early about their importance. But they also force us to face loss as a part of life—and perhaps this is one of the reasons we find marbles in so many places throughout history. Remember, even the skillful can lose, so marbles also teach about calculating risks and when to take chances. It's not easy facing the school yard champion, but there is a clear path of potential matches that one can undertake before that particular battle. Though there is always a possibility of loss, there is nothing gained unless something is gambled.
I think I'll take this bag of found marbles as a positive sign.
Randall, Mark. (1971). Early Marbles. Historical Archaeology, 5, 102-105
Smith, James F. and Vicki Abt (1984). Gambling as Play. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 474, 122-132
Winer, Lise and Hans E. A. Boos (1993). Right Throughs, Rings and Taws: Marbles Terminology in Trinidad and Tobago. Language in Society, 22 (1), 41-66