Marbles – more than a child’s play (archive)

By Matthias Baxmann

Marbles – this is not just a popular children’s game, but a real sport: with teams, clubs and tournaments. There is even a world championship in mumbling. It takes place in England every year.

With hard training, the athletes of the 1st MC Erzgebirge are preparing for the next World Championship in Marble. The World Cup always takes place at Easter in Tinsley Green. The game is played according to the rules of the English ring game, in which the marbles have to be kicked out of the field with your finger.

At the German championships, however, under the strict supervision of the German Marble Council, the holes are clicked. Whether Duxer, Glazier, Klicker or Wetzel, so different their names, so numerous are the possibilities to dot, pimp or flip with them.

"Everyone mumbles, the whole world is still mumbling"

Marbles: a popular children’s game in 1965. (picture-alliance / dpa / Pohn) – "Of course I still played with marbles!"
– "I remember we had different ways of playing with marbles when we were kids."
– "In the sixties, when I played it, you mostly had these very cheap clay marbles and if you had a glass ball in between, it was a treasure."
– "Depending on how many we were or how many marbles we had, we kept making new rules."
– "We had a hole in the school yard and the one who had all his marbles in the hole first was allowed to keep them."
– "I know we built a mountain of sand and then we tried to flick our marbles to the top of the mountain, and those who were closest then won."
-"You didn’t have any rules at all, you made the rules ad hoc as a child and I think you made them every time. And if anyone else was added, they were changed. How it is with children’s games."

Marble games 1: "Throw and flick"

The thrower receives the stake from everyone and throws the marbles into the air so that they are randomly scattered on the floor. He can now choose a marble with which he flicks another one to hit it. If he hits, he keeps the first marble and is allowed to continue playing with the opponent until a shot misses. Then it’s the next player’s turn.

A world championship according to the rules of a child’s play?

Marble will hardly be missing in a children’s room even today. However, they are not so much played with them as on ball tracks. There they roll over steps with bells and melody components, through sound pipes or spirals, they jump over jumps and make loops. For tired fingers there are even lifts that automatically move the marbles back to the start. But back to the classic way of mumbling. How can a child’s play become a sport that even fights for the world championship title??

Glass marbles – most people play with them at some point. (picture alliance / dpa / Petra Reinken)

"If I were to put it in a formula, I would say that every sport is a game – but not every game is a sport", says historian Christiane Eisenberg.

One of her areas of expertise is sports history: "Common features include, for example, the limitation of the event, in terms of space and time. It has an event character, the game like the sport. The process is determined by rules. The criterion of openness to results is very important, otherwise they have no tension, otherwise they don’t want to look at it at all."

Marble games 2: "Against the wall"

A parallel line is drawn in front of a wall at a distance of one shoe length. From a distance of three meters, everyone throws their marble against the wall so that they bounce off and roll to the line. Whose marble is closest to the line wins all others.

"In the second half of the 20th century, physical strength and physicality were indeed a central criterion of modern sport. But this opportunity to invent sports and reinvent them leads to the creation of this colorful sports world as we have it today", says Christiane Eisenberg. "Well, it is a little bold to apply the concept of sports of the 21st century to mumbling, but in principle you can make a sport out of everything, including mumbling. That there are organizations [the German marble council] – and that there are written rules".

Like those from the German hole clinker or Kuhlemurmeln, the English ring game and the German table marbles: "That would be considered a very important aspect of the sporting of the marble game. One would also have to ensure that an independent judge exists, that the results of the competition are published."

World Champion:
2010 1st MC Erzgebirge
2011 Yorkshire Meds
2012 1st MC Erzgebirge
2013 Black Dogs

"And that in sporting games an element of competition or struggle must be added to distinguish innocent child’s play from a proper marble competition", says Christiane Eisenberg.

The 20th German Marble Championship on the sports field of Hatten in Lower Saxony. (picture alliance / dpa / Ingo Wagner)

How do you prepare for such a competition??

Seppo, Jens, Stefanie and Chris – four of 16 members of the 1st Marble Club Erzgebirge, the multiple world champion of previous years. Everyone is around 30 years old.

"We founded the association when we were at school, so in class 11, class 12", says Jens. "Of course they all laughed at us. We make a marble club, it’s child’s play, you can’t take that seriously! But at some point, if you can call yourself a world champion, everyone looks completely different, of course, and we’ve been on television two or three times. When you tell that, the laughter quickly disappears."

On the "English ring game" specialized

For their weekly training, the marmot group from Neukirchen has rented the gatekeeper’s house to an abandoned egg factory. The 1st MC Erzgebirge specializes in the English ring game.

Seppo: "This is a marble slab, a wooden slab 1.83 meters in diameter, circular, and there is very fine quartz sand on it so that the marbles are slowed down a little, otherwise they would roll down easily. We see here in the middle 49 small marbles are put together to form a bunch, and the The goal is to cut down as many marbles as possible from the board with his marble, which is called Tolley.

It is reminiscent of pool. The balls are bigger, are hit with a cue and do not have to roll off the table, but in holes. But in principle, in both games one shot has to be shot at a bunch of others so that they run in certain directions. Nobody would think of classifying billiards as a ridiculous derivation of a child’s play, even though it certainly originated from it.

"The basic principle is called nuggling down", adds Chris. "Means I have to put an ankle of my hand on the marble plate, and then I can no longer make a hand movement that the marble twists through the Hand gives, but, I have to move the marble by a twist that is triggered by the flick of my fingers."

A variant: sand track marbles. (picture-alliance / ZB / Patrick Pleul)

Chris puts his marble in the bend of his right index finger. He crouches and supports his hand on the plate with the knuckle of his middle finger:

"I am now starting with my ankle, index finger and thumb are now doing the flick movement, and I am aiming, and unfortunately I have not scored. I’ll try again. Now I have met, despite everything, I have not moved anything."

Not his day, although Chris was a multiple German champion in this discipline. "I suggest that Seppo just try it, he managed it earlier. The goal now must be to hit the group of 49 marbles with the marble and flick one of the red marbles off the plate.

Ideally, I would then lie on the plate with the game marble, and then I could play on the next red marble from this point, where it was left, similar to billiards. And whoever flipped down 25 out of 49, i.e. more than half, won. If things go fast, it can be over in five minutes, but there are certainly games at world championships where the quality of the players does not allow them to be completed in five minutes, it can take up to twenty-five minutes."

Particularly common in Germany: Kuhlemurmeln

Perhaps it is because participating in the English World Cup does not require qualifying through national competitions like other sports. There are of course also, for example, in the Czech Republic, the USA, France, the Netherlands and of course in Germany, under the umbrella of the German Marble Council.

"So there are other marble clubs in Germany", says Stefanie. "You meet for the German marble championship. It takes place in a different federal state every year."

They are carried out by the local marble club. Chris: "In Saxony there are two clubs, in Thuringia we know two clubs, the Köstritzer Schwarzmurmler and Sachsenbrunner Murmler and then there are clubs in Hesse, around Frankfurt, Ludwigsburg and also in northern Germany."

More than 15 clicker clubs are scattered all over Germany. From Oldenburg to Krummhörn-Pewsum via Wölfersheim to Waldsolms / Brandoberndorf.

"There are two forms in Germany of what is played", explains Chris. "That is the German table marbles, it is not played on a board, but on a table, a circular table and there are marbles on it, and they have to be cut down according to a similar principle. What is most widespread in Germany and also has the greatest acceptance with most clubs that play it regularly, where the German championship also focuses on, is the German Kuhlemurmeln. And that is played on a marble track 6 meters by 2 meters, 3 meters. In any case, it is about throwing four marbles into a small hole and then ditting the marbles with one hand movement and finally sinking the marbles into this hole."

Marble games 3: Marble boules

One large target marble and one game marble per player.

The big marble is thrown out of the game line. All players now try to hit the big one with their marble. If no one hits, there is a second round from where your marble is. The first player to score gets a marble from each player, and the game starts over.

It is easy to imagine that children already played with small balls in the Stone Age. Whether pebbles, nuts, chestnuts or acorns – with everything that was small and reasonably round, you could roll, poke or throw on your own or at a bet. In ancient Egypt, 5000 years ago, adults pushed small stone balls towards their goal in a kind of labyrinth of grooves. In the tombs of their pharaohs, marbles were found as a side dish in which their names were carved. And in children’s graves from this time, worn balls were placed with which the children had once murmured.

In ancient Crete, around 3500 years ago, people played with polished marbles made of semi-precious stones. And from the Greek word for a white, broken boulder, màrmaros, the word marmel or marble is derived.

Let’s jump to 1560, in which the Flemish painter Pieter Brueghel painted his painting "The children’s games" painted. You can also see them doing marble shooting. The marbles that archaeologist Eva-Maria Melisch unearthed in Berlin date from this period. You can see them in the New Museum there: "In the showcase we see toys and then we see marbles. They look like they are made of clay, but I know because I put them in there myself that some of them are made of stone.

Marbles (around 1500) that were found during excavations in Martin Luther’s parents’ house in Mansfeld. (picture alliance / dpa / Hendrik Schmidt)

About the size of today’s glass marbles, says Melisch. "And if you look closely, each marble is designed a little differently. Back there this banded, this beautiful marble with the white dot in the middle, this is some banded stone that I don’t know either, is not granite or soapstone. I think the children who played with the marbles knew their marbles very well."

They were excavated in a former churchyard next to the remains of a Latin school:

"And the students had to go to school through the churchyard. Although it was expressly stated in the school laws that children are expressly prohibited from playing in the churchyard during breaks, we found a lot of marbles in front of this school. And we see that marble playing came to Berlin in the second half of the 16th century. As far as I know, these are the oldest finds."

Shipped to Africa and America

The origin of the stone marble industry is a hundred years later in Thuringia and Upper Franconia. The small stone balls were initially not made for children to play with, but as ammunition for muskets. As an addition to blasting in quarries, Thuringian furniture was shipped to Africa and America.

"Among other things, there are crossbows that have shot with stone balls. That was the bullet fly. You always think crossbow only shot with a bolt, no, they also shot with bullets in 1640 for economic reasons, because they were easier to produce in bulk", says Axel Trümmer, who runs a marble museum in a former marble mill in Sachsenbrunn, Thuringia.

The limestone stored in this area provided the raw material for this.

"The stone balls were made between Sonneberg, Coburg, the city of Eisfeld. There were three professions, one in the open pit to get the densest, hardest limestone out. It had to endure a certain amount of pressure as an ammunition. Then these plates drove down into the village with carts, now here Sachsenbrunn and sold these plates to the village population. Grandma, Grandpa, everyone knocked square cubes out of the plates and then they sold it again to these marble mills.

How cartridges became toys

The Märbelpicker received 20 cruisers for 1000 of these two centimeter cubes, the equivalent of about 30 cents. Axel Trümper is in the process of putting an old Märbel machine back into operation:

"This is now a real stone ball machine, is called Märbelgang. And that is a lowerable beech block, which was then operated via mill wheels with a central axis and underneath is an iron plate. The bulges have every centimeter in it, grooves."

And the stone cubes lay in the grooves. As with a grain mill, the beech block rotates by hydropower over the round metal plate with the limestone cubes and paints it round:

"The whole thing took two or three hours, then the finished balls out, the square cubes back in. The history of ammunition ceased around 1850, when the cartridge was invented. And that’s why they came up with the idea of ​​making toys. All the marbles that were made went to England. We have all the original boxes, there is English on top, finest quality. They were so medium-sized, so not, as you might say in Berlin, the Bucker. These were mostly glass balls that we traded and exchanged even as children."

4th marble run

A board is placed at an angle on a wall. The first player lets his marble roll down on it. The second sends his marble behind and tries to hit the first. If he hits, he can take both. If not, both remain for the next player. He can now take all if he hits one.

When museum operator Trümper traded Bucker in his childhood, it had only been a hundred years since the first glass marbles were ever made. The Greiner brothers in Lauscha, Thuringia, came up with the business idea around 1850 to manufacture such trolleys from glass. They already had experience as glassmakers in the manufacture of glass buttons and animal eyes for soft toys.

Within a few years, the Lauscha fairs became world-famous, and they were supplied to all of Europe and overseas, especially the USA. Business flourished until the First World War, when the Americans took over with machine production and Lauscha became a secondary location. Today marbles are almost exclusively made in China or Mexico. There is the largest marble factory in the world with a production capacity of 12 million balls a day.

Jewelry is made from marbles in silver

But glass marbles are still made by hand. The ends of colored marble glass rods are melted one after the other over the Bunsen burner. Johanna Rose-Schmidt shows exactly how this works at the Lauscha Glass Bead Days:

"I start with an opaque dye. This is a bright green here now. I keep that in the flame and wait until it starts to melt."

Johanna is 33 years old. As a self-taught artist, she has been experimenting with the production of glass marbles for 15 years.

"Now comes a layer of paint with dark turquoise." Her marbles are set in silver and sold as jewelry.

"So now I’m starting to fuse both colors together by mixing it in the flame, something like liquid honey or something like that."

Johanna puts some fluorescent powder in the glowing lump of glass. She calls it fairy dust. By continuously turning the glowing bulge in the flame gradually takes shape and the colored glass twists into each other:

"Sooner or later the ball will be round. Now I’m going to go out of the flame and stabilize it a little outside. And then we can take a look inside. That looks promising!"

The marble must be slowly cooled down in the oven so that the glass does not crack.

A selection of marbles or marbles from the Lauscha Color Glassworks. (picture alliance / dpa / Stefan Thomas)

Apart from the glass pearl days, hardly any marbles are produced in Thuringia. But the colored glass rods from Lauscha are internationally sought after for their manufacture. This is how glass artists melt complex structures into the balls. On marble exchanges, the American customer is quite willing to pay up to $ 30,000 for this – after a laser has checked their surface for roundness and smoothness, of course. Johanna Rose-Schmidt certainly does not get such prices with her freestyle marbles. But surely she doesn’t want that at all:

"Yes, the ball is finished. We just got them out of the oven. And if we go into the light here now, we charge up now, because there is fairy dust in it, which can shine in the dark and now we see, oh, beautiful how it looks now, like an underwater world or the universe!"

5. Throw

A hollow is turned into the ground with the heel. The first player gets the stake from everyone and tries to throw this marble into the hole at once. He can keep whatever is in the hollow. The next player gets what goes wrong. He now throws the remaining marbles and so on.

The athletes of the 1st MC Erzgebirge don’t play with hand-made marbles, but their marble, the tolley, has to be something special.

"I actually have a Tausch from Lauscha, the color is green, so, also turned and I play it for the World Cup, exclusively on World Cup day, is my lucky charm", says Chris.

Jens thinks: "Just as the soccer player probably gets used to his soccer shoes and changes when they fall apart, so you get used to the tolley. You have to import it first so that it is a bit worn and not so smooth anymore, so that you can hold it more easily."

Which marble is closer to the hole? Sometimes the referee has to use the folding rule. (picture alliance / dpa / Ingo Wagner)

The Marble World Championship takes place every year on Good Friday in Tinsley Green, England. In front of the Greyhound Pub, one of the five houses that make up the whole town, the world championship title is murmured every year.

"There is a marble slab made of concrete, which is also very old, that goes back to the 1930s. And in the end it’s like a little folk festival. Teams come there just to have fun and drink beer – and there is still a barbecue – just to have a nice day", says Jens. "Americans are very often there and Dutch, Czechs come from Europe. But that varies a little from year to year."

The real marble flair is only found in England

As with boxing, there are various associations for mumbling that claim to hold world championships. But they don’t compete with each other, because the game is played according to different rules. For example, the French organization Mondial Billes hosts the world finale in sand marbles on the French Atlantic coast every August. Players who have qualified via the respective national title may participate.

"In Prague this is also called the World Cup, but the World Cup in this one discipline", says Chris. "We have never participated in it. The Czechs play it similar to the German Kuhlemurmeln. I do not like to judge whether they deserve the name World Championships. The World Cup has been held in England since 1932."

Jens: "We have successfully participated there many times. We are now six times world team champions, five times Chris, single, Susi has won the women’s singles in one year."

There is only a simple challenge cup for the world champion. However, the host of the Greyhound Pub sponsors a crate of beer for every second place team fighter.

"People like to talk about tradition, about traditional associations", so Chris. "And if you really want to experience the traditional marble, the marble flair, then in my opinion you can only experience it in England."


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