By Kirsti Scott
Beachcombers love finding marbles on the beach. When we think of a beach marble, most of us picture a soft, round, glowing glass orb that comes in every color of the rainbow and often more than one color in a single one. But, also found on the beach are marbles made from clay. Though they have less “eye appeal” than glass marbles, clay marbles have a much longer history and can be every bit as fun to find as glass sea marbles.
Clay marbles have been made throughout history, ever since humans realized that a ball of clay rolled and heated in a fire made a fun toy. Marbles from Rome and Egypt, dated to as early as 4,000 BC, are in the British Museum. Shakespeare mentions a game similar to marbles, and a 1560 painting “Children’s Games” by Pieter Brueghel the Elder shows kids playing with marbles.
Samuel Dyke, an American newspaper owner in Akron, Ohio, started a business to mass-produce clay marbles in 1884, which made the price for these toys plunge. For probably the first time in history, a child could purchase a toy for themselves: a small bag of clay marbles for a penny. Because they were so common, clay marbles were nicknamed “commies” and were played with by kids in the 19th and early 20th century. Though not as sought-after by collectors as their brightly colored glass descendants, marble players insist that ceramic marbles are superior to glass for playing.
From the late 19th century through the early 20th century, clay marbles were mass produced in the U.S. and Germany. Some clay marbles were made with rough tan, red, brown, or grey clay; some dyed in a range of colors (called “polished” marbles); and some glazed.
Crockery or agateware marbles were created from incompletely mixed clays of different colors, which created swirls of color in the finished product when fired. Porcelain marbles called “Chinas” were made from white kaolin clay and were sometimes hand-painted with geometric patterns and images.
Salt-glazed stoneware marbles are often called “Bennington” marbles, as they resemble the mottled glazes of pottery made by Bennington Potters in Vermont, though they were not actually made by the Bennington pottery. These clay marbles were kiln fired in huge batches by many different manufacturers, and where they touched each other, the glaze didn’t stick and created spots on the surface that look like the sponged pieces made by Bennington. Single-color "Benningtons" are most common—those glazed brown, blue, and green are called “fancy Benningtons.”
Civil War marbles
Search online for clay marbles and you’ll find tons of listings for “Civil War” marbles, claiming the marbles were found under a marble factory during construction of Atlanta’s Centennial Olympic Park, dug up on the Gettysburg battlefield, or found in a Tennessee river. These marbles are mostly fakes and are modern clay marbles processed to look old or painted with a star design. Though collectible, they are mostly kept as an example of fraudulent marbles.
Some beachcombers mistake clay marbles found on the beach for musket balls, but they are likely children’s toy marbles. Musket balls were made of lead, not clay, as the explosive force when firing a musket would have reduced clay balls to powder.
Playing for keeps
By the time a clay marble washes up on the shore of a lake, river, or sea, the glaze or decoration has often been worn off, leaving a single-colored or lightly patterned clay or porcelain ball. But, it’s fun to imagine the voyage of this humble sphere: starting out as the first toy that a child was able to purchase on their own, being played with until it rolled or was thrown away, to washing up on a beach decades later. It’s a fun part of history and a great addition to your collection.
Photo credits, top to bottom, left to right: Shelley Thomas, The Portable Antiquities Scheme/Stuart Wyatt, Instaseaglass, Cindy Cerefin, Marylou Forrest, Lou Collings, Maristella, Marylou Forrest, Marylou Forrest, Marylou Forrest, Ginger Bowman, Bennington Potters, National Museum of American History, Lauri Allen, Christine Solorio, Marylou Forrest, Marylou Forrest, PumpkinSky, Nxr-at, Marylou Forrest, Marylou Forrest, Marylou Forrest, Shelley Thomas.
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This article appeared in the Beachcombing Magazine November/December 2021 issue.