Losing their marbles?

By Paula Newman

english beach marbles

The facts that explain marbles found on beaches around the world.

To understand how important marbles were, and still are to beachcombers, we need to go back to Ancient Egypt, Central America, and elsewhere. Finding small, smoothed spherical stones on beaches has been something that humans have done for millennia and led to the development of many games played both by adults and children. Any society that had mastered the skills of shaping and working stone also discovered how to use the small waste pieces to make their own “stones” without need of visiting a beach. It wasn’t until the Ancient Greeks turned their attention to making these spherical delights from marble that the term marbles was first used.

By the 19th century, the expression was in common usage, having also been adapted to mean personal items or “stuff” in modern parlance. This is because it sounded very like the French word meubles, which means furniture. So to lose one’s marbles could mean losing everything and reflected the importance of marbles to children who spent so much time treasuring, playing with and collecting their own. To lose them, either in a game, or simply by means of a hole in one’s trouser pocket, would be the cause of great distress for any child. 

This brings us to a common fallacy that sea marbles appear on our beaches because of their use as “ballast” on ships, so that when they become wrecked, the marbles spill out. In the research for my new pocket guide, Sea Marbles: Lost, Tossed and Found, this notion was easily disproved, as ballast was always cheap, heavy, and often discarded if the ship was to encounter a sandbank. The thought of anyone using precious, handmade glass spheres containing some beautiful colors and patterns being used in such a pointless and disposable way is frankly a ridiculous notion. 

The solution is far simpler and broken down into two options: accidental or deliberate loss. If you imagine a group of boys playing on a typical Victorian street, they are likely to be told to scatter by adults trying to pass, and they would scoop up their marbles and run off. In the confusion it was common to drop one or two marbles, and these would end up in the gutter. And eventually, by means of rain or street washing (think horses, lots of horses), in coastal towns the marbles would be washed through storm drains and into outfall pipes that ran well out to sea—as the drains and pipes were originally used to carry sewage. Once ejected from the pipe, they would spend years being tumbled before returning to the shore, helped by their rounded shape. 

marble found on the beach

The second option, deliberate disposal into the sea, was also a factor as some children would steal marbles, and much to the annoyance of their owner, throw them into the sea. This was not as common as the first scenario, but it has been researched and found to be a common taunt of bullies. That is not the only deliberate disposal, however, as the same Victorian thinking that sending sewage out to sea would make it disappear also meant that taking household waste out to sea and dumping it in deep water was seen as the best method of disposal—compared to the later preference for landfill. In addition, industrial waste was treated the same way, which is how we find such volume and variety of glass on Seaham Beach in Northeast England. 

sea glass marbles

Imagine these factors being repeated around the world and you will see how the places that we find sea marbles to this day can be scattered across the coastlines of the world. That brings us to the varieties and materials that make up the marbles of the world. Speaking of the ones found in the UK, we have glass marbles, plain and decorative, that before the First World War would mainly be German marbles, with a few produced by glassmakers in the UK. There are also clay marbles made in France, Belgium, and other countries, but not so many stone marbles. 

With the advent of mass production and the growth of factories in the UK, United States, and in many other countries, each having their favorite patterns and colors, the volume of marbles being made increased. The playing of marbles in the streets was now joined by Bagatelle games based on billiards but using a board with pins or pegs to catch the marbles in order to score points.

beach marbles on sand 

Other games, puzzles, and uses for marbles blossomed in the 1920s and 30s, which is referred to as the “Golden Age of Marbles,” all helping to increase the popularity of marbles and increase production. The Second World War then disrupted things, and in the 1950s, the advent of cheap imported Japanese marbles caused the demise of homegrown varieties. This helps to explain the age of the marbles we find washing ashore on our beaches. Late Victorian marbles are by now reduced in size quite considerably and are becoming harder to find, while factory-made marbles from the early 20th Century are less worn and more commonly to be seen, with a variety of bright colors and patterns. 

clay marbles found on beach in england

Sadly, we don’t expect to find Roman marbles washing up on our beach, either stone or glass ones as the Romans made both, but as marbles from the Middle Ages are commonly found in archeological digs, some of these may have survived—we can only hope. 

There is one other Victorian/Edwardian marble type that is found along our coast in Northeast England and can be found in America and elsewhere, and that is the Codd marble. I am sure that you are all quite familiar with the history of these single-color marbles, used as a means of sealing bottles of sparkling drinks, that despite being recycled, yes even back then, eventually would be discarded along with other bottle waste out at sea. As the bottles break, the Codd marbles escape and make their own way to the shore along with the sea tumbled shards of bottle glass. 

codd marble heart

Marbles are still made to this day, many for well-known games such as KerPlunk, but modern marble production is focused in Mexico, where the majority of marbles are currently made, and, of course, China. Whether many of these will appear in years to come on beaches is hard to know, unless of course we hear of a container load of marbles falling from a container ship in a storm—such as happened off the coast of Cornwall a few years back, with a container full of LEGO sets, causing a massive rise in beachcombing on the Cornish coast as people waited to grab some modern-day treasure, but that’s another story. 

One last common expression before we go and it relates to what we do on the beach: To “pick up the marbles” is a term that is used when collecting a prize or award. And with the addition of one word, to “pick up one’s marbles” means literally to take your marbles and leave the game, thus ending it. The former is the one that I found to be appropriate to sea marble collecting, as when you pick up a marble, you really are collecting a prize.

Read more about sea marbles, their patterns, and origins in Paula’s guide, Sea Marbles: Lost, Tossed and Found. Available at Peblsrock.uk or Peblsart.uk.

This article appeared in the Beachcombing Magazine November/December 2020 issue. 

More about marbles:

Learn more about the beaches of Seaham, England, where Paula beachcombs

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