John Foster

Bumbos, Swirlys and a Chinese Birdcage: A Snapshot of Marbles

Last month, I was at a local flea market in Illinois when I spotted two elderly men sharing a magnifying glass, both peering intently at something one man held between two fingers. Both were dressed in well-worn bib overalls, their heads side-by-side, almost touching. They spoke quietly, like schoolboys studying a science specimen. I feigned interest in their table of goods in order to better observe them, curious as to the object of their gaze. I noticed that in one man’s lap was a small case, opened to reveal a neatly organized array of marbles. The mystery was solved.

I smiled, knowing they were engaged in that intense kind of collectors’ banter that connoisseurs enjoy. Unable to hear their conversation, I wondered about the kinds of issues marble collectors might discuss. I could see that their intensity had the ability to cut off the outside world, as they did not notice my stare for some time. I understood their passion for an object. It was warmly familiar to me.

To a child, marbles are more beautiful than diamonds. Shiny, multi-color glass orbs, each one slightly different, marbles are a child’s first bling. Though the game of marbles had long fallen out of fashion when I was a boy in the late 1950s, marbles were still available at hobby shops. Green’s Hobby Shop, just a block from my house, had a bin of marbles. I remember scooping them up in both hands, letting them fall through my fingers back into their compartment. Marbles possessed two of my favorite things ― mystery and beauty. What more could I want?

While I was never an aficionado of marbles, I do remember the Cat Eye. Cat Eyes are still the most common mass-produced marble on the market. I was always curious about how marbles were made. I still am.

With a little research I discovered that marbles have a rich history in this country, and with names like Bumblebees, Aggies, Clearies, Rubies, Blue Moons, Clays, Bumbos, Turtles, Oxbloods, Pearls, Tigers, Swirlys, Steelies, Devil Eyes and Commies, they conjure up dusty games of bygone days when “playing for keeps” could make or break a kid’s week.

The selection of marbles you see here today are from Morphy Auction House in Denver, Pennsylvania. In their recent May 26 auction, some big dollars left hands for key marbles. Lot number 140, a rare Chinese 5-color Pontil Birdcage marble was the big prize, with the hammer hitting at $7,800. I asked Dan Morphy, CEO and Owner of Morphy Auctions, to explain the unique qualities for a prize marble like this one. 

“Size, condition, rarity and overall eye appeal are the criteria for judging or buying marbles,” he said. “That Chinese Birdcage Marble we sold may have set an all-time high record for Chinese marbles. The best marbles usually come from Germany, and that is one of the many reasons lot #140 is so special and was the highest bid lot of the day.”

The marble is indeed a beauty. The catalog describes it as being 1 9/16 inches in diameter, with a “controlled bubble inside of a cage and one controlled bubble around the middle of the birdcage. Also, one controlled bubble at the bottom of the cage, with color groupings of white, orange, blue, yellow, and green latticino.”

The next highest-selling marble was Lot #37, which sold for $4500 and featured a rare, four-paneled controlled mica onionskin.

Other lots to note with high bids were 118, 163, 213, 261, and 560.

So, you seekers of beauty, you lookers of life, you absorbers of art ― maybe the next time you see a table of marbles at an antique show, you will linger a bit longer. Perhaps you can discern that elusive quality called “overall eye appeal” as described by Dan Morphy. It may take some research and education to judge rarity, size and condition ― but eye-appeal? I think most of you readers would do a fine job selecting a beautiful marble. 

Like the two older gentlemen in the overalls, perhaps someday―should you catch the bug―you might sit with a friend and discuss the charms of a glass orb. Why not?

Rare 5-Color Single Pontil Birdcage Marble, price realized $7,800.

Large Onionskin Marble with Mica, price realized $360.

Large Double Ribbon Swirl Marble, price realized $150.

Peppermint Ribbon Marble with Mica, price realized $330.

Large Divided Core Swirl Marble, price realized $150.

Single Pontil Cloud Marble, price realized $90.

Deep-Lobed English Joseph's Coat Swirl Marble, price realized $210.

Single Pontil End of Day Marble, price realized $150.

Large 12-Lobed Onionskin Marble, price realized $1,560.

Rare 4-Paneled Controlled Mica Onionskin Marble, price realized $4,500.

Indian Lutz Marble, price realized $90.

Standing Jester Sulphide Marble, price realized $2,160.

Akro Agate Carnelian Oxblood Marble with Yellow, price realized $90.
Akro Agate Lemonade Oxblood Marble, price realized $210.
New Italian Marble, price realized $150.
Sunset Nebula Marble, price realized $90.

Single Pontil End of Day Marble, price realized $1,200.

Large Banded Lutz Marble, price realized $180.

Green Opaque Banded Lutz Marble, price realized $330.

Submerso Marble, price realized $210.

Posted in: Accidental Mysteries, Popular Culture

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Comments [1]
the $ values were distracting from the artistry

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