Marbles, PHV Style

One of the strongest memories I have of my elementary school years in Patrick Henry Village is that of playing marbles.  But this wasn’t the familiar game of marbles where you draw a circle in the dirt, place all the marbles in the center, and then try to knock them out.  Oh, no.  In PHV, the game had become an art form.  It may not have been unique to PHV, but I haven’t met anyone Stateside who has ever heard of this form of the game.  Could it have been adapted from a German game?

Whatever the origin, the version of marbles we played at PHV was enormously popular among school-age boys.  Everyone had their collection of marbles and often would display their prize possessions in a tin Sucrets lozenge box, which was perfect for displaying around 12 or 15 of your finest marbles.  I recall back pockets having the familiar rectangular bulge of one of these containers, and the rattle it would make with each step.

Finest marbles?  There was a complex hierarchy to determine the perceived value of each of these glass orbs.  I say perceived because I’m sure it was almost wholly concocted by the kids themselves with little basis on actual rarity, and probably if you drifted from one of PHV’s many playgrounds to another, you’d find a different group of kids who might have different names and valuations for the same things.

But as I recall, at the bottom of the ladder of desirability was the Cats Eye.  Everybody had lots of those.  One of the most coveted marbles was the Bumble Bee, black and yellow and rarely seen.  One time an older kid offered to sell one for a dollar, and my brother and I sprinted back to our apartment to try and be the first to get the money from our parents.  Other marble types I recall off the top of my head are: Woodies, Steelies, Boulders, Milky Ways, Inkies, Green Grassies, Crystals, Striped Zombies, Hitlers, Beach Balls, Blue Bonnets, Sandstorms, Presidentials, Root Beers, Butterscotches, Bloody Marys, Spaghettis, Batmans, Ghosts….  The list went on and on and was probably infinite because I’m sure a lot of the names were made up on-the-spot in a bid to seem more knowledgeable than your opponents.  For instance, I recall having an ugly green and brown marble which a classmate assured me was called a Polluted Water.  That seems fairly unlikely, looking back, but I took this very seriously at the time and would often pore through my cheesecake tin full of marbles identifying them and admiring the ones I thought were more valuable.

How to Play

The rules were just as nonsensical and infinite as the names of the marble types, and it’s been over 30 years since I played, so I’m unable to fully explain how it worked.  But here’s my best attempt.

Our game of marbles revolved around the pot, which was a small hole in the ground.  Sometimes you’d find a popular patch of dirt with several pots dug into it for varied play.  Shallow pots were of advanced difficulty because you could shoot your marble in one side and it would roll out the other.  Sometimes a few extra marbles would be placed in the pot to act as blockers and make things easier.

At the start of the game, everyone would start a fair distance away from the pot and take turns shooting their marble toward it.  Shooting the marble generally consisted of making a loose fist and flicking your thumb outward, but the middle finger was also a popular technique.  At this stage, the game was a race to get into the pot first because whoever did that would get to call the rules for this particular match.  It was very similar to a friendly game of poker, really, where the dealer of each hand might call different rules such as making dueces or one-eyed Jacks wild.  I couldn’t begin to describe all the rule variants that were in every boy’s repertoire at the time, but it was very important that you get to the pot first so that you could choose the rules that you felt would give you the best advantage.

Once the rules were set, the objective changed.  Now your goal was to eliminate other players from the game.  Players had different states; I don’t recall them all, but there were maybe four and I know one was Poisoned.  If you think of the game HORSE in basketball, this worked similarly.  Everyone would start with a clean slate and would progress through the different states until they hit Death, when they were out.  Gaining a new status is like gaining a letter in HORSE–it brings you closer to losing the game.

To progress another player toward Death, you had to hit their marble with yours.  So after calling the rules for the game, this player would shoot outward from the pot toward the best target.  If he missed, it could be bad luck for him because his marble might then be easy prey for the next player.  If he hit, then he got another turn.  I think normally he was allowed to hit the same target a second time to advance it yet again, but I’m guessing one of the spontaneously invented variant rules disallowed this.

Once you’d been hit, your status would continue to deteriorate one step with each turn you took.  So your priority would be to get your marble into the pot, which would reset your status to the beginning so that you could keep playing.  If you took too long to get to the pot or missed that critical final shot, then you were eliminated from the game.  Obviously this reset ability could make for some extended matches, and I recall several times being called home to dinner but trying to hurry and finish the game first.

Games could be played for Funs or for Keepsies.  Most of the time, you’d want to play for Funs because Keepsies meant that the winner would get to keep your marble forever!  So if you did decide to play for Keepsies, the marble you chose to play with would be a very important decision and there might be some negotiation between players to make sure everyone was gambling similarly valued pieces.  It seems like sometimes there would be additional marbles wagered as well, and they would be placed in the pot until a winner emerged.

It sounds crazy and inconsistent and broken and I’m sure that it was, given that your opponent always seemed to know of some additional rule which you hadn’t heard before.  But at the time I didn’t suspect a thing, I just saw it as a fascinating and complex game where collecting the marbles themselves was just as fun as playing the game.

If anyone has heard of something resembling this form of marble game, I’d love to hear about it and see where perhaps my memory is faulty or just incomplete.

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18 thoughts on “Marbles, PHV Style

  1. N

    Nice post! I was on ebay and the site suggested I look at some antique marbles…I went on a little google adventure and here I am! I lived on PHV from 1985-1988…you’re spot on about the marble obsession…oddly enough, when it came to marble values the kids may have been onto something (if you look up values of antique marbles). A couple of things I remember…there were two marble courts. The ranges of ages was incredible…you’d have 3rd graders playing 10th graders. And then of course…the champ of the base was the “Marble King.” There were usually a few disputes about who was the real champ. And if I remember right, each Marble Court eventually had their own King. Special permission had to be granted to play with a steelie…which was really just a ballbearing that would break most marbles in two. A craze which swept the base was heating your cheap catseyes in a frying pan, and then dropping them directly into a bowl of ice and placing it into the freezer. The marbles would crack inside, and you could use them for target practice…a nice hit would shatter the marble into dozens (seemed like millions) of pieces. The entire sport had something of a caste system as well…if you had horrible marbles, nobody would want to play you. (Usually there was a good crowd of waiters who would trade marbles while watching the game)…if you had nothing but catseyes, you’d be there a while. Also…the popularity of marbles would ebb and flow…it would be cool for a few weeks, then the marble court would be a ghost town…then it would be cool again. And my last memory…it was very important to stretch out a cotton ball or two to place in the bottom of your Sucrets tin to be sure your marbles weren’t damaged by all the bouncing around in your pocket.

  2. Thanks! I’m amazed to hear that the game was still going strong several years after my time in PHV, especially since I’ve never heard any mention of it in the States. What you describe sounds a lot more organized that what I recall, but it may just have been that I was too young at the time to be aware of all the “marble politics” going on around me. 🙂

  3. As an update to this post, I did a little browsing into marbles and based on the page at the link below, I think that much of my marble collection were made by either Peltier Glass or Marble King. That said, I can remember a lot of marbles that don’t look like anything shown on this page…and likewise, some of the marbles on this page are completely unfamiliar to me.
    http://www.landofmarbles.com/marbles-collection.html

  4. Mike

    Excellent blog! I remember marbles at PHV to be unique. I lived there for 2 years (71-72, 2nd & 3rd grade). The marble areas were said to be clay, smooth and hard enough to roll well but not too hard. We mostly played what you describe (we called it “potsies” I think) and most everybody played for keeps with some wager in the pot (shooters weren’t always included in the wager). I don’t recall it ever being like horse, the last person in the pot was “poison” and one had to get into the pot before being hit to become poison and be able to knock out other players. Some games had multiple poisons (everyone who made it in the pot) and some only one (the last player to do so). We also played a game without a pot, just a chase, usually with only 2 players, the first to hit the other got to keep the marbles. On rare occasions the game with the circle was played. None of the other places I lived had anywhere near the marble culture of PHV (and I’ve never seen the game with a pot elsewhere either). Marbles at PHV had values when I was there (a Frenchie was worth 20 catseyes, a Saturn was worth ?? etc) that I’m sure were made up and probably changed but not often as they seemed to be recognized by all in my particular area. So, playing for 20 might involve one player putting 20 marbles in the pot to another’s 1 marble.

  5. joey

    oh yeah- the marbles….my time there from 73-78…many many games of marbles (yes-we called it potsies at the time) were played, many knees of pants were soiled, many mythical marbles were searched for….the ever elusive hitler marble was never seen by my eyes during that time-but it wasn’t for a lack of searching…..the whole ‘cooking’ of cats eyes… I had heard of it- but could never convince my mother to let me try that- nor was I brave enough to try to do it on the sly. I guess I was different when it came to transporting my marbles-I didn’t use the classic sucrets can…I had a little leather pouch, kept them all nice and tight so they didn’t make noise when walking.

  6. hey joey. i bet we played each other. i was there 76-79. john coughlin, peter weil, i cant remember many other players. rhen ahue. thirty plus years but its like yesterday. i used to love that stuff. what was pro and add?
    maybe i am mixing games..

  7. Tom

    Marbles! No true account of Heidelberg for an American kid can forget marbles. I’m so impressed you included this- and of course with the sucrets box invariably lined with kleenex for padding. A few details I remember (and I can’t believe this even popped into my head) the scoring status was Re, Dead and Out – at least the way we played it in MTV. And I recall that the marble we used for a shot to the pot (with backspin of course) was called a thumper which is what would be created by taking a crappy marble and scuffing it up on concrete to get maximum grip when shooting off the middle fingernail.

  8. Pingback: PHV in the 1960s | Patrick Henry Village

  9. EaglesSoccerTeam

    (80-83) definitely the rules were Re, Dead, Out in the early 80’s. When new kids moved in we’d always try to scam their marbles. “rumbles” was when you’d throw your good marbles just to watch kids chase after them. “pop your case” someone would hit the bottom of your sucrets case when you were showing your marbles. A few of us made secret marble courts even out in Lizards Hill

    • The term “rumbles” does seem familiar, and I do remember chasing after some supposedly good marbles that some other kid was throwing for whatever reason. I remember I got a marble called a Presedential that way, and was assured that it was a really good one, but I don’t know that it really was or if Presedential was an official name.

      Where is Lizards Hill?

  10. James McAllister

    (76-79) My family lived in apartments on S. Gettysburg. I went to the middle school and played all the nearby marble courts. I remember the poison pot rules of “re, dead, out”. Coveted marbles were frenchies, purple people eaters, beach balls, superman, “inside-outside” something, spaghettis… Throwaway marbles were clearies, cowboys and cat-eyes. Only beat the marble king once or twice. To keep the game fresh I invented a variation where certain pots on the court transported you to other pots which could move you closer to your prey. My brother and I thought we invented the boiled marble dropped in ice trick, but it was probably invented independently a dozen times or more. We told the other kids our dad brought them back from Vietnam and they were very rare. If you were low on marbles you could get a bunch by drawing two lines in the dirt and placing a somewhat valuable marble on one line and declaring it was “on the line!”. The other kids tried to hit your marble from behind the other line. The hope was you could collect all the marbles you wanted before it was struck and you could close down the contest.

    The other thing I remember about PHV was how certain candies became a rage, rather like the Dutch tulip craze of the 1600s. If someone stateside sent you Pop-rocks, Hubba Bubba bubblegum, or jumbo Sweet-Tarts, everyone wanted to be your friend.

  11. Daniel Chamblee

    I was there 20 years before you (1960-63) and playing marbles, along with little league baseball, was an essential part of the life of an army brat boy of between 6 to 15 years of age – there were many variations of marble games – too numerous to mention – my close friends and I even played a sort of traveling game which followed an obstacle course that we laid out in advance – I remember that my marble collection was my prized possession (afterwards back in the States that changed to my comic book collection) – I remember steelies and woodies and boulders and cats eyes – my brother, 3 years older, would remember more I’m sure because he was an excellent player and had a magnificent collection – we didn’t use sucrets boxes – we used a small cloth bag with a string for our most valued marbles and a larger strong brown paper bag for our more numerous regular marbles – trading marbles from our collections was a great pastime too – – – – – Lizard Hill was the center for meeting and playing and planning escapades – we played army and cowboys at Lizard Hill – I fell to my death rolling down Lizard Hill countless times – I have many happy fun memories of those times – I’m glad to learn that Patrick Henry Village was pretty much the same 20 years later from my time there – was Halloween a big deal when you were there? – and big time snowball fights?

    • Rick

      I was there a year or two earlier and overlapped into early-mid ’60 when we came back to the states. We too had the pouch system if we could find one and I also recall a bulging blue jeans pocket when our supply was lean. There were mounds of hardened sand that we would have our small holes dug into and we would vary hole sizes and often shoot uphill, across, etc to increase difficulty in sinking our marble. A standard playing circle on level ground was always nearby.
      Some years ago I found my remaining collection as it somehow survived two moves following my dad’s posts and have it to this day along with some of my other valued memories of early childhood. We did our our cooking on a cookie sheet in the oven for additional heat temperature before dropping them into ice water. It is interesting how we would copy each other’s ideas for storing the marbles, how that evolved and variations of how the game was played continued over so many years. Early on PHV didn’t have so many choices of entertainment and often it was creativity in a youngster’s mind that made for an exciting day. Thanks for the posts!

    • Celi R

      We were also there in the early 60’s and I have very fond memories of playing marbles. It wasn’t JUST boys, though I was a bit of a tomboy in those days, and had four brothers. Unlike a previous poster, to us “clearies” we’re high value marbles. Boulders, the big ones, weren’t. I think we called the game poison pots, but I have lost my memories of the rules.

      Like all things kid-related, things went in seasons or fads. One fad was playing with pocket knives, mumblety peg (sp?) and some daring game I can’t remember. We also roller skated a lot and rode bikes. We had a canvas bag setup that went over the back fender of a bike and we’d ride to Foodland to buy milk; each saddlebag could hold 3 quarts. Another game, more popular with girls, involved bouncing a tennis ball off the side of the building and catching it. There was 7 Up and something else lost to memory. Also, a dodge ball type game called Ghost. Comic books were also popular and hotly traded.

      I think the sheer numbers of kids, and the safe environment, is what makes us cherish those days. Kids now have so much less freedom and their days and activities are so structured by adults that it’s a very different experience from what we grew up with.

      • Daniel Chamblee

        hi Celi R. – Yes, poison pots was the name of a very popular marbles game. Boulders were too easily pocked and beat up to be valuable; also they were not allowed as shooters, obviously. They were the big ugly sacrificial soldiers. Mumbley-peg was quite a big deal because we played with pocket knives, as you said. There was a chance of getting cut or punctured. There were many variations of this knife game. Ghost, yes again – our name for dodge ball. Thanks for reminding me of these details. Another marble type – do you remember “spaghettis”?
        Also the boys also played a not too brilliant game of throwing rocks at each others’ heads and bodies – army brat mentality.
        We were lucky to be kids in those times (and later, hippie times) – and lucky to have survived it.

      • James McAllister

        A thousand years from now, archaeologists will unearth all the dropped and forgotten marbles that surely accumulated over the decades and wonder about the strange cult that obsessed over them. Probably somehow connected to all the rabbit bones.

        Actually, the adults had their own obsessions too, at least during my time (76-79). On any good day the grounds were always being swept by guys with metal detectors. One guy I knew found a buffalo nickel. Pretty cool, but nothing compared to the cache of potato-masher grenades found excavating for the middle school.

  12. Jake

    Wow does this post bring back memories!! I lived at PHV from ’81-’85 while in 3rd – 6th grade and your post is pretty spot on – definitely remember many games of marbles including the “pots,” trading for valuable marbles, and the Sucrets box storage system! I do recall a valuable class of marble as ones that had an S shape in it – a snakey or snake-eye or cobra… not sure exactly what we called it. I do remember looking carefully through the mesh bags of marbles at the store to find the bag that had the best combination of valuable marbles!

    I recently thought it’d be cool to teach the game of marbles to my kids (now about the age I was at PHV) and was shocked how unfamiliar the rules seemed when I looked them up: A circle? No pots? What is this game? Interesting to hear it may be a German/PHV variant and fascinating how long-lived it was, especially since I don’t recall playing it anywhere else during any other tour of duty! Sad that it may have gone the way of the dodo bird with the closing of PHV… Thanks for your post and blog – glad I found it while doing a bit of web-based reminiscing!

  13. Alan

    I’m simply amazed this post exists! I lived in PHV from 1985-1988. My family moved to Sandhausen for the remainder of my fathers tour. (we extended tour) I attended PHV elementary, and ended up moving back to the states the summer before 7th grade.

    I lived in one of the buildings really close to the middle school, and we played marbles after school every day in the large gap between rows of buildings. Down in the shade, between trees there were scatterings of packed, worn earth with little “pots” dug out. There were kids crouched at the extent of these circles on a daily basis. From what I’ve read so far, it sounds like we all had slightly different jargon.

    The top dog marbles were “Scruples”, followed by Snakey’s, bumble bee / wasps, batman’s, and steelies. Snakey’s were the most common of the coveted high quality marbles, and I remember kids calling them all sorts of things. Blue bonnet snakey, Bloody Mary snakey, Superman Snakey, Cabbage Patch snakey, Aquaman Snakey, etc. Scruples were snakey’s with 3+ colors, and pretty darn rare if I recall.

    The variation of the game we played was called “Pot Poey”. I wish I could remember the rules. I know the basic premise was to knock the other kids marbles into the pot. The really skilled players would lodge the marble between their middle finger and thumb, and turn their wrist facing up. The idea was to smack your opponents marble into the pot, and put enough spin on your own marble that prevented it from following in after. I can remember several shots where kids would spin their marble directly on the lip of the pot, and everyone would cheer.

    I still have my prized selection of marbles from my time spent there. You can see my sucrets case here. http://www.alan-warren.com/images/phv_marbles.jpg

    I’m sure some of you can identify nearly all of them 😉

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