Making a living on marbles
By LAURA L. HUTCHISON
Aggies, clearies, and cat’s-eyes aren’t in the average person’s daily vocabulary.
But Jack and Sue Hahn aren’t your average people. Their lives revolve around marbles.
“You can’t enter a room in this house without there being marbles,” said Jack, better known throughout the marbling world as The Marble Man.
And that is a major understatement.
Glass containers shaped like human heads are filled with marbles in the couple’s Woodford home in Caroline County. Collector’s-item marbles are displayed on wooden shelves. And in the workshop area in the basement, more than 5 tons of assorted marbles await purchase or shipping.
“I don’t plan on running out any time soon,” Jack said.
It all started innocently enough. Sue inherited a Chinese checkers board her grandfather had given to her grandmother. Living in a home with several other people, they’d have Wednesday night dinners and Chinese checkers tournaments. Sue was doing hand weavings and traveling around to craft shows, so Jack fashioned a couple of Chinese checkers boards to sell at the next show.
“I made six boards out of plywood,” he said. “We sold them all before noon.”
The Marble Man business was born. Originally they sold single-color marbles for Chinese checkers, but then people started asking if they had any more interesting marbles.
Now they stock at least 60 varieties–clearies, which are made of any color transparent glass; agates, originally made of a quartz material but then adopted by marble manufacturers to describe many different types of marbles; and cat’s-eyes, marbles with central eye-shaped colored inserts or cores. “Old-fashioneds” are marbles of randomly swirled glass. They’ve been made since the 1920s, but the machinery is better now.
Most modern marbles are made by melting recycled glass, which is shaped into globs. The globs are dropped onto rotating coils shaped like the threads of a screw. At the end of the coil, the marbles are round and cool enough to keep their shape when they’re dropped into a bucket. When they’re completely cool, the marbles are sorted by size.
Not every marble winds up perfect, and true marble connoisseurs often have a collection of “marble mutants.” These deformed marbles may be flat on one side, have a little hump of extra glass, or even be doughnut-shaped with a hole in the middle.
There are artisans making handmade marbles in a variety of sizes. The Hahns have several among their collection.
Jack’s favorite marble features a portrait of Richard Nixon.
“He was such a part of my younger years,” said Jack, 60, “with Watergate, the draft, the war.”
Sue’s favorite is called the H2Orb. It’s a clear marble filled with liquid and streaks of colored glass floating inside.
While there are marble collectors, most of the Hahns’ marbles are used for games. They make about 30 wooden game boards, in eight different finishes, for everything from Chinese checkers to tick-tack-toe.
And many of their marbles are used to actually play the original game. In fact, for many years Jack has served as a referee at the National Marbles Tournament, held for the 89th year last month in Wildwood, N.J.
Children ages 6-15 compete in the tournament, with the overall champion king and queen “mibsters” shooting more than 300 matches over the course of the six-day event.
Tournament participants play the classic game of Ringer, the goal of which is to be the first to shoot seven of 13 marbles out of the ring. In the tournament, the winner of each match is the mibster who wins the best eight of 15 games. This year’s tournament came down to the 13th marble of the 15th game in both the boys and girls competitions.
Jack is a bit worried about the future of marbles. Though there are some strong marbles clubs with generations of winners in places such as Maryland, Pennsylvania and Colorado, there isn’t a local club.
The Hahns said they’d be happy to help an interested adult get a club started, put them in touch with the national organization and teach kids the ropes of Ringer. But they travel regularly to make their living at craft shows, and can’t be the week-to-week coaches future marbles champions would need.
Hahn said the appeal of marbles is more than nostalgia.
“There are no buttons, no batteries, no beeps, boops or buzzes. Just you and your aim.”
Laura L. Hutchison: 540/374-5485