Any older person can tell you (and will tell you, with some regularity): Things were better back in the day. This was true as far back as 1953. A reader of the Minneapolis Sunday Tribune explained the proper way to play marbles:
Marbles as Played in City 40 Years Ago Was a Real 'Spectator' Sport
To the Editor: For many years a gross historical inaccuracy has existed, perpetrated, I believe, by newspapermen nostalgic for their lost boyhood. I refer to the game of marbles.
In picture or description even during the heyday of the robust game of marbles as we played it, marbles has always been portrayed as a mamby-pamby affair with boys (or even girls!) hunched around a circle, shooting marbles between thumb and forefinger. I never played it, but I doubt that 100 marbles could change hands all day in such a pastime.
To that generation now between 40 and 50, reared on the north side in Minneapolis (possibly the south side was too effete for the game) marbles began long before the vernal equinox. With snow still on the ground, but as soon as it was warm enough for us to get our hands out of our short pants pockets, we would play "hits and spans." You would throw a marble out 5 or 10 feet and your opponent would try to throw another marble close enough to hit yours or within a hand span of it. If he failed it was your turn. A hit or a span won the other marble -- really not much of a game.
Then one day in March or April a patch of dry sidewalk would appear here and there. Hundreds of little boys would come down out of trees, crawl out of tents or caves, or retreat from walking on the rubbery ice of lakes, ponds or the Mississippi river, and the real marble games would begin. From two to 50 boys might be in a game. Inexpensive, small, baked clay marbles (10 or 15 for a cent) were rolled at agates, steeleys or flints. We would roll from three to five sidewalk squares away for agates (1 for a cent) and sometimes so far you could hardly see them for flints (worth up to a quarter). Rules were simple: you rolled marbles until you hit the agate or flint, and then your opponents did likewise until marbles or time were gone.
The boy with the agate would place it cunningly behind a crack or unevenness in the sidewalk. On the bumpy surfaces agates were hard to hit. The lad with the agate would sit with his legs astride to capture the marbles as they rolled in. Marbles that leaped the outstretched legs or which rolled to either side were fair prey of lads temporarily out of marbles. With four or five boys rolling, sometimes two marbles would hit the agate at the same time. The resulting arguments often ended in fist fights which were even more enjoyable that the marble game.
We played our smaller games involving six or eight boys near our homes. Only a few agates and 200 or 300 marbles were involve. The big games were played on West Broadway where the older "tough kids" congregated. Dozens of boys and thousands of marbles were in the continuing game.
Passersby good naturedly walked around the maddening crowd of young enthusiasts.
You could come into a game with a thousand marbles and leave destitute, or you could pirate a few strays, get into the game and come away with all the marbles. Skill, chance, effrontery, good sportsmanship and downright thievery were all included in marbles as we played. It was a prelude to the competition in adult life, and anyone large or small, strong or weak, could play. Its effects, salutary or invidious, are remember today by men, be they derelicts or senator. And to think, for shame, that a conspiracy of the press has kept our children from even knowing about this noble game! -- J.K. MacKenzie, Minneapolis.
March 21, 1936: Playing the game the wrong way at Washington School in downtown Minneapolis. The elementary school, built in 1888, was torn down in 1971 to make way for Hennepin County Medical Center. (Minneapolis Star photo)
Playing marbles the right way on St. Paul's North End in about 1925. (Photo courtesy mnhs.org)