Playing Marbles – by Peter Halder

Playing Marbles

by Peter Halder

Playing marbles was a popular culture and pastime for boys growing up in British Guiana in the 1940s and 1950s. It was played in the open spaces of home yards,  school yards, playing fields and across roads. It was variously called playing marbles, pitching marbles, pitching taw (marble) or “jummin” . The two most favoured varieties were “holes” and “jummin”. The games were played for fun or for buttons.

 Holes

There were 1-hole, 2-hole, 3-hole and 4-hole games. Depending on what variety was played, one, two,  three or four, round holes were dug, circumference usually about three inches and not deep. A heel and sole of a boy’s foot were used to round and smooth each hole after a calabash of water from the standpipe was poured around and into them to soften the ground. 

At some distance from the first hole, usually ten paces, a line was drawn with a piece of stick, slate or brick. That line was where each person had to toe to begin the game.

Each game, four going and three coming back for the 4-hole, was played for 7 buttons, one for each hole.  Each player placed 7 buttons at the side and behind the starting line. The winner of the game won all the buttons.

The first player, toed the starting line, took aim and rolled his marble/taw, with a swing of his hand, towards the first hole, hoping the taw would go into it. If it did not, it was left where it stopped. If someone else’s taw hit it and it went in the hole, it was ruled as if it was holed at the first try. When all finished playing that hole, each stood next to the first, aimed for and played at the second hole, and so on, until the fourth hole. At the fourth hole, the players would turn around, stand near or next to the hole and play to the third hole and from there to the second and then the first hole. The player who won all seven or most of them, won the game and all the buttons. In the event of a tie, the buttons were equally shared.

If it was a 3-hole game or 2-hole game, the process was the same.

In a one-hole game, there were two varieties. Playing just one hole on a flat surface or digging the hole near to a tree or wall and then choosing whether to bounce the marble off the tree trunk/root or wall back into the hole or just roll it into the hole. The former would mean that more strength would have had to be put into the pitching or throwing.

The holes games also allowed for a player, having played before and won the hole, to use his taw to hit the opponent’s marble away from near the hole he is trying to reach, giving him an advantage. Of course he would have to play from wherever his marble stopped after hitting away the opponent’s taw.

Jummin

The second variety was jummin. The taw or marble was placed on a designated spot and a playing line drawn or agreed to some distance away, usually about 10-12 feet. A pitch or roll to the line or designated spot started the game. The player who came closest to the starting point played first. The other one placed his marble at a designated point. The first player toed the line or spot, took careful aim and played or pitched his marble with a swing of his hand to hit the parked marble. If he hit it directly (butt) or it hit the ground and rebounded and hit the marble, he was paid two buttons. If the two marbles remained close after butting and he could span both with his outstretched thumb and any other finger, he won three buttons (butt and span). He would then park his marble at the designated spot and the other player would play to it from the line. If either player missed the object marble, the game continued. The player picked up his object marble and aimed for the other marble where it stopped, with the same payment plan. If he came close to it without hitting it but could span the two, he was paid one button. Any payment closed the end of that particular play. The game ended when any player ran out of buttons. The game was played in yards, playing fields or across roads, one marble placed on one side of the road, and the starting player played from the other side.

 Marbles Variety

Many factors impacted upon the course of the game. One was the kind of marble used. There were several kinds of marbles in those days. One was glass marbles. These marbles were obtained from Chinese Checkers boardgames. There were small, some see-through and some had coloured slashes. The small marbles were used by small kids. There were also middle-size glass marbles, the same colour as white-glass bottles. They were bought from variety stores or obtained from a soft drink bottling plant which used marbles as stoppers for lemonade. Then there were beautifully coloured marbles made from what could have been cement. They came in all colours, except red, and had small spots on them. They came in two sizes, middle and large. Of course if one played with a large marble, the target was easier to hit. These were also sold in variety stores. The third kind was iron/steel taws. They were the ball bearings of mechanical equipment and were obtained by fathers from Bookers Sugar Estates, the train engineering unit at Transport and Harbours Department or Sprostons on Lombard Street. They were also of two sizes, middle and large. The iron/steel taws were very good in the sense that their weight kept them on a steady course. Most players were afraid of the use of them since they easily broke the other types of marbles. Also, if you were hit by it accidentally, the spot hurt and became swollen. The fourth variety, popular in poor areas were the awara seed and corio seed of the fruit of the same names. After the tasty “flesh” was eaten, the round black seeds were thrown away in yards. Many awara seeds, not all, were round and middle sized. The corio seeds were large sized and were round. To use either to play, the seeds were taken to a concrete pavement or concrete gutter/drain and the ends rubbed against concrete to smooth and round them out.  Marbles were bought, traded for or received as gifts, except for the fruit seeds, which were plentiful in many yards.

Playing Area

The playing area for holes was another factor. If the land was level, the better one was able to direct his marble/taw. Was the hole large or small? That was relevant to the size of the marble. Was the hole deep or shallow? That was relevant to speed, as a marble traveling with speed could roll in and out of a shallow hole. How far apart were the holes and the starting line? That was relevant also as to what speed had to be used.  Another had to do with size and weight of the marble. The most important thing however was a straight and steady pitching/ throwing/ playing hand. The latter aspects also applied to jummin.

Fans

The game also had its fans. From time to time,  family members or friends, including girls, watched games in yards or across and at the side of streets, from nearby or through windows in their homes and cheered when their player did well but booed when the opponent’s skill was better.

Setbacks

Playing marbles had some setbacks. Some boys paid too much attention to the games before, after school and during the morning break, and less attention to classes. At home, some spent so much time playing marbles that they failed to do or finish the tasks assigned to them by their parents. Lashes from a belt, hand slaps or other kinds of punishment, resulted. And of course, fathers found buttons from their shirts and pants missing from time to time. In those days, there were no pants’ zippers. Buttons and buttonholes were used.

Conclusion

Pitching marbles was a popular, wonderful and enjoyable culture and pastime. It kept many idle hands out of mischief. It required skill and patience. It made friends. All were great experiences growing up in Guyana in the 40s and 50s.

End

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Comments

  • Randolph Alleyne  On August 25, 2013 at 1:10 am

    Sometimes we did lose the buttons off our shirt and or pants.

    • Peter Halder  On August 25, 2013 at 4:34 pm

      True.

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