Children’s toys are delightful to find, since they are instantly recognizable and retain much of their charm, even after spending hundreds of years in the dirt. These two marbles, both recovered from the Caulkers’ Houses, are no exception!
But what do they actually tell us about the past?
To find out, we’ll take a deep dive into the long and surprisingly complex history of the humble toy marble.
Marbles, in one form or another, have been around for thousands of years, and have been found in archaeological contexts all over the world. The earliest marbles were made of polished stone, followed by small, round balls of fired clay. There are no (or very few) sources that explain exactly how marbles were used in ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt, the Indus Valley, the Americas, Greece, or Rome, but there is sufficient information to demonstrate that early marbles served a variety of recreational purposes for children and adults alike.
People have continued making stone and clay marbles to this very day, but for the purposes of this post, we’ll be focusing on the marbles that were available during the 19th century in the United States.
At the beginning of the 1800s, marbles were predominantly made of ceramic or limestone, in a very limited number of colors and styles.
In 1846, glassblowers in Lauscha, Germany, developed a technique for making glass spheres using a special pair of shears to cut off pieces of glass cane and shape them into orbs. Initially, this technique was used to make glass eyes for dolls, but by the 1850s, the craftspeople of Lauscha were also producing glass marbles.
The marble shears made large-scale production of glass marbles possible, but marble-making was still a laborious process that involved a great deal of craftsmanship and artistry.
The new, colorful glass marbles were very popular, which prompted makers of ceramic marbles to add more decorations in an effort to compete. Marbles were relatively inexpensive toys, but that didn’t mean they weren’t a market worth fighting for.
That brings us to the Caulkers’ Houses in the middle of the 19th century, right in the midst of this veritable marble renaissance. The children who lived in Fells Point in the 1850s and 1860s were born on the cusp of the Industrial Revolution, before children’s toys were a significant part of the economy. During the first part of the 19th century, toys sold in stores were unattainable for most children, but by the 1850s, that was beginning to change. As manufacturing techniques became more sophisticated, a wider variety of toys were easier and cheaper to make, and thus easier and cheaper to obtain.
Although they had no idea that they were participating in the global economy, the children who lived at the Caulkers’ Houses in the 1860s were making choices as toy consumers (or perhaps they were playing marbles “for keepsies” and were especially successful), and influenced the choices of other children, toy sellers, and manufacturers with their preferences.