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Don't lose your marbles, they might be valuable

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[July 26, 2014]  LINCOLN - We’ve all heard the comment “That person has lost his marbles.” Well, that can’t be said of Chuck Garrett of Decatur. Garrett was the featured speaker at Monday’s monthly meeting of the Logan County Genealogical and Historical Society.

Garrett is a nationally known marble collector and expert on marble history. His personal collection runs to over 50,000, and he can tell you what each one is made of, and where it came from.

He has been collecting marbles since the early 1970’s. He also has an extensive library on marbles and a collection of marble paraphernalia. He has written extensively on the subject.

Garrett began his presentation with a history of marbles stating that they may have been around for the past 3000 years. They have been found in archaeological digs all over the globe. The Mayans of South America may have been the first culture in the western hemisphere to have them.

The early examples were made of anything that could be shaped into a sphere, stone, bone, or wood are a few early materials. Venetian handmade glass marbles were made in the 15th and 16th century.

The manufacture of modern glass marbles began in Germany in the middle of the 19th century. It was a huge industry with large shipments being exported. At one time, the largest export of Germany was glass marbles sold to the United States.

The German glass marbles were all hand made with a clear layer of glass overlaid with color and sealed with another clear layer. The glass was formed into a cane, a long cylinder of glass, and then cut into individual sections that were then hand polished into a sphere.
These old handmade marbles are a valuable find today. Part of the identification of a handmade marble is the pontil, a flat spot on either end where the glass was cut with a special scissors.

The sulfide marbles are unusual and very collectable. German artisans would carve a tiny animal and place it in the middle of a marble. When completed, the clear glass of the marble would magnify the miniature carving inside.

There were several US marble manufacturers during this period, but their product was inferior to the German marbles in color and uniformity of shape. And, the US products broke easily.

This all changed in the early 20th century when Martin Christenson in the US invented a way to make marbles by machine rather than by hand. He employed glass chemists to develop a superior glass for his product. This led to the mass production of marbles in the U.S.
The golden age of marble production in the U.S. was from 1927 to the early 1950’s, according to Chuck Garrett. Companies such as Acro and Peltier in Ottawa, Illinois, produced what was described at the time as a boxcar of marbles each day.

One of the more unusual products during this period was the marble that glowed in the dark. This was produced by the addition of uranium oxide. Unfortunately, the workers who handled this radioactive item became sick from radiation poisoning. The amount of uranium in each marble was tiny, but they handled thousands of them. It was much like the watch makers who applied radium to a watch dial so that it would glow in the dark, and later died of radiation poisoning.

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Many of the original manufacturers of marbles in this country have gone out of business. One of the most sought after privileges for a marble collector is to be allowed access to the site of these factories, so that they can indulge in a little modern archaeology trying to dig up that one unique marble that was left behind.

The 1970’s and 1980’s have seen a resurgence of handmade marbles. These often have intricate designs on the small spheres, and can sell for hundreds of dollars, depending on the size.

Some of the artists incorporate gold to add the flash of color that really catches the eye. Marble artists make use of a laser to carve the designs in some of their works of art. You won’t find these in a circle scratched on a dusty playground for a quick game of marbles at recess or on a Chinese checker board.

Chuck Garrett cautioned the audience that care needs to be taken when buying collectable marbles today. Some of the valuable examples that have become marred or chipped over the years have been reworked to remove blemishes, and then priced as if they had never been damaged. This process can be recognized only by an expert.

When asked what is the most he has paid for a marble, Garrett grinned and said, “Sometimes I see one that I really want, and I’ll pay whatever is fair. I can’t say how much just in case my wife is listening.” When pressed by the audience if he had paid $10 for a marble he nodded in the affirmative. When asked he had paid $100 for a marble, Garrett again affirmed that he had. When asked if he had paid more than $1000 for a marble, an inscrutable grin was his only answer.

Garrett produces two marble shows a year in Decatur; one in November and the other in April. In addition to thousands of marbles, books on marble collecting are available and lectures are presented throughout the show. They are free to the public.

Garrett can be contacted at 217-422-8454 for more information.

The Logan County Genealogical and Historical Society meets the third Monday of the month at their research center at 114 N. Chicago Street at 6:30 p.m. The public is always invited to attend the monthly meeting where interesting historical presentations are always on tap.


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