A Kansas City Museum Is Bringing Back The Game Of Marbles

Jan 20, 2018

Credit fdecomite / Flickr -- CC

The game of marbles harkens back to a different era.

And the National Museum of Toys/Miniatures in Kansas City is bringing it back — at least through next January.

“Playing for Keeps” features artifacts from the national marble tournaments that the Veterans of Foreign Wars organized for boys.

In addition to the exhibition, the museum is also hosting regular game nights for grown-ups and training sessions for anyone who wants to be a “mibster” (a master marble player).

Scott Rice McBride.
Credit Jen Chen / KCUR 89.3

Scott Rice McBride has been collecting marbles and marble memorabilia for over 50 years. He co-curated the museum’s exhibition, which features a fraction of his collection.

“I got into marble collecting because I was a terrible marble player,” he said. “That way, I didn’t have to worry about losing them because I never risked them.”

According to McBride, prior to national marble tournaments, marble games varied from neighborhood to neighborhood. Kids made up their own games.

One kind of game is “ringer” — that’s when you draw a circle on the ground, put the marbles within the circle, and, with your shooter marble, try to knock the marbles out of the ring. You can either play for keeps (i.e. keep the ones you knocked out of the ring) or just for fun.

“It’s just one of thousands of games that can be played with marbles,” he said.

There’s also “chase,” where kids shot marbles down the street and followed each other trying to hit them.

Through marbles, kids learned valuable lessons.

“You use your own imagination, you learn negotiation skills … you also learned to remediate when there were conflicts,” he said.

Plus, there’s the element of risk of losing your favorite marbles — kind of like gambling.

McBride first learned about the VFW tournaments when he visited Omaha for a marble show for collectors. A friend suggested a visit Boys Town, where a curator there showed them pictures from the first VFW national marble tournament, held in Omaha in 1947.

Out of curiosity, McBride decided to track down Ray Warren, the first champion of the tournament, and to interview him for a presentation for a marble collectors group. Warren passed away around age 80 before McBride’s presentation.

“One of the things that kind of hit home was we’re losing these stories,” he said. “It’s not an important national story, it’s not something that’s not going to be recorded forever, and I decided to go ahead and see if could record some more stories besides just his.”

Those stories are included in his book about the VFW tournaments.

For McBride, these VFW tournaments stand out because they provided an opportunity for kids to go to places they might not ordinarily visit.

Some of the glass marbles from McBride's collection. These are over 100 years old.
Credit Jen Chen / KCUR 89.3

But things have changed since then, especially the way we play.

Kids have more stimulation now, especially of the electronic variety, he said, and they don’t play outside as much. They also don’t have as much free time; they’re much more organized now with activities.

With that, McBride said, comes a loss of innocence and imagination with marble-playing. Through this exhibit, though, he’s been able to introduce kids to the games.

“It’s letting them realize that hey, they can unplug, that they can enjoy some things where they get down on the ground and play marbles,” he said.

But will marbles become a life-long, end-all game for them?

“Probably not,” he admits.

Jen Chen is associate producer for KCUR's Central Standard. Reach out to her at jen@kcur.org and follow her on Twitter @JenChenKC.