Paden City, West Virginia, has a long history of glassmaking, dating back to the early 1900s. The Ohio River town, once home to at least 10 glassmaking companies, is still home to long-time manufacturer Marble King, which makes more than one million marbles each day: 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. Who’s playing with all those marbles?
Piles of raw, recycled glass, separated by color, glisten in the sun like a king’s ransom in the yard outside the brick Marble King building. It’s an unassuming soup-to-nuts factory that incorporates mounds of glass, corporate offices, a 28,000-square-foot manufacturing and production area, packaging shop, shipping dock and gift shop. Feel like a game of marbles? That’s easy. Just walk over to the free, public marbles ring and knuckle down with your shooter.
Berry Pink and Sellers Peltier founded Marble King in 1949. The company got its name from Pink, who – in traveling the country to host marble tournaments and giving away marbles at each stop – was dubbed the “Marble King.” Roger Howdyshell managed the factory and was critical to its success. He manufactured the first Cat’s Eye marble and developed a process for veneering marbles that lowered costs and enhanced color. Howdyshell bought the company in 1983 and operated it until his death in 1991. His daughter, Beri Fox, now serves as president.
If playing for keepsies seems like a blast from the past, marble making is still done the old way, too. It works like this: four and one-half tons of recycled glass is melted everyday in firebrick furnaces heated to 2,300 degrees Fahrenheit.
Ninety percent of the marbles at Marble King are made from post-consumer glass, including perfume bottles, beer bottles, glassware and canning jars, or from “seconds,” imperfect knick-knacks provided by factories that manufacture glass.
A mixture of sand, soda ash and feldspar is used to make virgin glass when recycled glass is not available, or when color certainty can only be achieved with a glass formula. The molten glass is then poured through a funnel into a grooved, rolling machine that shapes and smoothes the circular glass orbs. Other designs, like the popular Cat’s Eye, are created when a second color is added. A sorting machine dispenses the hot marbles by size into buckets where, after cooling, they are hand-checked for quality by one of 38 full-time employees.
Marble King creates marbles in equal measures for three markets: toy and game, decorative and floral, and industrial. It sells directly to wholesalers, retail distributors, mom and pop shops, stores that specialize in traditional toys and Americana, older general stores and antique shops. Many old-time general stores still offer those big barrels of marbles so irresistible to children. Industrial applications of marbles include placement in paint cans to keep the solid and liquid combined (unlike metal, glass marbles don’t rust or corrode), as rollers to keep printing presses running and for moving coffins into mausoleums.
While video games may have replaced marbles as the sport of choice, there’s still a strong community of mibsters (marble players addicted to playing and collecting) playing for all the marbles. Fox says, “Certain areas of the country have particularly strong marbles communities that boast high levels of commitment, including Cumberland and Perryhall, Maryland; Reading and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; and all over Colorado. The marbles community also encompasses a wide variety of people, young and old. Kids learn from parents, or through the YMCA and physical education programs at schools. Scouting also provides a great introduction to marbles.”
Fox says there are lots of reasons to love the game of marbles. “It’s not like most other games that require an associate player. You simply don’t need participation from others to perfect your game. With marbles, you can pick up your shooter, line up your marbles and start knocking them out. There’s a real beauty in learning to perfect your skills on your own.
“Marbles can teach a lot of skills, including mathematics and strategic thinking. These kids at the National Marbles Tournament can run a ring the way great pool players run a table,” she says.
Where can you find a marble ring? Many playgrounds have them. Or, you can make one on any flat, concrete or asphalt surface. Just draw a circle with chalk, place your marbles at the center and begin play with your shooter. If the weather’s bad, play in a basement or garage. Marble King also sells marbles mats that roll up and travel anywhere.
Fox grew up in the world of marbles, traveling extensively to marbles tournaments and trade shows with her parents. She says while many towns only recognize the value of their community after it receives recognition from afar, it’s different in Paden City. “I think the glassmaking heritage is a real point of community pride here. It’s a strong part of our heritage. People here understand it and appreciate it. Sistersville, just a few miles away, hosts an annual marbles festival each year.”
Best sellers? “Kids want the Cat’s Eye, regardless of color. Some of the older buyers like bigger marbles, regardless of color. Retail markets get a huge variety, and the clear and iridescent marbles are the No. 1 staple for the decorative and floral market.”
Everyone, it seems, has a favorite marble. What’s the favorite of the girl who grew up in the marbles world? Fox says, “My favorites change as I age. Right now, my favorite marble is an opal pink. It’s in between a solid pink and transparent pink, and it’s such a unique color. It’s hard to take my eyes off of it.”