February 2007 Issue
An Akron Museum is reviving the sport of marbles as it honors the city's toy-making history.
"Don't throw the marbles! Here, let me show you how..." Michael Cohill, manager of the American Toy Marble Museum in Akron, kneels down inside a carpeted ring littered with white and black marbles. He expertly holds a marble between his fingers and shoots it with lightning speed and precision. A small group of teen-age boys who were tossing marbles like coins into a fountain suddenly realize there's more to this ancient, challenging game.
Cohill is passionate about marbles. The artist and toy inventor is on a mission to preserve the history of marbles and toy-making in Akron and Ohio, and to revive the once highly competitive and popular sport of marbles. Cohill, who was born in Denver and spent the first seven years of his life in Mexico City as the son of a Firestone Tire and Rubber Co. executive, hopes they'll once again roll across America. He's counting on the museum, located in downtown Akron's Lock 3 Park, and activities that include The Akron District Marbles Tournament to inspire people to "play for keeps."
"The Akron District Marbles Tournament began in 1923 and continued ... until World War II, when [it] was canceled. After the war, the VFW revived the tournament and kept it going until the early 1960s. I revived The Akron District Marbles Tournament in 1990," says Cohill.
Cohill's reputation as "Akron's Marble Man" might have been fate. After attending art school in California, he moved to Akron to be near family. He opened a studio where he could concentrate on his artwork. It happened to be the site of an old marble works, and Cohill began researching Akron's contribution to the toy marbles industry.
Today, the majority of marbles comprising the museum was collected during excavations on former marble factory sites in Akron or purchased. Since the founding of the nonprofit American Marble and Toy Museum organization in 1991, the collection has had several temporary exhibit locations. In 2003, the museum opened in the basement of the renovated former O'Neil's department store, appropriately next to the site of the former American Marble and Toy Manufacturing Co., said to be the largest toy manufacturer in the United States in the 1890s. (It was one of more than 30 marble-making companies in the Akron area, and one of more than 100 toy companies that operated in the region, dating back to 1884.) From 1891 to 1904, American Marble and Toy made ceramic and glass marbles. When it burned to the ground, children gathered thousands of marbles before the city ordered the charred building - and 10 million marbles - to be buried for safety reasons.
In the late 1990s, during the excavation for Lock 3 Park, debris from the old factory was uncovered, including thousands of marbles and small ceramic toys in the shape of jugs, boots and animals. Cohill and museum staff members were given permission to dig on site, and their finest discoveries are now on display. To collectors of marbles (or "mibsters" - "mib" is Latin for marble), they are works of art. To them, a clear glass marble is a miniature crystal ball holding all secrets. A dark blue mica marble reflects the mysteries of a night sky. A red, white and blue swirl is as patriotic as the Fourth of July. The commie - a common, old clay marble - is tan, red or brown, the colors of its humble, earthy origin.
Marbles in the museum's display cases also provide hints to Akron's major contributions to the toy and marble industry in the United States. Early stoneware marbles are a folk-art cornflower blue and the soft brown of a country road. Green and yellow glass marbles were created by James Harvey Leighton, "the originator of the American glass toy marble." In the 1880s, Akron marble maker Sam Dyke churned out more than 1 million clay marbles a day - believed to be the first time in history a toy company mass-produced a product aimed specifically for children.
In addition to the handmade and machine-made marbles, some worth hundreds of dollars, the museum showcases marble tournament trophies and antique molds once used to make marbles. Vintage photographs show Americans knuckling down, a basic position for a player's hand in marble competition.
A number of factors took a toll on the American toy marble industry. In the 1950s, Japanese toy makers introduced the inexpensive cat's-eye marble in five basic colors that virtually ended the unique look of individual marbles. Millions of Japanese marbles dominated the worldwide market and many marble companies went out of business. Also, more sophisticated and technical toys were being created, leaving the marble to gather dust, no matter how beautiful its simplicity, form and appearance.
The story of Akron's place in American toy marble history was largely overshadowed by the city's giant employer and claim to fame - the rubber industry. That is, until now. Cohill hopes to open museum branches in Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati and to greatly expand marble playing tournaments.
Cohill has taught hundreds of schoolchildren to play marbles. He and his wife, Sara, give a $1,000 college scholarship to tournament winners, one boy and one girl. Four awards have been given so far. He never passes up the opportunity to talk aggies, pontils (a dimple left on a hand-made marble) or submarines (an interior design mistake that increases the value of a collectible marble).
"Look at this! I just got this one yesterday. It's beautiful. If it were in perfect condition, it would be worth $2,000 or $3,000," Cohill exclaims, as he shows museum visitors a vintage marble with a rare pink band of color. "You almost never see pink because marbles were considered boys' toys. But at one time, girls were often tournament winners."
For visitors who can't leave without a souvenir, the museum sells marble jewelry made by Cohill's wife, small bags of you-pick-'em marbles for $5 or $10, and stunning marbles that Cohill makes in limited amounts for $6 each.
"The stone marbles I make from [recycled] marble are made using an extremely old grinding technique, similar to one used in Pharaohic Egypt to make limestone marbles. It is a very dirty and dusty process, but does not involve heat or use of a mold," says Cohill. "To make our hand-made glass marbles, we reproduced a marble-making hand tool patented in Akron in 1890. We make our own glass using actual glass formulas used in the 1890s to 1910s in Akron to make marbles. The sand and color pigments are heated to 2,100 degrees for 24 hours in order to turn the materials into molten glass."
Cohill also sells marbles made by Jabo, a marble manufacturer with a factory in Reno, Ohio, "the only manufacturer of traditional American playing marbles left in the United States," according to Cohill. Sales help support the museum's operation.
"Akron, Ohio, really was the marble manufacturing center of the world from 1884 to 1951," says Cohill. "And we want people to know that."
|The American Toy Marble Museum
202 S. Main St., Lock 3 Park, Akron, 330/396-1670. www.americantoymarbles.org. Sat. 10 a.m.-1 p.m. Free admission; a public parking garage is located at the corner of Main and State streets.