Pictured: Each of these true, ocean tumbled sea glass marbles were picked up from along Pacific Ocean and Caribbean beaches. Rugged and rocky shores usually tumble sea glass quite nicely. But why were marbles found along the shore? How did they get there? What were they used for originally and why, so many decades later could they be found rolling around a beach? For the avid sea glass collector, a true historic sea marble is a "holy grail" find.
HOW DO MARBLES END UP ON THE BEACH? There are several theories about why historic marbles may still occasionally wash up on the shore.
Reason #1: In the late 1800's an inventor named Hiram Codd from England designed a glass beverage bottle that used a marble as the stopper. The Japanese glass Remune bottle was also sealed-up with a marble. These two bottle styles were used in the US and around the world and likely account for a great many of the beach marbles that have been found (and can very occasionally still be found) along shores around the world. When a bottle was discarded, often into the sea, the bottle would break against the rocky shore and the marble might stay intact and tumble for years. The most common color of these widely produced bottle stopper marbles is a soft, seafoam green color.
Reason #2: Historically and even today, cargo ships for example were loaded with heavy items to help provide ballast. Some folks have surmised that perhaps marbles may have provided this weight inexpensively and effectively. Here's what we know...
In parts of the world where the tides can move fast and the inlets can be narrow, ballast is key to keeping a sailing vessel upright and true. It reminds me of the white water rafting trips my family goes on down the remote Hell's Canyon in Idaho's back-country. The heavier, more weighted-down boats fare much better in the turbulent rapids than the lighter rafts. It makes sense then that seafaring vessels along the ocean's rough shorelines and strong tides would use ballast weight to help with navigability.
Should a vessel be smashed upon the rugged shore, the boxes or barrels of ballast material, usually sand or stones (called ballast stones) would surely be lost to the sea to tumble, churn and wash up on shore decades and even centuries later. Today at many shipwreck sites the only identifying material still left at the site are piles of out-of-the-ordinary looking ballast stones in a heap at the bottom of the sea floor. I have spoken at nautical events, interviewed with ship captains, lectured at museums, and grilled mud larking hobbyists about the viability of this theory. In addition there is a serious marble collecting community with some who believe that marbles on the beach are an indication of historic ballast material. The Marble Collectors Society of America says that "Clay marbles were made in both Germany and the US. It has been reported that clay marbles were used as ballast in the keels of ships that sailed to America from Germany and then were removed and sold in the US".
In the book Collecting Antique Marbles, researcher Paul Baumand states in a section on stone and limestone marble mills, that the mills are first mentioned in old manuscripts dating to the early 1600's, and were operating along the border between Germany and Austria.... "The marble milling industry peaked in Bavaria between 1780 and 1790. A boom in exports in the 1780's caused an expansion in the industry. The main customers were northern England, Germany and Holland. Although the marble balls were exported primarily as toys, they were used for many other purposes as well. Sailing ships liked to use them as ballast. The balls had one great advantage over sand; the balls could be sold. In this manner, marbles made their way from Bavaria to East and West Indies. During the 1780's Bavaria was exporting up to 1,000 "hundredweights" (a hundredweight is approximately 10,000 marbles)." Source: Gartley and Karsgaden - 1998
Source: Collecting Antique Marbles by Paul Bauman, Fourth Edition, P.7, 2004
One of my favorite stories to tell is of my beachcombing friend who treks the shores in the Virgin Islands in the Caribbean. One day she ventured higher up on the beach along the high tide line. In one particular patch she found a perfect glass marble just below the face of a cliff in front of her. She walked no more than a couple steps, then found another, took another step, found a third marble. She directed her eyes to the cliff face in front of where these marbles were found and could see at about eye-level, a few more marbles lodged in the cliff face! She began to dig horizontally with her hands as many marbles tumbled and rolled out of the dense sand and to her feet. She immediately messaged me and inquired if the tale she'd heard long ago, that the "rum-runners" in the islands would carry barrels full of marbles, pull up to harbor, dump the marbles, then either fill or trade out the barrels for rum transport and vice versa. I myself have wondered if the freight barrels were more easily moved and transported using marbles as a "rolling" mechanism underneath (See Reason #5 below).
Reason #3: Decades ago young children played often with marbles as toys at the shore. Vacation marble games, marble racing down the sloping beach sand, Jax games, and sling shots with marbles for ammunition were used. The beach made a great place for target practice. Some children played games by floating a "moving target" piece of driftwood off shore then shot their marbles out into the water toward the target. The resulting marbles which were lost in the sand or landed just offshore, would tumble in and out of the surf and eventually beachward.
Reason #4: Painters often dropped a handful of marbles into a can of paint to help mix the batch. When I was young I one day watched my dad at his workbench, take a handful of my brother's marbles, dump them into the can and stir. Subsequently the paint can was emptied and the can was tossed out, making its way into the city dump. Many times, especially for coastal areas and towns, the local dump was the sea-bluffs at the edge of town. The salt water and ocean's natural biodegrading ability decomposed the metal paint can over the years. But the marbles became what was left and each washed around upon the shore until individually beach combed.
Reason #5: Marbles also made an especially innovative mode to move cargo. For a span of years, post-industrial-era in the US, marbles found along the railroad lines are most likely the result of dumped over freight-glass. The 3/4", orb-like pieces were shipped all over the country for use in the manufacture of fiberglass. It is also believed that glass marbles may have been used for ease in rolling freight and cargo around. This only explains the sea glass marble locale when a rail stop, rail line or rail yard is situated near or along a waterfront.