Making Marbles by the Millions

Iconic Communities, Made in America, On the Road, Traditions
on November 2, 2008
David Mudd

Kevin Thompson digs his shovel into a pile of empty perfume bottles, broken flower vases and discarded auto headlights, tossing the clinking, glittering glass into a large metal container in the bright morning sun. Around him, shimmering piles of red, pink, blue, purple, green and amber glass rise from the gravel courtyard near the entrance to the Marble King factory in Paden City, W.Va. (pop. 2,683).

"I used to get into trouble as a kid for breaking windows, and now its part of my job," says Thompson, 41, after filling the container with shards of clear glass.

Marble King Inc. got its start in 1949 when glassmakers Berry Pink and Sellers Peltier opened a factory in St. Mary's, W.Va. After a fire destroyed the factory in 1958, manager Roger Howdyshell moved the operation to Paden City, and in 1983 he bought the business. When Howdyshell died in 1991, his children, including the company president, Beri Fox, 52, inherited the business, carrying on the family's tradition of making high quality marbles.

"When Marble King produces a product, its not just something somebody made," Fox says. "There's a commitment to live up to my fathers expectations."

Inside the one-story brick factory, workers dump a container full of recycled glass into a 2,350-degree, gas-fired furnace every 20 minutes, producing a continuous stream of molten glass. Propelled by gravity, the red-hot liquid flows through a channel inside the furnace and is cut into sections that are formed into smooth, spherical shapes.

After cooling and hardening for 24 hours, the marbles are sorted by hand, with workers discarding misshapen or broken pieces that will be recycled once again. Finally, the glass balls are packaged in boxes and bags and shipped to customers around the world.

One of Marble King's customers is Channel Craft, a toy maker in Charleroi, Pa., that has purchased Marble King marbles for more than 20 years, incorporating them into Chinese checkers sets and other board games.

"I like the fact that theyre made in the U.S.," says Dean Helfer, Channel Crafts president. "They've been around forever, and I can always be assured of their quality."

Many of Marble King's marbles also find their way into spray paint cans, water filtration systems, and other industrial applications that require small, hard, precisely sized spheres of glass.

Others end up with collectors, like Howard Powell, 62, president of the West Virginia Marble Collectors' Club. Powell owns thousands of marbles, about a quarter of which were made by Marble King. Some of his favorite Marble King marbles were manufactured in the 1950s and feature a bumble bee pattern.

"They're distinctive," he says of the black- and yellow-striped marbles, which he displays in a glass globe lamp in his Parkersburg, W.Va., home. "There are millions of them out there, but I like them anyway."

Rooted in West Virginia's glass industry, Marble King, which employs 38 people, is one of only two companies—along with Parkersburg, W.Va.-based Jabo Inc.—that make marbles in the United States.

Every day, Marble King uses more than 4 tons of mostly recycled glass to produce about a million marbles in 300 different sizes, types, and colors—everything from crystal green cat's eyes to periwinkle marine crystal marbles.

Nearly half of Marble King's business is producing "gems" — flat-sided marbles that are used in home decorating, jewelry making and landscaping. Depending on the size, style and quantity ordered, Marble King gems and marbles cost from 1 cent to 25 cents each.

To promote its business, Marble King sponsors the National Marbles Tournament each June in Wildwood, N.J. Marble King hopes the game of marbles—once played on every schoolyard in America but now upstaged by 21st-century electronic and video games—will make a comeback.

To help in the effort, Fox's daughter, Jeanne, 26, works as an event coordinator for the company, teaching school kids who visit the factory how to play the game and educating the public about marbles.

Jeanne grew up with marbles, playing in bins of marbles and competing in marble tournaments around the country. She's worked for the family-owned business since she was 16, starting in the packing room, and she plans to carry on the marble-making tradition.

"I love it," she says. "As a kid, you think everyone has marbles. Then you realize that its kind of a special thing."