When the grandkids (and now great-grandkids) come to visit, Judy Headley soon has them on their knees. Along with Grandma, they’re all laughing and hooting as they play an ancient game.
“Nobody sits on the couch with their heads buried in their cellphones,” Headley proclaimed. “When we get together, we’re all playing marbles. Draw a big circle on the carpet and let ’em shoot.
“I’m the Marble Grandma,” she added. “What would you expect?”
Headley, 78, rolls out her vast marble collection for special occasions. Otherwise, she has them stashed in jars all over her house in Citrus Heights, California. Color-coordinated glass containers packed with marbles decorate the bathroom and kitchen. Oversized “big boys,” or “boulders,” fill gallon bottles (and almost need two people to move). Mason jars hold “beauties” and “catseyes” by the thousand.
“I keep careful track of them,” she noted. “You don’t want to lose your marbles.”
With the help of a tiny “Marble Memo” notebook, Headley recorded every marble she’s ever gotten, how she got it, where it came from and any other details that make those little orbs special. So far, she’s totaled 20,824.
Some are special commemorative or themed marbles (such as “Star Trek,” pre-emoji Smiley Faces or NFL, with the 49er logo embedded in the glass). Others look like sparkling gems. Many feature distinctive swirling designs like mini-spheres of Venetian glass.
As a toy, marbles are among the world’s oldest games, dating back about 3,000 years. Ancient Romans and Egyptians played marbles. Native Americans enjoyed marble games, too. Medieval folks in England and Germany got down on their bellies to shoot little ceramic or carved stone balls. For centuries, marble-based games have been beloved in India, Africa and China.
“It’s really kind of a fascinating hobby,” Headley said. “You learn all this history.”
Headley had collected other things (most notably vintage kitchen equipment). Her mountain of marbles all started simply enough during a cross-country trip.
“In Kansas, I met a woman with a million marbles,” Headley recalled. “She had so many marbles, she didn’t know what to do with them. They filled her basement, probably her whole house. She ended up giving them away to a museum.
“But I thought, marbles are so beautiful! What a fun thing to collect! And you don’t have to dust marbles.”
So, Headley got her first $1 bag of 100 marbles more than three decades ago, she said, “probably from Toys “R” Us — `it’s before I started my notebook.”
And it just kind of rolled from there.
“I just love marbles,” Headley said. “I love the feel, the color. Obviously, they must be addictive.”
Judy and Mick Headley celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary this year. His job, when needed, is to move the marbles around; a jar with 3,000 marbles weighs more than 25 pounds.
“It seems like she’s been collecting them forever,” Mick Headley said. “It doesn’t hurt that she’s living with a former marble champion — but that was back when I was in grade school.”
While Mick was in the Air Force, the Headleys traveled the world, living in several different states and overseas. They settled in Citrus Heights about 40 years ago.
Marbles travel well, too, Judy Headley noted. They’re small, durable and easy to pack.
During World War II, marbles ranked among America’s favorite games. But their popularity died out during the 1970s as kids gravitated toward electronic entertainment.
Those early days of her collection were during a time when two grandsons and a daughter, Denise, lived with the Headleys.
“At the time, my sons were 5 and 7,” Denise Headley said. “They’re now 38 and 40 with kids of their own.”
“My grandsons had no idea what to do with them,” Judy recalled. “So, I got down on my knees and showed them; knuckle down, bony tight.”
“Knuckle down, bony tight” is the age-old marble greed. It refers to the proper way to hold a shooter between thumb and forefinger with the first knuckle on the ground.
The Headleys, who now have six great-grandchildren to go with five grandsons, kept up that marble tradition, teaching (closely supervised) youngsters how to shoot as soon as they were big enough to grasp a “peewee.” Visitors are invited to get into the game and take their chances.
Due to knee replacements, Judy Headley does her shooting from a low chair.
“It’s like riding a bike,” she said. “You never forget.”
Although some marbles can be quite valuable, Headley has spent little on her marble collection. Most of them were gifts or picked up at antique stores by the jarful.
“Everybody used to have marbles,” she said. “Now, they’re kind of hard to find.”
Her rarest marbles are little glazed ceramic spheres, dating back to the Civil War. Many are art marbles, valued by collectors for their colorful glasswork. But most were meant as toys.
“Some people might think I’m crazy,” Headley said, “but I know where all my marbles are.”