Commies, Steelies, Aggies and Glassies

Posted by | December 19, 2016

Before the video game, before television, the marble-take-marble world of commies, steelies, aggies and glassies kept children hunkered in the dirt and out of trouble. Marbles games like potsies and chasies flourished in many a Depression era schoolyard nationwide.

S.C Dyke & Co of Akron, OH manufactured the first mass-market marbles in the United States, beginning in 1884. Made of clay and sometimes called “commies,” these were manufactured until the end of World War I. While not always perfectly round or colorful, the commie was inexpensive. In response to the growing popularity of marbles, manufacturers began experimenting with making marbles from other materials. In time, porcelain and glass were used to make marbles of different colors and patterns.

Salesman’s Sample Case of Alley Agate Marbles, about 1940.

The price for the newer porcelain marbles was substantially more than the older commies – about 90 cents for 1000 vs. about 20 cents for 1000.

With the glass marble’s rise to predominance, America truly became the marble-making capital of the world. By the first half of the twentieth century, great names like M.F. Christensen, Christensen Agate, Akro, Peltier, Alley, Champion, and Marble King began to work their wizardry in glass.

Marble King is today one of only two companies—along with Parkersburg, W.Va.-based JABO Inc.—that still make marbles in the United States. Jabo, founded in the 1980s, is a relative newcomer, but Marble King is the last of the old-time marble companies, with deep roots in West Virginia’s glass manufacturing world.

In 1932, Lawrence Alley started the Alley Agate Company at Pennsboro, WV. These years of the Great Depression were not easy times to start a business, even though the seasoned Alley had started four glass manufacturing companies by that point in his career. B. J. Hazelbaker, who worked for the company, remembered times when Mr. Alley placed cardboard in his shoes to cover the holes in the soles.

It wasn’t long before the local power company was unable to supply Alley Agate with enough electrical power, so Alley put in a gas generator to meet the company’s power needs.

Lawrence Alley, Jr. started working for his father in 1935 in Pennsboro. The following year, the elder Alley purchased the building formerly used by Gilligan Glass Company in St. Marys, which was at the time being used by a local grower to pack apples; the plant was a partnership between father and son.

By 1937, they were making 750,000 marbles a day, with four machines running full time, and that July expected to ship five railroad carloads. The next year they were making 2 million a day. In January 1939 Alley Agate was described in the local paper as the largest marble manufacturer in the world.

During the peak of the marble demand in the 1940s Alley Agate was running at full capacity of 2.6 million marbles a day. During one 6 month period they shipped 14 million Chinese checker marbles. The Chinese checkers game was very big at that time, and a large percentage of the marbles went into the games.

Alley Agate’s primary customer for marbles and “Chiquita” toy dishes was the Jack Pressman Toy Company.

“My cousin, Frank Sellers, talked with a woman who had been Mr. Alley’s secretary in the early years in Pennsboro,” observes Lawrence E. Alley III. “She was an old lady by then. She would open the mail and only give Mr. Alley the important pieces.

“In the mail one day was a letter from Jack Pressman, whom they did not know. She almost threw it out, but decided it might be important and passed it on to Mr. Alley. Pressman became their primary customer with many millions of marbles going into his Chinese checkers.”

In 1947 the company name was changed to Alley Glass and Manufacturing Company. This reflected the wider product line, which included toy dishes, small glass animals and electrical insulators.

“Maybe it was just a joke,” says Lawrence E. Alley III, “but the reason my dad told me was that they got tired of people thinking their name was Mr. Alley Agate.”

In 1949 Lawrence Alley, Sr. retired, and that July the company was sold to a new glass manufacturer then being put together by Berry Pink and Sellers Peltier. Pink had worked as a glass salesman for Alley in 1931-32 at the former’s Lawrence Glass Novelty Company, of Paden City, WV.  Peltier Glass had been manufacturing and selling marbles under the Marble King header since the 1930s, but by 1949, Pink was selling more marbles than Peltier could produce.

Berry Pink, who traveled throughout the country hosting marble tournaments and giving away several marbles at each stop, eventually had become known as “The Marble King.” That’s how the company got its name. It went into production in December 1949, with Pink holding the majority of shares.

In January of 1958 a fire destroyed Marble King’s St. Marys-based factory. Roger Howdyshell, who managed the facility, moved the company to Paden City, where it still remains today. Howdyshell led Marble King to the forefront when he manufactured the first American made Cat’s Eye marbles.

Lawrence Alley, Sr. was actually responsible for bringing the method of making the cat’s eye to this country. “He sent some of his people to Japan to buy a Cat’s eye machine,” explains Lawrence E. Alley III. “They could not come to an agreement over the price of the machine. But, in the process of negotiations they learned how to make the cat’s eye.”


One Response

  • Lawrence Alley, III says:

    Marble King was completely responcable for sending people to Japan and bringing the “Cat’s Eye” to U.S. I, Larry Alley, was missinformed.

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