Handmade Onionskin German Glass Marbles

Handmade Onionskin German Glass Marbles

…A Rare and Beautiful Investment

Last month I found myself waist-deep in ashy dirt, with rusted cans, bottles, and other refuse of the past littered around me. You guessed it – I was out bottle digging again. But as occasionally happens, my best prize of the day wasn’t a bottle–it was another amazing piece of history, a beautiful handmade toy marble! And it was a good one!

From deep within an 1800s layer of trash, this marble came rolling out. I knew right away that it was a good one!

I know a fair amount about 19th-century glass marbles– enough to know that what I had dug was an “onionskin” and that it had some serious value!

An onionskin marble is a handmade marble with strands of glass drawn out from the center, forming a lined pattern connecting the top and bottom of the entire body, like the paper skin on an onion.

When I got home from digging, I carefully washed it off in the sink, put on my reading glasses, and held it under a light to examine it more closely. I took some close-up photos of it and posted them on an antique marble collectors’ website online. I posted a message explaining that I had just dug the marble, and I wanted to know more about it.

There was an immediate flurry of responses, ranging from people who were obviously novices, saying, “Oh, that’s a pretty one!” to people who were obviously experienced collectors whose responses were, “Holy smokes, nice onionskin! You dug that in a dump?”

Within about fifteen minutes, I got three “instant messages” from total strangers connected to the marble group page who had gone out of their way to get a message to me. The first one said, “Wow, great onionskin! If you are selling, I am interested.” Then I got another one that said, “That’s a nice old onionskin, but it looks like it’s in rough shape. They sell for about $25.00-$50.00.”

But then, right on the tail of that message, I got a response from a seasoned collector from Minnesota named Jeff Franke. His message was very polite and friendly, reading, “Wow Bram, great dig! I specialize in onionskins and would love to add it to my collection. No pressure at all, but if you are selling it, I’d pay you $200.00, possibly even more. Thanks, Jeff.”

It amazed me that the marble had caused such a stir, and also that I had been given two very different estimates as to its value.

I decided to sell it to Mr. Franke for $200.00, even though given his offer, I assumed I could have probably held out for more. But we agreed that part of the deal was for him to offer some of his knowledge to me for this article and also to give me an informal appraisal of a couple of hundred other marbles that I have dug over the years and have stored in old mason jars.

The deal was made, and I went ahead and shipped the marble. I also laid all of my marbles out on a white towel and took some photos. Jeff did a great job scanning through my collection and circling ones that he felt were some of my best.

My collection of machine-made marbles that I have dug over the years.

Shown in the photo above are the machine-made marbles I have dug over my many years of bottle digging. According to Franke, most are 1940s vintage Akro Agate types, which are beautiful but common. Also among the mix are a few Peltiers and maybe a Christensen or two, which are more desirable. Most early machine-made marbles are very collectible, but collecting them is almost a separate hobby from handmade antique marble collecting.

Two of the most well-known types of handmade glass marbles are Latticino Swirls and onionskin marbles, with several subsets underneath each of those major headings.

Franke told me that the reason my onionskin marble was so desirable is that the colored ribbons inside my marble were not just an unusual color combination, but that the order in which they appear inside the marble was extremely rare! Talk about a marbles wonk!

He also said the marble was in excellent condition for being dug, but that it does have a very light haze on it, similar to what you find on old antique bottles that have been dug. A marble with this haze or “stain” cannot be cleaned to the condition that marble collectors call “wet mint” unless it is professionally cleaned in a tumbler. This is the same tumbling method used to clean old dug bottles and also polish rocks to turn into jewel gems.

A handmade German antique marble will have a “pontil” mark on it, where it was snipped away from the gather of glass it was made from. That “gather” is a long strand of glass with feathered thin bands of colored glass twisted into it, making it resemble a multi-colored barber’s pole. The “snip” marks leave a mark similar to a pre-Civil War bottle that has a “pontil mark” on the base left by the glassmakers blowing tools.

When bottles are “tumbled” clean, a micro-thin layer of glass is actually removed from the outside surface of the glass during the first tumble. Then using a different cleaning solvent, the bottle is polished to a clean shine during its second tumble. During this process, any original “patina” will come off, and the embossed lettering on the glass may be a tad weaker. Also, if it is a pontiled bottle, the pontil may go from being a “nice sharp pontil,” which is a positive selling point, to a dulled pontil, which is a tell-tale sign that the bottle has been professionally tumbled. To a collector, a tumbled bottle is less desirable than a bottle in its original state.

The bottle tumbling process applies very similarly to cleaning marbles. On handmade marbles, there is a soft pontil mark at either end of the marble; tumbling a marble, even just lightly, may erase the pontil or, at the very least, make it duller.

An original German handmade marble may range in size from a “pee-wee,” which is less than a half-inch in diameter, to one that is just a bit over 2 inches in diameter. The typical, normal size for a marble is a little over a half-inch in diameter ( 7/16″). In marble collecting, the larger the marble, the higher the value.

The marble I dug in the bottle dump was 1 ¼” in diameter, which is a nice, big size for such a rare marble.

I asked Jeff Franks what else made the marble I had dug a special one–like what caught his eye?

He replied, “Your marble is not a ‘confetti onionskin’; however, the colors reminded me of one, which is why I was drawn to it. Many early onionskins have a particular rich blue color used in them, and sometimes this blue is ‘floating’ above the other colors in fine speckles. This is why it’s called a confetti onionskin. Any coloring with small granular looking bits of glass that are not pulled into the streaks is a confetti style.”

When I searched on eBay for onionskin marbles for sale, I noticed that there were many large, beautiful onionskins that weren’t all that expensive. They were labeled as “modern” handmade marbles, created by talented glass artists.

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These are two of Franke’s favorites from his collection. On the left is a painted dog sulfide (a clear marble with a figure of some sort floating at its center). On the right is one of his favorites, a “lobed floating mica onionskin.” Jeff searches for onionskin marbles that have floating pieces of mica or other imperfections in the glass left from when it was crafted.
Photo: Jeff Franke.

I asked Jeff if these modern marbles had pontil marks on them, and if they did, then how could you tell a modern onionskin from a 19thcentury German one?

Jeff answered, “New, modern, handmade marbles have ‘fire-polished pontils,’ which essentially removes the pontil scar. If a modern glass artist tries to mimic or reproduce an old type pontil on a glass marble, they never get the get shape of the pontil scar exactly correct. They try to add them, rather than it being left somewhat crude, like when the old craftsmen made them. Plus, the modern ones generally have brighter looking colors. Genuine old German marbles usually have a very simple color palette – red, blue, green, white, and black amethyst. Sometimes brown or oxblood was used in really early ones.”

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This is an example of a top of the line, very rare “millefiori onionskin.” If it were to sell at auction, it would bring hundreds, possibly thousands, of dollars.
Photo: Jeff Franke.

I told Jeff that I had shipped the marble out, and he should get it soon. What a crazy life that marble had led. The marble in my hand (in the photo at the top) was possibly hand-blown in a craft shop in Germany in the 1860s, then it probably took a wagon ride to a shipping port where it was shipped by steamship across the Atlantic in a crate to New York. At that point, it was probably put on a train from NY to Manchester, N.H., where it was perhaps purchased by someone who put it in their satchel. They probably rode it to their home in Chichester, N.H., where it was dug by me in 2020. I drove it home in my pickup truck, and now it is flying 500 mph, almost 1000 miles, in a jet plane to Minnesota. That’s a lot of miles for a 1¼” speck of glass!

Bram Hepburn collects 19th-century New England bottles and glass, having spent the last 30 years digging and diving for bottles in New England and upstate New York. Bram is the author of the book The Field Guide to American Trash. You can send an email to him at Bramiam@aol.com.

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