Marbles at Fort Vancouver

White marble with black and red stripes.
Porcelain marble with hand painted red and green stripes, found in the Village area.

NPS Photo

By Theresa Langford, Curator

The earliest marbles in the Fort Vancouver National Historic Site museum collection are clay, small undecorated tan or orange spheres. Little is known about the origin of these toys. They may have been imported from Europe, like later decorated ones, or made from local clay deposits.
Marble with painted decoration.
Porcelain marble with hand painted red stripes and green leaves, from the fort's employee Village.

NPS Photo

During the later fur trade or early military period at the site (post-1840), marbles were imported from Germany. Though still unglazed ceramic, they are larger and feature hand-painted decoration. Geometric and floral designs were both popular. Though elsewhere marbles have been found with intricate scenes. the ones found during archaeological excavations at Fort Vancouver are fairly simple. The designs on marbles, like those on dishes and fabric, changed throughout the 19th century. A perfect chronology of marble designs has not yet been created, but the book Chinas: Hand Painted Marbles of the Late 19th Century goes a long way toward this sort of dating tool.
White marble with swirled design.
Swirled beige and green marble, found by archaeologists from the Bachelors' Quarters' privy inside the Fort Vancouver stockade.

NPS Photo

The marbles in our museum collection fall into the Early Period as described in this book (1846-1870). During this time, marbles were not glazed and the colors were applied by hand. Lines, either parallel or intersecting, and simple leaves were common decorations. The Fort Vancouver marble are generally restricted to red, green, or black paint.
Photo of plain white marble
Porcelain marble, circa 1830-1860, excavated from the Village area.

NPS Photo

The Hudson's Bay Company's Fort Vancouver began to decline in prominence in the late 1840s and early 1850s. A contributing factor in this decline was Oregon Treaty, which formally placed the British fort in American territory, and the founding of the U.S. Army's Vancouver Barracks, built adjacent to the fort in 1849. Given the date of these "chinas" (post 1846), and the various archaeological contexts from which they were recovered, we assume most of the marbles were the playthings of army officers' children. The majority of the marbles were found in the Village are west of the fort, which was later the site of the Army's Quartermaster's Depot and other military structures.
Glass marble, half amber-colored, half white.
Glass marble found by archaeologists in the Village area.

NPS Photo

The national park's museum collection also contains a variety of opaque, translucent and transparent glass marbles, artifacts from later eras. Most of these have swirls of multi-colored glass, including the popular "cat's eye" decoration. Young players must have held on to their prizes pretty tightly; after over 120 years of use (plus over 60 years as a national park) only 40 or so marbles have been found. Though a tiny part of the archaeological collection, they speak to an often forgotten aspect of the site: children, their possessions, and pastimes.

Last updated: December 6, 2017