In the early ’40s, when John Updike was an adolescent growing up in Shillington, Pa., marbles were treasured by children who played a popular game indoors or outdoors in which a circle was drawn or formed with string, and every child would put in a certain amount of marbles, like a wager on a roulette wheel. Then, using larger oversized marbles called “shooters,” they would try to knock the marbles outside the ring and got to keep all that they sent rolling beyond the perimeter. By the end of the game, the spoils—captured marbles—were highly prized. Most prized, though, was a good shooter.
Last week while they were repairing flooring, workers for R.J. Doerr, the restoration firm hired to complete the interior renovation of The John Updike Childhood Home, found a small stash of marbles under a loose floorboard in the room next to Updike’s bedroom, which he wrote about in a short story called “The Black Room.” That’s exciting but curious and a bit of a mystery, since there would be no reason for hiding marbles, especially in a house in which young Updike was the only child, and no friends were permitted beyond the kitchen and dining room—ever. Yet here were five marbles stashed during the time that Updike lived in the house, and none of them was even a prized shooter.
We asked childhood friend Harlan Boyer, whose father was Updike’s high school art teacher, if he remembered playing marbles with Updike as he did dominoes in the family dining room. “I don’t remember playing marbles with Uppy,” he wrote in an e-mail, “but we all had them. Some of us used them as projectiles since we all had slingshots as well.”
That’s one possible explanation. Updike’s second-story bedroom windows face a large back yard and an alley that, years later, was turned into a street and named Shilling St., to honor the family that built and first occupied the house at 117 Philadelphia Ave. There’s no reason on earth to hide marbles that are used for playing the traditional game. But there would certainly be good reason to hide “evidence” if the marbles were used as slingshot ammunition, as these may have been.
But while Updike may not have played marbles with Boyer, in his essay “The Dogwood Tree: A Boyhood,” which appeared in Assorted Prose (1965), Updike explained how he became best friends with a boy that author Jack De Bellis (John Updike’s Early Years) identifies as Fred Muth, who lived on the same side of Philadelphia Avenue between the poorhouse and the Updike house. “He had just moved from the Midwest, and his mother was a widow. Beside wage war, we did many things together,” he wrote, including marathon games of Monopoly, chess, and, yes, marbles. “We played marbles for days at a time, until one of us had won the other’s entire coffee-canful,” Updike wrote. So did the author hide a few marbles in reserve, to ensure he always had some to try to win back those he had lost without having to ask his parents for money to buy new marbles? Perhaps, but since Updike’s childhood friends said they weren’t allowed upstairs, why not just withhold a few marbles and stash them in a drawer? Why pry up a floorboard to put a few marbles underneath? Unless . . . .
They might have been deliberately and secretly cached by a young Updike reluctant to move out of the house he loved—perhaps as a way of leaving a part of himself there after the forced move to Plowville. After all, he did write in “The Black Room” of a tour he and his mother took of the house just before the Hunters (renamed the Jessups) moved to a retirement community. “No longer child and young veteran, they had become two aged men who had loved the same object. One had won and one had lost, but now the winner was surrendering the prize also. Time takes all.” But maybe young Updike had left a record of his having been there.
Pictured are the marbles and a shot of the flooring where they were found in the single open space to the right. According to Robert Block (www.marblecollecting.com), who is chairman of the Marble Collectors Society of America, “the ones at the 11 o’clock, 9 o’clock and 3 o’clock positions are Vitro Agate Company Conquerors, produced in Parkersburg WV between the late 1930s and late 1940s. The one at the top is a little hard to see, but looks to be Master Marble Company, 1940s. The one at the bottom is a West Virginia company, but I can’t identify the manufacturer. Possibly Ravenswood Novelty Company or Alox Agate Company. Early to mid 1940s.”
The marbles will be exhibited in a display case in Updike’s bedroom near where they were found . . . possibly alongside a vintage slingshot and a first publication of “The Dogwood Tree: A Boyhood,” in which Updike wrote about leaving the house behind.