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Remember This? Marbles and jacks competitions

Nearly 100 years ago, kids across Ottawa took part in a tournament to see if they could become a national marbles or jacks champion.
2021-04-19 marbles
The iconic Norman Rockwell illustration that appeared in The Saturday Evening Post, 2 September 1939.

CityNews, in partnership with the Historical Society of Ottawa, brings you this weekly feature by Director James Powell, highlighting a moment in the Ottawa's history.

April 21, 1924

In February 1924, the Ottawa Evening Citizen announced that it would be hosting a marbles and jacks competition for children aged 13 and under in Ottawa and surrounding towns.

Little information was initially provided, except to say that there would be similar competitions held in other Canadian cities, and that city champs would meet in a grand final contest in Toronto to determine the Canadian champions of both games. Prizes would be awarded, and there was no entry fee.

Reflective of the sexist times, the marbles competition was strictly for boys and the jacks competition strictly for girls. Similar announcements were made by newspapers in Toronto, Halifax, Hamilton, London, Winnipeg and Edmonton. All were members of the Southam chain of newspapers.

The official rules of both games were published the following month.

The iconic Norman Rockwell illustration that appeared in The Saturday Evening Post, 2 September 1939.

The version of marbles to be played was called “Marble in the Hole.” The game was very different from the typical game of marbles where contestants try to knock competitors’ marbles out of a circle drawn on the ground. In Marble in the Hole, a line, called the “rolling line,” is drawn on a flat playing surface ten feet from a hole which is four inches in diameter and three inches deep, shaped like an inverted cone. After determining the order of play, each player gives one of his three marbles to the player going first. The player who goes first, rolls his competitors’ marbles and one of his own simultaneously at the hole from the rolling line. He scores one point for every marble that goes in the hole. Then, stepping over the rolling line, the first player flicks with one finger each marble resting on the ground towards the hole, scoring one additional point for every marble successfully sunk. Should he miss, his turn is over.

The remaining marbles on the ground are picked up and given to the second player who rolls them towards the hole from the rolling line. Like the first player, he scores a point for every marble he gets in the hole. He then steps over the line and attempts to flick the remaining marbles left on the ground into the hole, scoring one point for every marble successfully sunk. Like player number one, the second player’s turn ends when he misses sinking a marble. It is then the third player’s turn. Play continues until all marbles are sunk. This is the end of the first round. Three rounds make a game. Whoever has accumulated the most points at the end of the game is the winner. All marbles are returned to their original owner.

The form of jacks that was played in the competition also differed from the game commonly played. Importantly, there was no ball. Like the marbles game, there were three rounds to a game. The rules were the following: After determining who goes first, the first player takes 10, six-pronged jacks in one hand while sitting or standing. She then drops, rolls, or throws the jacks onto the playing surface. This is called scrambling the jacks. She then picks up one of the ten jacks and tosses it into the air. While the jack is in the air, she picks up one of the jacks on the ground and catches the thrown jack with the same hand before it hits the ground. She repeats this until all the jacks are picked up. This is called “ones.” Each time, the jacks she picks up are put to one side. The competitor then picks up the 10 jacks again with one hand and “scrambles” nine of them. Like before, she then tosses the remaining jack in the air, but this time picks up two jacks before the tossed jack hits the ground. She does this until all the jacks are picked up. This is called “twos.” As only nine jacks were scrambled, the remaining single jack is picked up by itself. This process is repeated for “threes,” “fours, “fives” all the way up to “eights.”

Advertisement promoting the marbles and jacks competition, Ottawa Evening Citizen, 16 February, 1924.

Each time, “residual” jacks are picked in the last toss. Then the player takes 10 jacks in her hand and tosses one in the air. While the jack is airborne, she places the remaining nine jacks on the ground. Then the 10th jack is tossed again, with the player picking up the nine jacks on the surface with the same hand and catching the tossed jack before it touches the ground.

At any time should a player fail to pick up the right number of jacks, her turn is over. She must re-start the missed level.

The game now gets even more challenging. After completing the above levels, the player then takes the ten jacks in her hand, tosses them up into the air, and catches at least two on the back of her hand. The two or more jacks so caught are then tossed again and the remaining jacks are picked up from the playing surface. If a player is able to catch all ten jacks on the back of her hand, she has scored a ringer. As a reward, the player skips a round.

The winner of the contest is the first player who completes the three rounds of the games with the fewest number of turns.

The Citizen heavily promoted the city’s marbles’ championship over the next two months, exhorting boys to establish marbles’ clubs at their schools, churches and other organizations. The Y.M.C.A. boys’ division began hold training sessions.

The newspaper boasted that “the game may soon be as popular as baseball.” It also advertised that it was ready to assist in the formation of marbles clubs across the city and neighbouring communities.

Representatives from the newspaper visited schools throughout Ottawa and the valley during recess and lunch hours to interest boys in the game.

School clubs were formed with inventive names, like “The Never Misses” and “The Sure Winners” of the Slater Street School, “The Sharpshooters” and “Shamrocks” of St. Patrick’s, and the “York Street Stripes” of the York Street School.

In early March, an exhibition game was held at the Glashan School yard between a Glashan School team and the Cambridge Street School team. The Cambridge boys won 16-14 before a large gallery of young marbles enthusiasts. The match was filmed as a learning aid for others.

A month later, two St. Patrick’s teams, the “Tigers” and the “Sharpshooters” took on two Slater Street School teams, the "Never Misses” and the “Pickups.” In the finals, the “Never Misses” beat the “Tigers” 21-9.

While the Citizen reported daily on progress made in organizing marbles clubs and the exhibition games, it was virtually silent on the jacks tournaments. The only comment it made was that interest among girls for the jacks competition was less than it was among boys for the marbles competition.  

Preliminary rounds of the Ottawa district marbles and jacks began mid-April. To help ensure fairness, Ottawa was divided up into sections by ward to help equalize the chances of winning. More than 1,000 boys and girls participated in the contests. Children who came from outside of Ottawa for the competition were put in in city hotels as guests of the Citizen.

Apparently, the ward contests were keenly followed by hundreds of people—schoolmates of contestants, parents and friends. After winning his ward marbles championship, Albert Groulx of 289 York St., who attended St. Brigid’s School, was hoisted on the shoulders of his friends. There was so much hullabaloo that the “harassed” reporter had difficulty in obtaining Groulx’s correct address. Each ward winner received a silver medal.

The Ottawa district championships were held on Easter Monday, April 21, 1924. The marbles championship was played at Cartier Square which the Civic Playgrounds Commission had placed at the disposal of the Citizen.

To control the crowds, police were stationed at the Square with the newly-rolled playing area, 50 ft. by 40 ft., roped off from the milling throngs there to witness the play. Alderman McGregor Easson, principal of the Elgin Street School, was the referee.

The elimination games were played in four groups; eighteen boys competed. The final battle was among the four boys who won their individual groups. In the audience were prominent Ottawa citizens, including the president of the Rotary Club, several clergymen, schoolmates, and many girls and ladies.

The games were reportedly played with a high level of sportsmanship, with the audience of close to 300 cheering for all players. Many older spectators commented on the type of marbles being played. They concluded that it was far more sporting than the version they were used to—the version where you try to knock out competitors’ marbles out of a circle and you keep the marbles won.

Harold Fisher, the provincial member of parliament for Ottawa and G.A. Disher of the Citizen played the ceremonial first game; Fisher was the easy winner.

Four boys made it to the finals: Harry Adelstein of the Elgin Street Public School, Anatole Charron of the Kiwanis Boys’ Club, Clifford Milford of Almonte, and John Carnegie of East Ward School, Pembroke. Adelstein had made it to the finals after having beaten Albert Groulx in the preliminaries. Groulx had taken a commanding early lead in the match but had come up short when he missed an easy shot in the final round. This left the door open for Adelstein who sank the remaining marbles—one was six feet from the hole.

In the finals, Harry Adelstein was declared the Ottawa district champion after Clifford Milford of Almonte, who had seemingly won the championship in a closely-fought battle, was disqualified. Milford had misread the entry requirements which stated that players had to be under 14 as of May 1. He had his 14th birthday in March.

The girls’ jacks competition were held the same day, April 21, in the Y.M.C.A. Special Exercise Room. Competitors were divided into three groups. The winner of each group met in the finals. The Citizen’s coverage of the event was thin.

The newspaper opined that girls had shown a “keen interest” in the game but were reluctant to “face the limelight of public contests.” After indicting the names of the officiants, the Citizen reported that Marion Scharf of Eastview Public School had won the Ottawa championship. Helen Nicholson of Borden School was the runner-up.

After the events, all the contestants were taken on a tour of the Parliament Buildings, the Citizen building on Sparks Street and the Experimental Farm.

Three days later, the Canadian championships were held in Toronto at the Pantages Theatre. In truth, it really wasn’t an all-Canada championship. Only three provinces were represented: Alberta, Ontario, and Nova Scotia, from communities where the Southam group of newspapers were located. The Vancouver Sun, which was not part of the Southam chain, cheekily held marbles and jacks competition for British Columbia. While its winners did not go to Toronto to compete in the Dominion championships, the winning boy and girl each received a gold medal.

Ottawa’s marbles champ, Henry Adelstein, was accompanied to Toronto by his mother, Mrs. L. Adelstein of 294 Laurier Ave. They stayed at the Walker House Hotel free of charge, including meals, courtesy of the hotel. The jacks champion, Mildred Scharf, was accompanied to Toronto by her father, Mr. D. Scharf of Eastview. They stayed at the Carls-Rite Hotel where their lodgings and meals were also paid for by the hotel.

Oddly, while the Citizen reported that Adelstein and Scharf made it safely to Toronto, the newspaper did not report on the championship. In a printing error, on the day after the championship was held in Toronto, the newspaper re-ran on its front page an article that it had published a month earlier. An entry form for the now completed Ottawa district competition ran on page two. This oversight was not corrected the following day. Instead, the newspaper ignored the story. This must have been quite a blow to Ottawa’s two champions and their families.

A week later, a small article appeared on page six of the Citizen saying that Mildred Scharf, who had come in second in Toronto, had received a lady’s wristwatch and a silver medal, while her school, the Eastview Public School, had been awarded a silver cup. There was no mention of Henry Adelstein, though presumably he too received a watch and silver medal, with the Elgin Street Public School also receiving a silver trophy.

Other newspapers in the Southam chain did, however, report on the Toronto finals, though their coverage was hardly effusive. It seems that Kathleen Perry and Eddie Henderson, both of Toronto won the championships. After a nervous start to the jacks competition, Perry was an easy victor over the other players. In the marbles competition, Henderson, wearing his lucky red woollen toque, took the championship. Henry Adelstein of Ottawa came in third place.

The marbles and jacks competitions were not repeated.




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