At the Jamestown colony, English settlers constructed a furnace in 1607 and produced glass in 1608. As a result, glass became the first industry in America, but glass marbles were not the first marbles. “Long before Columbus set foot on American soil, the inhabitants of the American continent were playing marbles, for flint and clay marbles have been found in the earthen monuments of the Mound Builders. Remains of the Stone Age in Europe, Asia, and Africa have produced marbles of clay or pebbles. Roman and Egyptian children played marbles, for some of these playthings of theirs are preserved in the British Museum...” [i]
Before Martin F. Christensen invented the marble-making machine in 1905, all glass marbles were handmade. At the height of marble making there were 21 factories in the world and 14 were along the Ohio River in the St. Marys area and the north-west portion of West Virginia. There were three reasons marble production was big here; ample supplies of natural gas, the type of sand that was the best to make glass and the glass workers who were experienced in all kinds of glass works.
This book is primarily about the glass businesses of L. E. Alley, Sr., but of equal importance is the telling of who the three L. E. Alley men were. Several previous publications mentioning the senior Lawrence E. Alley’s business ventures were based on personal interviews without sufficiently checking their accuracy with recorded facts. Lawrence, Jr. was never interviewed by anyone except me. He knew more about his father’s many business ventures than is reported in any articles I have read. I wish I had started writing this book before he passed away.
My father and I bear the same name as my grandfather, who had a significant impact on the glass business in West Virginia. He is especially known for the marbles he made in the later part of his life at the Alley Agate Company. Little has been written about the previous thirty years he spent working in the glass business making fine tableware. During this time he worked for others blowing and cutting glass and also started some business partnerships with others, first in glassware and then in marbles; all of which failed.
Then he founded his own business, the Alley Agate Company, which outlasted all of his competitors, and which still exists today as “Marble King.”. Jack Pressman, founder of J. Pressman & Co., used Alley products in all his toys that contained glass. This book documents most of these toys and seeks to date when they were sold. Our family has a large quantity of marbles we had kept from the factory in St. Marys, West Virginia, and a sample case of my grandfather’s early marbles made in Pennsboro. We did not have the foresight to save the toy glassware he made, other than a few pieces my grandfather or his daughter, Naomi Sellers, had in their homes. In recent years I attended a marble show near my home in Marlborough, Massachusetts. From collectors at the show, I became aware of the desire for an accurate account of the life of my grandfather. My work on my family genealogy provided a good start for this account, and the basic research for this book on his life was already complete. Since then many collectors have contributed pictures of pieces in their collections and some have given me items. Their names are included in this book. I had not been a collector of Alley Agate products until I started this book. I couldn’t resist buying some of the pieces, and now have some nice items to give to my children and grandchildren.
In the text; Sr. is not usually affixed to my grandfather’s name. To clarify which Lawrence is meant: Mr. Alley and L. E. Alley always refer to Lawrence, Sr., unless Jr. or III is obvious in the context. Jr. is always affixed to his son’s name, except in the section about Lawrence, Jr. (In Florida some people did call him Larry.) I, Lawrence, III, was called Bud or Buddy and occasionally Lawrence Everett by my family and was called Larry by everyone else when I went to college. All this confusion of names kept me from naming my son Lawrence, IV.
Signatures of my father and grandfather on the title page are from the 1946 incorporation papers of The Alley Glass Manufacturing Company. When I sign my name as “Larry”, I usually get fancy with the “y”.
I thank Jim Pressman, President of Pressman Toy Company, for permitting me to photograph the old J. Pressman and Company catalogs. The only ones before 1950 that they still have are 1932, 1933, 1937, 1938, 1939 and 1945. Unfortunately, the catalogs do not list all the products being sold in each year.
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[i] Mary Metzerot, www.joemarbles.com.