When American inventor Martin F. Christensen created the world's first glass sphere-making machine in the early 1900s, he faced stiff competition from overseas. Germany had long dominated the world's toy marble market with their handmade glass, crockery and agate marbles.
Martin's toughest challenge was not found in making a better product. American children adored the new fantastically round and smooth "glassies" he had so ingeniously created. Rather, like so many American manufacturers before and after him, his challenge was labor cost.
To illustrate the problem, in 1913, Horace Hill of M.F. Christensen & Son Co. reported to congress that his company's labor cost for one adult male was "$4 per day of 8 hours, $24 per week." In Germany, on the other hand, a day-shift adult male marble maker was paid "$4.76 to...$7.14 per week by the job of 12 hours per day."
How could they competitively sell toy marbles when the Germans could make them at a fraction of the cost?
The answer was simple: They could not compete. They could only appeal to the government to level the playing field by increasing the tariff, the duty tax on the imported products. And that's just what Martin F. Christensen himself did at tariff hearings before the Committee on Ways and Means.
In 1909 he made the following appeal, which reads in part:
Gentlemen: We respectfully submit our views in the matter of manufacturing glass marbles and caster balls.
In October, 1904, we started a small factory here in Akron, Ohio, for the exclusive purpose of manufacturing this product. From that time on we have labored along, but to great disadvantage with our foreign competitors, it being possible to put imported glass marbles on our American market; for example, No. 0 imported glass marbles are offered to the trade in this country at $1.57 per thousand against our No. 0 glass marbles, with an actual cost of manufacturing here of $2.80 per thousand. The principal element in our problem being labor, at which we labor to great disadvantage with our foreign competitors in the price we are compelled to pay for it; we have, however, maintained our unequal struggle with manufacturers from abroad in such a way as to keep our industry alive, but scarcely more; we are, however, capable of survival of almost indefinite extension if, during the crucial period the principle of giving adequate protection to our industry during the time it is actually needed it applies to our case. We feel that this industry is one which fulfills all the conditions required for the free and generous application of the protective principle; it is literally an infant industry; the protection which it absolutely requires is a protection against foreign poorly paid hand labor, and in favor of domestic high class skilled labor.
The M.F. Christensen & Son Co. survived for several more years until World War One. German imports were banned at the war's outbreak. Later in 1918, Martin F. Christensen's son, Charles, decided to retire and sold the company's remaining stock to the Akro Agate Company.
The "infant" American machine made marble industry thrived another 10 or so years, then struggled through the Great Depression and World War II. But America was changing. Plastic and television had been invented and the demand for toy marbles waned while the labor and material costs to manufacture them rose.
Despite this, in defiance of the odds, there are still two American toy marble manufacturers in operation today: Marble King and Jabo, Inc. That, to me, is something of a miracle in today's global economy. No doubt they too struggle against cheap foreign labor, high material costs, and the facts of a changing society.
These companies represent the legacy of M.F. Christensen, his invention and the struggles he faced to make and sell those wonderful little glass spheres we adore.
In honor of that history, I'm going to buy some new American machine made marbles while I still can.