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September 2014

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John Frier: American Inventor

I have a very popular Web page devoted to Hi-Flier kites, and it generates more mail than anything else on my site except Contra. A few weeks ago, I got an email from Nancy Frier, introducing herself as the granddaughter of John Frier, founder of Alox Manufacturing Co. of St. Louis. Alox was one of three companies that mass-produced paper kites for the toy market in the 20th century, the others being Crunden-Martin (TopFlite) and Hi-Flier. I flew a few Alox kites when I was a kid, but they were not available at Bud's Hardware, so I could only get them when I was somehow at farther stores like Walgreen's or Kresge's. Nancy had seen my Hi-Flier page (which mentions Alox kites briefly) and offered to provide more information on Alox and the remarkable man behind it. Earlier this week, I took advantage of a fluky chance to meet her while she was traveling from Wisconsin to St. Louis, and we lunched outside of Rockford.

Whoa. I've been at some interesting lunch meetings in my time (and I've had breakfast with Isaac Asimov and dinner with Steve Ballmer) but this one was amazing. Almost all my information about Hi-Flier is second or third hand. Nancy was there. She had worked at Alox since she was a teenager. She actually made the kites, and by "made" I mean that literally: She fed sheets of paper and plastic into the special printing presses, and pushed the buttons. She worked the jig that stretched out a diamond of waxed string over the cut kite sails, and then folded and glued the edge tabs of the sails over the string. (This last machine was Frier's own invention, and he held patent #3,330,511 on it.) She worked for Alox until the company folded in 1989. She still has the copper letterpress plates from which Alox kites were printed, and she had one in the back seat to show me. (Below; photographed on her car window sun-screen.) And before she continued on to St. Louis, she handed me an armful of Alox kites, some of which dated back to the early 1950s. The kites were much appreciated—and I'm working on an article about Alox kites—but what really made the meeting was hearing about John Frier himself.

Born in 1896, Frier had a restless mind, of the sort that demands to know how things work and constantly tries to figure out better ways to go about them. He was fascinated by things that flew, and in 1912, when he was 17, he built an airframe with a wingspan of about 20 feet in his parents' shed outside of St. Louis. He called it a glider, but it was clearly built to accept an engine (she showed me photos) and it was certainly large enough to carry a pilot. Way cool—but then she pulled something else out of her briefcase: A letter to John from the chief counsel of the Curtiss Aeroplane Company, which threatened poor teenaged John with a patent lawsuit unless he ceased making flying machines that infringed on several unspecified Curtiss patents. Frier ignored the letter, but the following year the shed caught fire under mysterious circumstances and took the plane with it, all before John and one of his friends could complete and launch it.

John Frier served in WWI, and when he got home he returned to his main business of having ideas. One of them was a way to keep shoelaces from unraveling at the ends. Although other things had been tried, Frier's method looks a great deal like the stiff plastic ends you see to this day. (His were made of thin metal.) He obtained patent #1,318,745 in 1919, and created a company to manufacture and sell shoelaces. He named the company Alox because it was different from all other local manufacturing concerns in St. Louis—and would be right at the front of the phone book, which at that time was more of a phone pamphlet. Alox cranked out shoelaces for decades, and at least until WWII it was their core product line.

Soon after founding Alox, Frier began manufacturing and selling paper and later plastic kites for children. Nancy gave me a great deal of information and photos concerning Alox kites, but I don't have a scanner here with me and can't show you anything right now. I'll be doing a detailed article on Alox kites once I get back to Colorado, so stay tuned.

Alox is actually better known among marble collectors than kite collectors. Frier liked making toys, and in addition to kites Alox manufactured yoyos, jacks sets, jump ropes (which, after all, are basically large shoelaces with wooden ends) and Chinese checkers sets. At first he bought the marbles for Chinese checkers on an OEM basis from other companies whose sole business was marble manufacturing, but the common practice of bringing a box of marbles "up to weight" by throwing in pieces of broken glass enraged him. He bought several marble-making machines from one of his former suppliers and began making the marbles himself, at first for his Chinese checkers and Tit Tat Toe games, and later as a separate product line. The marble machines were crude (and incorporated mechanical oddities like transmissions from 1920s Hupmobiles) but John and his staffers slowly improved them, and he soon pretty much owned the US marble market. He bought cullet glass from glass manufacturers to melt into marbles, but also bought empty glass bottles in various colors on the scrap market and melted those as well. (Alox's blue marbles had mostly been Milk of Magnesia bottles.) The machines ran 24/7 because it took several days and a lot of fuel oil to bring a batch of glass to full melt, and when John Frier shut down marble production in the late 1940s, it was mostly because keeping a marble factory running all the time was a nuisance. He was the CEO, but he was also the only guy who could troubleshoot the cranky marble machines, and he liked to sleep at night undisturbed by frantic calls from his foremen.

Nancy's final revelation about the Alox product line was the most fun of all: John Frier and Alox made UFOs. Shortly after WWII, Alox got the contract to construct balloon-borne radar targets for the Army Signal Corps. Alox had built thousands of ML307C/AP target devices, starting in early 1947. One of the most famous late-40's "UFO debris" photos clearly shows an ML307, as vehemently as the UFO gang has tried to deny it. Nancy had an Alox-built ML307 target in the back seat, and it was a difficult thing to photograph well, especially in a parking lot. It has a lot in common with a box kite, in that it's a corner reflector designed to fold flat.

I'm running on longer than I generally allow myself in this space, but it was great fun and a wonderful look at a period in American history when almost anything was possible. Nancy handed me a lot of material, and once I get home and get an article put together, I'll link to it here. The kites are much too old to fly (obviously) but they will take a place of honor on my workshop wall, along with the Hi-Fliers already hanging there. Nancy is considering printing and making reproduction Alox kites from the original copper plates, if she can find suitable paper and a press that can do the job. (I know very little about letterpress printing and can't help much there; if you have suggestions I think we'd both like to hear them.) I've been hoping for years that someone would begin making paper kites for the nostalgia market, and with any luck we may still get there. More as I learn it.

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Comments

Jeff,

Thank you so very much for this post! My Dad and I also flew those kites when I was a child in the late '50s and early '60s, and we both had many other Alox-derived toys in our respective toyboxes also. I loved hearing about the man who made those toys that my father loved so much as a kid. His collection of marbles most likely contained many Alox-made ones. I was lucky enough to have enjoyed them as well. I had one of those Rocket Ship kites back in the '60s - I remember it well! When Dad and I bought it at one of the local stores in the small Tennessee town he grew up in, the packaging was slightly dust-covered, but the kite was clean and flew better than any other kite I ever had...

If you ever decide to expand this post into a longer article, I'd love to beg you to allow me to post it in the Features section of my online e-zine, Aphelion Webzine. I think my readers would get a real kick out of it.

Dan Hollifield
That is really cool that you got that chance to meet with her. Good luck definitely shows up on occasion.

(Anonymous)

Alox Manufacturing.

Jeff, thanks for the Alox marble related information. I am a marble collector and Alox has been some what mysterious.. I also have this mesh bag, which has examples that are unique. And several other "alox" which are more like, Champion marbles, Vito glass, Master made and later Master glass, and Alley agate marbles found in Alox Tic-tac-toe, and later plastic bags.

The only evidence remaining or known with alox labels are the mess bags with transparent color and thick white "shoe lace ribbon" meandering within the matrix of the marble.

Anything illustrating evidence of other marbles unique to Alox, color style etc. would be most special, if you were to run across this.

I also own one special "Alox" said to be made for factory workers and Representatives, or business relations. However, it's just a story, verses any proof. Other than it is unique, and supposed to have been given in special box, which I've never seen. 'Story'

As far as I know, you've stumbled on a marble mystery, where you've shown some relative providence to marbles unique to Alox. little is know or remains of factories that made marbles. Thanks!

BTW, yup i remember the Alox kites, as a kid, jacks etc. from the 50's-60's now that you've pictured and or mentioned them.

Re: Alox Manufacturing.

Nancy Frier is an amazing woman. She has been working behind the scenes trying to get the Alox marble-making machine back from the Dollywood junkyard to the City Museum of St. Louis, where there are people who think they can restore it to presentable condition, or even make it work again. I have to check in with her to see how she's doing on that. I hope to write a short book with her on Alox as time allows, though it's been a difficult couple of months for me.

(Anonymous)

Re: Alox Manufacturing.

Anything you would like to know about the Alox marbles , you can email me at aloxmfgco@att.net. I would be happy to share all of our old stock on Marbles.
The Special Box was the 30 box TiT TaT Toe and was sold for 5 cents. Several boxes where sent out to our customers as samples they included sales sheet, order sheet and envelope, no tit tat toe instructions were included in this special box.
Thank you for your interest.
nancy l frier
I'm already outlining the longer article, but you won't see much for a few weeks, as I need equipment back in Colorado to scan some printed material about Alox, and a good photo background for some closeups of other things, not least of which are the kites themselves. (She also gave me an Alox yoyo, a jacks set, a jump rope, and some shoelaces!)

One of my uncles gave me a bag of marbles when I was six or seven, and it was in a mesh bag, like the bags my mom bought potatoes in. I'm wondering if they were Alox marbles. Even though Alox stopped making them in 1949, they had a huge inventory and sold them for a long time after.

Alox did a lot of interesting kites, including quite a few that I have never seen, even on eBay. I have original sales sheets and price lists from as late as 1986, and I will scan and reproduce them whole. They sold an interesting Malay-style bow kite that was both 42" high and 42" wide at the bow, as well as larger bow and box kites that were over 5' long.

It was great good luck that I could meet Nancy in person, just as I was here and she was driving to St. Louis via Rockford. Sometimes things Just Work Out.