|By Susan Melllish
Making a ring in the dirt and spending an afternoon shooting marbles was a popular pastime for children of the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s. Or on windy days, the skies would be filled with any number of diamond or box shaped paper kites.
Alox Manufacturing Company of St. Louis provided some of those marbles and kites. Founded in 1919 by John Frier (1895-1974), Alox Manufacturing produced all kinds of novelty items – from jack sets and wooden tops to jump ropes and whistling whips, but many who played with these items know little about the man behind them.
That is until now. Granddaughter Nancy L. Frier is on a mission. “I want people to know my grandfather; know what he accomplished. He was an extraordinary man and his talents went way beyond marble-making.” John Frier is said to have come up with the name “Alox” because he wanted the company’s name to appear near the front in the phone book.
Though Alox produced marbles, the company is probably best known for their graphic paper and plastic kites. However, Frier did not start out as a marble or kite maker. Frier actually entered the manufacturing industry because he wanted to make a better shoelace. “My grandfather was just home from serving in the Navy during World War I and he had an idea of how to make a shoelace that would not unravel,” Nancy remembers. Using funds raised by selling railroad stock, Frier started Alox Manufacturing. Frier invented the aiglet, that thin piece of metal around the end of a shoelace. This ended the aggravating problem of shoelaces unbraiding. His laces were also used in corsets.
It was the braiding machine that possibly led Frier to manufacture toys. When not making laces, this machine was used to braid toy whips and lassos. So successful was this initial dip into the toy market, Frier was soon manufacturing jack sets, carnival canes, jump-ropes and marble-based board games like Chinese checkers and Tit-Tat-Toe.
According to Nancy, “Originally, Alox only manufactured the boards for these games and bought the needed marbles.” However, the company ran into a problem with their marble supplier. It seems marbles are sold by weight and the marble wholesaler had taken to filling the bottom of the boxes the marbles were shipped in with chunks of broken glass. Frier decided to make his own.
Frier bought seven marble making machines from West Virginia, with two of the machines running at any given time. The marble machines ran 24 hours a day, six days a week. “They only shut down on Saturdays,” Nancy remembers.
Alox got quite good at making marbles and actually began selling marbles individually in small mesh bags. According to www.joemarbles.com, “Alox made opaques, clearies, opaque swirls, translucent swirls and striped or brush patches. They used both new and scrap glass. Green could come from 7-Up bottles, brown from beer bottles, blue from Milk of Magnesia bottles; white from cold cream jars, etc.” Marble production ceased at Alox around 1949, but they had been so prolific, the company continued to sell warehoused marbles for many years after production ceased.
While marbles were an interesting aspect of Alox Manufacturing, kites were their big seller. Frier had quite a love affair with flight. According to Nancy, her grandfather built a glider in 1911 that was very similar to the one Orville and Wilbur Wright had built. “Grandpa actually received a letter from Curtiss Aeroplane representing the Wrights telling him to cease his work with his glider as it was infringing on the pending patent of the Wright brothers.” Whether Frier ever planned to oblige will never be known, as the barn where the plane was stored burned to the ground on May, 20 1912.
Frier took to the skies in another way; by manufacturing kites; diamond, box and barn door examples. Alox produced their first paper kite in 1927 and is known for the much sought after examples that wear the Alox eagle – John Frier’s favorite design. Another desired example is the Western Ranger design of a cowboy on a bucking mustang.
According to Jeff Dunteman at www.junkbox.com/kites/AloxKites.html, “Alox kites are especially collectible because Alox never got ’modern’ with its kite art, even as the ugly ’70s crept into American culture. The kite designs rarely changed to keep up with the times, and Alox kites are very much a peek at ’kid culture’ as it existed in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. The Rocket Ship design is a good example. The 30’s deco/retro Flash Gordon art was used for four decades.” A wonderful display of Alox kites and kite related memorabilia from this company is on display at the World Kite Museum in Long Beach, Wash., thanks to Kay Buesing, the museum’s director.
Yo-yos were another Alox staple, though the firm did not have its own wooden lathes. Instead, Alox bought the yo-yo halves from other companies. These halves were then assembled, painted and sometimes, decorated with jewels, and packaged at the plant.
Nancy, who worked at Alox as a teenager, recalls how supplies were stacked to the rafters in the plant; how hot and cramped it was. But she also remembers the vitality of the place, where projects were always under way and time was of the essence.
John Frier died in 1974 at the age of 79. His son, John Jr., continued to run the company until he retired in 1989. At this time Alox closed and the equipment was sold. Some would think the story ends there. Think again.
More than 20 years have passed and granddaughter, Nancy, has become her grandfather’s biggest fan and quite the Alox advocate. In 2009, Nancy tracked down the last working Alox marble machine at Dollywood and with the help of Morgan Duckworth, the groundskeeper at Dollywood, Michael Johnson (who wrote American Machine-Made Marbles, Schiffer), and Dolly Parton (who OKed the sale after Nancy wrote to her) bought the machine and shipped it to St. Louis. Nancy was on a mission; to restore this Alox marble machine and make marbles once again.
Mike Killian of City Museum (where the original Alox shoelace braiders are on display) loosened up the machine and began the initial restoration of the marble maker. The machine was then sent in May of 2009 to marble producer Jabo, Inc. in Reno, Ohio, where Ron Shepherd of West Virginia removed the roller and had it blasted, and the restoration was completed by Dave McCullogh. The only modification McCullogh made was to mount a variable speed drive, three-phase electric motor to run the marble-maker.
On April 26, 2010 at Jabo’s headquarters, the furnace was fired up, the glass was poured in and Alox produced several runs of Third Generation Alox marbles; the first time in more than 61 years. Nancy considers the marbles produced by her grandfather to be First Generation; those produced when her father ran the company as being Second Generation and these limited runs by Nancy to be Third Generation Alox marbles.
“The marbles from the first batch have an orange peel finish since the rollers on the marble machine still had some wear, but subsequent runs of hot, molten glass resulted in a smooth roller and smoother marbles,” Nancy explained. Watch the run at www.youtube.com/watch?v=_dhyLmhmTWM . Another run is planned for the near future, but in the meantime Alox’s marble machine will reside at Jabo.
Collectors of machine-made marbles are excited about not only history being made with this Third Generation Alox marble run, but for the history that is being preserved by Nancy L. Frier. Nancy was just happy to have been able to place a handful of Third Generation Alox marbles into the hands of her ailing father.