Issue 73: Alox Kites and the Man Who Made Them

In terms of “bang for the buck,” not many toys could equal the Boomer-era dime-store paper kite. Ten cents for the kite, ten cents for the string, and you had an afternoon sailing the invisible waters of the local schoolyard sky. I used to hunt in empty lots for returnable bottles to buy kites, but kites could often be had for free as handouts from local businesses. (Cundiff’s Sinclair gas station at Harlem and Higgins in Chicago handed them out for awhile circa 1961) Even string could be salvaged from the odd corners of the schoolyard, or (especially) in the trees where less fortunate kites found their final resting places.

Hi-Flier Kite Company certainly led the market for paper kites mid-century, but they were far from the only company making paper kites targeted at children. Interestingly, all the major players in paper kites apart from Hi-Flier (which was based in Decatur, Illinois) were located in St. Louis: Crunden-Martin Manufacturing (makers of TopFlite kites), Wilder Manufacturing, and Alox Manufacturing. All these companies have been out of business for some time now. Even Hi-Flier is merely a licensed brand manufactured in China. Getting anything on their history is very difficult, but recently I had the good fortune to make the acquaintance of Nancy Frier, who is the granddaughter of the man who founded and ran Alox Manufacturing from its establishment in 1919 to his death in 1974. With her help, I’ve been able to compile a description of the company’s product line, the company’s history, and perhaps most interesting of all, the history of the remarkable man who was Mr. Alox all of his long life.

John Frier 1895-1974

Born in 1895, Frier had a restless mind, of the sort that demands to know how things work and constantly tries to figure out better ways to get things done. On returning to St. Louis from Navy service in World War I in 1919, he had an idea for a way to make a shoelace that would not unravel at the ends. His US Patent #1,318,745 described a method of squeezing a thin leaf of metal around the end of a shoelace and crimping it in place by pressure alone. (No glue was involved.) It worked brilliantly. Having invented the now-familiar shoelace aiglet, he established a company to manufacture shoelaces. Alox shoelaces were a fixture in shoe stores for decades, and backed by fairly aggressive marketing in terms of signage and point-of-sale displays.

Alox laces (which were also available for corsets, at least in the company’s early years) were braided at the Alox plant. Other braided items were produced on the same equipment, including toy whips (which had noisemakers on the ends of the lash) and toy cowboy lassos. Such “twofer” uses of the shoelace braiding machines may have been what originally drew Frier into the toy business.

Frier had always been fascinated with things that flew, and had experimented with gliders before WWI. In 1912 he and a friend built a man-carrying airframe that could have taken an engine, had he found one light enough and cheap enough for his needs. Seeking to expand the reach of his company, Alox began making paper kites for the toy market in 1927. Hi-Flier and Wilder Manufacturing were already in that market. (I am not sure when Crunden-Martin got into kites.) The American Eagle kite shown below is fairly recent, probably early 1980s.

John Frier seemed to like the toy market, and by the late 1930s was making all kinds of things for kids: jacks sets, toy whips with whistles on the ends, “carnival canes,” jump ropes, and marble-based board games including several variations on Chinese checkers and Tit-Tat-Toe. At first, Alox made only the wooden boards, but after being burned by unscrupulous marble manufacturers (who brought shipments of marbles “up to weight” by including chunks of broken glass in with the marbles) Frier purchased several marble-making machines and began manufacturing them himself. Alox grew very good at marble making, and was soon selling assortments of marbles, first in small mesh bags (with mesh much like the bags in which potatoes are still sold today in some places) and later in film plastic bags. Alox stopped marble production in 1949, but had a huge backlog of marbles in their warehouse that were sold for many years thereafter.

Alox had one other notable product, which drew on their experience making kites. Shortly after WWII, John Frier scored a defense contract from the US Army Signal Corps for making ML307C/AP balloon-borne radar targets (below). These were basically foldable radar corner reflectors made of wood sticks, string, and cloth and metal foil, raised into the air by helium balloons. The firm made hundreds or perhaps thousands of these over a ten-year period. They were used to train both ground and fighter-based radar-guided munitions operators. The ML307 went into wide use in early 1947, and many (myself included) think that the spooky-looking futuristic devices triggered a lot of the late 1940s and early 1950s UFO sightings.

The Alox Diamond Kites

As with all of its competitors at the time, the lion’s share of Alox’s kite production were 2-stick diamond-shaped bow kites. These required the least skill of any mass-produceable kite design to assemble and to fly. They were also relatively easy to manufacture. John Frier created custom machinery to trim printed kites to shape and also string, fold, and glue the edges, and eventually received US Patent #3,330,511 for a jig and process for making diamond-shaped kite sails.

  • #324 was 30″ long and 24″ wide in paper. This size was not produced in plastic.
  • #306 was 36″ long and 30″ wide in paper.
  • #316 was 36″ long and 30″ wide in polyethelene plastic.
  • #336 was 36″ long and 36″ wide in paper. This size was not produced in plastic.
  • #420 was 42″ long and 42″ wide in polyethelene plastic. This size was not produced in paper.
  • #602 was 60″ long in polyethelene plastic. Width not known. This size was called “Mrs. Big.”

(Source: Alox sales literature.)

Alox records found by Nancy Frier tell us that Alox began making plastic kites in November, 1951. That surprised me a little, but it may well mean that Alox was the first American firm to mass-produce a plastic kite for the dime-store market. I’ve been told that Hi-Flier did not begin production on their plastic kites until 1959, but that’s hearsay. If I can find crisper data you’ll see it here.

Note that not all of these SKUs were made during the entire period when Alox was making kites. Kite numbers 336 and 602 were no longer being produced when Alox closed in 1989. “Mrs. Big” (and its companion 60″ box kite “Mr. Big”) were produced for only a short time in the mid-late 1950s and are very rare. One or both were featured in (of all places) McCall’s Needlepoint and Crafts in their fall/winter 1958-1959 issue. The big Alox plastic kites may have been produced before that time, obviously, but that sets a late limit on when they appeared.

The Alox Flat Kites

Like the other kite manufacturers of that time, Alox sold a 3-stick barn-door flat kite, SKU #320. The kite was 30″ high by 20″ wide. All of the various Alox art designs are shown in barn-door form on early sales literature, but the kites went out of production long before Alox closed its doors. When the barn-door kites were dropped is unclear; I am researching this with Nancy Frier. They are shown on the 1940-1941 sales sheet, as well as on some undated sales photos that also show plastic kites. I think that they were still produced into the early 1960s, but they were difficult to assemble and without a good tail would not stay in the air for more than a few seconds.

In addition to its conventional barn-door kite, Alox produced a flat kite in the shape of a star. This was SKU #321, and the kite measured 30″ diagonally. (Its three sticks were each 30″ long.) The star kite was listed in the 1940-1941 sales sheet but is not seen in other dated sales literature that I have. The only art design depicted is a propeller-driven fighter plane under the legend “Frier Flyer.” The undated sales folder shown below does not list plastic kites at all, and is probably from the late 1940s or very early 1950s. I have not seen this shape of kite produced by any other American manufacturer.

The “build-it-yourself” kite kit that Alox sold in the 1950s and early 1960s (more on this later) contained materials to build a star kite of the same dimensions as SKU #321. The only difference is that there was no design on the sail paper.

The Alox Box Kites

Other than Hi-Flier, Alox was the only company to mass-produce box kites for the dime-store trade, and as best we know, they were the only company to mass-produce a box kite in plastic. Three SKUs exist in the sales literature:

  • #240 was 29″ long, with cells 12″ wide, in printed paper. Sales sheet says 28″ long.
  • #280 was 29″ long, with cells 12″ wide, in non-printed plastic. Sales sheet says 28″ long.
  • #600 (“Mr. Big”) was 60″ long and 24″ wide, in non-printed pastic.

(Source: Alox sales literature)

The paper box kite #240 existed as early as 1940. The years that the two plastic box kites were available is still unclear. All the box kites were gone by the early 1980s, probably because they were expensive to manufacture and relatively short-lived in young, inexperienced hands. The Alox plastic box kite in my collection looks fairly rugged, but my experience with the Hi-Flier box kite suggests that far more skill was required in flying them than the old reliable diamond kites.

#600 (Mr. Big) was an impressive item: A full five feet long, with 24″ wide cells of brightly colored plastic. Mr. Big was listed in Alox catalogs as early as 1956, and may have existed prior to that. (It can be no older than 1951, however, which is when Alox began making plastic kites.) Mr. Big was redesigned some time in 1957. The dimensions remained the same, but the two cells were each split in half, with a gap of about 1 1/2″ between the halves. Why this was done isn’t clear. Nor do we know how long Mr. Big remained in production, but nonetheless It is extremely rare.

The Alox Art Designs

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. The design existed in either one-color or two-color (shown here) forms, on both plastic and paper kites. Barn-door kites with the Rocket Ship design are known to exist. The same basic spaceship was printed with various small iconic shapes around it, including planets, stars, helemeted astronauts, and flying saucers.

A kite exists in Nancy Frier’s collection with a different sort of space theme: A white paper sail printed in two colors, black and red, consisting only of the various outer space icons that appeared on Alox kites, generally around the primary Rocket Ship artwork. There is no large text or title, but simply a male and female astronaut, a child astronaut, several Saturn planets, two flying saucers, some stars, a small rocket, and a space station at the center. (See below right.)

There was a newer Rocket Ship design with a sleeker, less Deco spacecraft that appeared mostly on #420 late-era 40″ X 40″ plastic diamond kites. The specimen I have (shown below) is printed on red plastic. Other color schemes are known to exist. The newer Rocket Ship design was also used on late-era #240 paper box kites, alongside several of the reliable Alox space icons.

According to Nancy Frier, John Frier’s favorite design was the American Eagle motif, which appeared at some point on virtually all of the various Alox kite formats. The diamond kite version is shown earlier in this article. On paper box kite #240 the eagle and banner was printed on one cells, and a World War I style tank and artillery pieces were printed on the other. (This box kite is shown in b/w in the sales literature photo at the top of this article.) The canonical Frier eagle may have been inspired by the simpler and more naturalistic eagle on the Wilder Mfg. “Eagle Flyer” kites, as I’ll explain shortly.

The Western Ranger design was apparently uncommon, but I remember buying one at the local Walgreen’s (or perhaps Garrett’s dime store in Edison Park) circa 1962. It consists of a cowboy on a bucking mustang between two stars, with the legend “Western Ranger” rendered in lariat rope. The design was used on both the diamond kites and the barn door kites. Other uses of the design have not come to light.

The last major design was very simple, and due to its simplicity, visible from a long way out: A cartoon boy in a bow tie over the name Mickey. As with the Western Ranger design, the Mickey design is known to have been made as both a diamond kite and a barn door kite. An example may be seen in the b/w sales photo at the top of thie article.

A simple, text-only design reading “Jesus Loves You” in large block letters is listed in some later catalogs as “Religious Kite.”

Miscellaneous Kite Products

Like Hi-Flier, Alox sold string for its kites. Early on, this was ordinary cotton twine. Later, Alox sold a much stronger, waxed string made of some sort of synthetic fiber. Unlike Hi-Flier (which as best we know simply re-labeled ordinary utility cotton twin on cardboard rolls) Alox sold their string already wound on smooth hardwood sticks. The string was sold in four lengths: 200, 250, 600, and 700 ft. The string shown in the photo below is the waxed variety. It was very strong: Nancy Frier tells of the story of how her father (John Frier’s son) would make sales calls and demonstrate the strength of Alox string by tying a length to the wheeled office chair in which the buyer was sitting, and pull him and the chair across the floor!

Alox was alone among American kite manufacturers mid-century in offering kite tail supplies. The Alox Kite Tails product was a package of cotton cloth strips in various colors, each strip about 10″ long. The package contained only the strips. The actual kite tail was made by gang-tying a series of the kite tail strips to a length of string, which was then tied to the bottom of the long stick on a diamond kite, or to a loop hanging between the two bottom sticks ends of a barn-door kite.

The other unique Alox kite product was a kite-making kit, consisting of three die-cut paper kite sails in three colors, sticks for the kites, some string, some powdered glue mix, and instructions. The kites were identical in size to the corresponding printed kites in the Alox catalog, and included a diamond bow kite, a barn-door kite, and a star kite.

The kite kit was produced as early as the late 1940s, judging from its mention in the sales literature. It probably went out of production circa 1965.

Alox and Wilder Manufacturing Co.

Wilder Manufacturing Co. of St. Louis is interesting to Alox collectors because Alox acquired the Wilder kite design trademarks in 1937, and possibly some of Wilder’s kite-making equipment. Wilder was a general toy manufacturer that sold board games, novelty coin banks, jigsaw puzzles, tiddly winks sets, and other things for children. In the silent films era they sold an oddly prescient celebrity Keeno game much prized by collectors. (Keeno was a form of bingo, now generally seen only in casinos.) They were a much older and larger firm than Alox, and only a small part of their business was kites. Most of the earliest promo kites I’ve seen were from Wilder, and they may have invented the genre. One unique aspect of Wilder kites were stiff paper reinforcing discs glued to the back of their kite sails at the points where the bridle string went through the kite to be tied to the sticks. (Below) Alox did not continue this practice once they acquired the Wilder line.

Most of Wilder’s kites that have survived have simple designs consisting of a drawn eagle image and a title, either “American Eagle” or “Eagle Flyer.” Wilder began placed the NRA eagle logo on their American Eagle kites starting in the mid-1930s.

After a brief trademark dispute between Wilder and Alox over the figure of an eagle on paper kites, Alox purchased Wilder’s trademarks in the kite field in 1937, most probably as part of Wilder’s bankruptcy liquidation that year. Frier did not covet Wilder’s “Eagle Flyer” kite design (above) but most likely bought the trademark to clear the way for his own, more elaborate “American Eagle” design. Peculiarly, the PTO had earlier granted Wilder an effective monopoly on the image of any bird on any kite of any kind, and it was not until Alox acquired the Wilder eagle design patent that Frier’s much more striking patriotic kite could take flight. Alox did make some use of the Wilder eagle image on their own kites (see the line photo at the top of this article) but most of Alox’s American Eagle kite designs were of the company’s own devising, and in various combinations included stars, clouds, banners, and an American shield. This was probably the best-known of all the Alox designs, and one of only three that I remember flying myself in the mid-1960s.

How Alox Made Its Kites

All Alox products were manufactured at the small factory building located at 6160-80 Maple Avenue in St. Louis. Apart from the separate marble operation, this was John Frier’s first and only factory. (Marbles were made elsewhere because of the special needs of the glass furnaces.) Everything from shoelaces to yo-yos to kites were made there, over a period of almost seventy years. Nancy Frier worked there as a teenager, as did her sisters, and described the building as hot, cramped, and crammed to the rafters with raw materials and partially completed products. Some aspects of production were farmed out to other firms; for example, Alox did not have a wood lathe, and the wooden halves of Alox yoyo toys were turned by another firm, with Alox assembling the halves into the completed toys.

Almost all of the kite production, however, was done in-house. This included printing and trimming the sails, cutting the and notching the sticks, and stringing the edges of the sails. Good-quality photos of the plant are few, but below is the main press on which nearly all the kites were printed.

John Frier was constantly looking for better ways to make his products, and in the mid-1960s (even though he was by then almost seventy) hit upon something remarkable:the use of “hot glue” (then a very new thing) to glue the flaps of the sails over the edging string. He eventually received US Patent #3,330,511 on the production jig and the process. The string used to edge the kite was “waxed” with the heat-sensitive plastic goop that most people now associate with hot glue guns. The impregnated string was run around four pegs at the points of the diamond kite, and then the flaps were folded over the impregnated string and sealed with a heat iron that melted the glue from the string and spread it slightly between the flap and the main sale body of the kite.

The ends of Alox kite sticks, like those of Wilder and TopFlite kites, were notched across the end of the sticks. Hi-Flier kites were notched along the ends of the sticks. (I’ve been told that the last few years of Hi-Flier’s paper diamond kite production had sticks notched across the ends as well, but have not been able to confirm this.)

The End of the Dime-Store Kite Era

John Frier died in 1974, just short of his eightieth birthday. His son John, Jr. continued the business until his own retirement in 1989, at which time the doors closed and the equipment liquidated. Kites were rolling off the Alox production lines until the very end, so it may be the case that Alox kites were the last of the paper diamond kites to be made. (I have seen no Hi-Flier paper diamond kites later than 1987.) By the end of the 1980s, low-margin American manufacturing was under siege from Chinese imports, and dime stores themselves (along with many other species of small retailers, including hardware stores, drug stores, and toy stores) were falling under the wheels of massive national franchise retailing. Kites were no longer a quarter, and kids were spending their quarters on other things, including video games, CDs, and computers.

The dollar stores that inherited the dime store tradition do not sell kites, and when kites appear in Walgreens, they are indifferent plastic deltas made in China. Where the kites of our youth may still be had is on eBay, and while Alox kites are not as common in that market as Hi-Fliers, they can still be found. Create a saved search for “alox” on eBay and you won’t have to wait long. I needn’t caution you that flying antique kites is not a good idea; the kites were “consumables” in 1960, but much more valuable now. Furthermore, the wooden sticks can become brittle over time and literally snap under the pressure of a strong wind! Put them on the wall where they will be safe, so that your children and grandchildren can remember them.

Nancy Frier tells me that she still has the metal plates from which many of the Alox kites were printed, and she’s looking for a printer who can print kites, and suitable paper on which to print them. She hopes to be able to make repro kites from the original printing plates, and when she succeeds, I’ll take pictures and post a detailed report on the Junkbox Kites section of this site.

In the meantime, you can do what I did for many years and make your own. I have written elsewhere about how to build a reproduction diamond kite in the fashion of Alox, Top-Flite, and Hi-Flier. It’s not difficult, given some Hobby Lobby sticks, some string, some wrapping paper or Mylar sheets, and plastic tape or Elmer’s glue. Give it a try!