Business and Labor

The Sweet New England History of the Frisbee

frisbee history truckDecades before the plastic Frisbee was invented, New England resonated with the shouts of ‘Frisbee’ warning of an oncoming tin pie plate thrown through the air.

The baked-good containers distributed by the Frisbie Pie Company eventually inspired marketers at Wham-O to brand a plastic flying disc the ‘Frisbee.’

And for a brief time in the late 1950s, Frisbee flying discs and Frisbie pie tins were simultaneously flying off the shelves.

Connecticut Frisbee

frisbee pieWilliam Russell Frisbie founded the company in 1871 in Bridgeport, Conn. His family had long been established in New England. Ancestor Edward Frisbie was an original settler of the Town of Branford in New Haven Colony in 1645.

William Russell Frisbie grew up in Branford, where his father had run a successful gristmill. He moved to Bridgeport to manage a new branch of the Olds Baking Co. of New Haven. Soon he bought the branch and renamed it after himself.

Frisbie died in 1903 and his son Joseph took over the company. He expanded the number of routes from six to 250, opening shops in Hartford, Providence and Poughkeepsie, N.Y. By 1956 the Frisbie Pie Company was making 80,000 pies a day.

The pies were sold with the tins, which had a 10-cent deposit. According to lore, Frisbie sold pies to Yale, where students started throwing the pie tins upside down on the New Haven Green in the 1920s. The sport spread to other New England college campuses, where it was called ‘Frisbee-ing.’

Another story has local schoolchildren and factory workers tossing the pie plates around – or maybe they were cookie tin lids — and yelling ‘Frisbee’ to avoid hitting others.

After Joseph Frisbie died, his widow, Marian Rose Frisbie, along with plant manager Joseph Vaughn, carried on until 1958. The Bridgeport factory, now a parking lot, shut down in 1959, and a Worcester, Mass., company called Table Talk bought the rights to the brand name.

California Frisbee

Frisbee 19Enter two World War II veterans, Army Air Force pilots named Walter ‘Fred’ Morrison and Warren Franscioni. As a kid in Utah, Morrison had tossed around metal discs such as pie tins and paint can lids. Before the war, he and his wife bought cake pans for 5 cents and sold them on California beaches for 25 cents.

By 1946, Morrison and Franscioni decided to make a flying disc from lightweight postwar plastic. In Franscioni’s California basement, they shaped plastic sheets over a heater into a flying disc and called it the Whirlo Way.

In 1947, word spread that the Air Force had discovered the remains of a flying saucer near Roswell, N.M. Morrison and Franscioni renamed their toy the Flyin’ Saucer and created a new version with harder plastic.

It didn’t sell.

The two men then made a deal with Al Capp to use L’il Abner to help sell the Flyin’ Saucer. Somehow they overstepped their bounds and Capp sued, bringing to an end the Pipco partnership.

Franscioni returned to the Air Force and Morrison got a job as a Los Angeles building inspector. He continued tinkering with the design of his flying disc. In 1955 he came up with the Pluto Platter Flying Saucer and sold it by mail.

One day he finally got his lucky break in a Los Angeles parking lot. He was showing off the Pluto Platter when a representative from Hula Hoop maker Wham-O spotted him. The representative told  the company’s owners, Dick Knerr and Spud Melin. In 1956, they bought the rights from Morrison, making him a wealthy man.

Between 1949 and 1959, at least six companies were making and selling flying plastic discs. On a business trip to the East Coast, Knerr realized the fad was catching on at college campuses like Yale, Harvard, Northeastern and Dartmouth. No matter what a company named its plastic disc, the students called it a Frisbie.

Knerr decided to join them rather than try to beat them. Wham-O renamed the toy the Frisbee in 1958 — the same year the Frisbie Pie Company closed its doors. Since then, more than 100 million Frisbees have been sold.

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