History Of The Radio Flyer: The Little Red Wagon That Defined Childhood

By | August 2, 2021

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Bulldog Wilbur is pulled in a Radio Flyer Red Wagon to the dog run at Madison Square Park by his owner, Krista McGruder. (Robert Sabo/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)

For American kids, the Radio Flyer wagon is as much a staple of childhood as Legos and Barbie dolls. It's been a part of Americana for more than a century, and its story is a classic tale of an immigrant achieving the American dream.

Antonio Pasin

The Radio Flyer wagon was the unlikely brainchild of Antonio Pasin, the son of a cabinetmaker, who was born in Venice, Italy in 1898. Life was a struggle for the Pasin family. In 1913, when Pasin was just 16 years old, the family sold off their cabinetmaking tools and bought passage on a ship bound for the United States. Pasin tried to build a new life for himself in New York City, but jobs were scarce, so he relocated to Chicago, rented a tiny workshop, and used the last of his money to purchase woodworking tools with the hope of supporting himself by making wooden cabinets for phonographs. When business was slow, Pasin built pianos, dug ditches, and washed celery to earn extra money.

Being so mobile, Pasin built his first small, low wagon to carry his tools around, but it caught the attention of some of his customers, who wanted similar wagons for their kids. In 1917, he started making wagons he named Liberty Coasters to sell as children's toys, and soon, demand for Liberty Coasters was so high that Pasin abandoned his cabinetmaking ambitions to focus solely on the wagons. By 1923, he had begun working with steel instead of wood and painting the metal wagons bright red.

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Young girl with Radio Flyer wagon circa 1955. (Terp00/Wikimedia Commons)

The Radio Steel & Manufacturing Company

In 1930, Pasin modernized his factory—which had since grown into the Radio Steel & Manufacturing Company—with automation and assembly lines that could churn out more of the children's wagons than ever before. He also renamed them Radio Flyers in tribute to Guglielmo Marconi and Charles Lindbergh, who he greatly admired. 

For the 1933 World's Fair in Chicago, Pasin commissioned a 45-foot wood and plaster statue of a child riding one of his wagons and set up a booth at its base, where he sold mini Radio Flyer replicas to fair-goers for 25 cents each. He sold more than 100,000 of the mini wagons, and the fair made Radio Flyer a nationally recognized brand.