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

1900s | August 5, 2021

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.

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.

Kids using Radio Flyer wagon, Radio Flyer tricycle and hobby horse circa 1960. (Polaroidbilly/Wikimedia Commons)

World War II And Suburban Success

Though the Radio Steel & Manufacturing Company was forced to switch gears from producing steel wagons to steel goods for the war effort between 1942 and 1945, the post-war economy and culture heralded unprecedented success for Radio Flyer wagons. Families fled en masse to the suburbs, where they boomed out babies who needed to be carted around their subdivisions or glide under their own power on the tricycles and scooters Radio Steel began to produce. 

Today, the company—since renamed simply Radio Flyer—still stands in Chicago, operated by Pasin's grandson, Robert. In 2015, Fortune named it one of the top 25 places to work. Meanwhile, in 2003, Antonio Pasin was inducted into the Toy Industry Hall of Fame.

Tags: 1900s | 1950s toys | inventions

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Karen Harris

Writer

Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.