How an Immigrant Cabinetmaker Accidentally Invented the Toy That Defined American Childhood

After 100 years, Radio Flyer wagons are still on a roll

Radio Flyer has sold more than 100 million wagons.
Courtesy of Radio Flyer

It  was 1917, and Antonio Pasin had what you might call a product line problem. The 19-year-old carpenter had emigrated from Italy three years earlier and set up a small woodworking shop to make phonograph cabinets. But phonograph cabinets were not what Pasin was selling.

To help him lug his heavy tools around, the fresh-faced Chicago carpenter had also constructed some heavy-duty wagons—those were what customers were asking to buy. Undeterred, Pasin reoriented his company, scuttling the phonograph cabinets and going into the wagon business.

Opening a woodshop just before WWI, Antonio Pasin (center) made his first wagons out of wood. With the coming of the Great Depression, Pasin saved money by making wagons from stamped metal on a Detroit-style assembly line (right). Though he lacked a formal education, Pasin was a gifted marketer—and he proved it in 1933 when he borrowed $30,000 to build this 45-foot-high wagon (left) at the Chicago World’s Fair. The gamble paid off, and despite the lean times across the country, Americans bought 1,500 Radio Flyer wagons a day.
Courtesy of Radio Flyer

That was 100 years ago. Today, the Radio Flyer wagon—the name given to the stamped-metal model Pasin began mass-producing in 1930—remains as American a product as the Ford in the driveway and the iPhone in the back pocket. Since that fateful day when Pasin decided to start manufacturing wagons, his company has sold north of 100 million of them.

But with kids having their pick of diversions from video games to drones to everything on the web, the big question is: Still? Kids still play with wagons?

Radio Line: Courtesy of Radio Flyer

That answer is yes, and the man to explain it is Robert Pasin, who is Radio Flyer’s CEO and also the founder’s grandson. Digital distractions are fine, but a wagon both requires and rewards imagination, and no handheld device can substitute for playing outdoors. “When you say ‘Radio Flyer’ to people, the first thing they do is smile and the second thing they do is tell a story about childhood and playing outside, and using their imagination—they imagine [the wagon] is a race car or a spaceship,” Pasin said. “Something we hear from millennials now is they’re looking for experiences more than products. We have a product that facilitates an experience—going to the park or the zoo, and being outside with the wind in your hair.”

Not that it’s all been smooth asphalt for Radio Flyer. In the early 1990s, the brand took a hit when Sears ended its contract for steel wheelbarrows, and then plastic wagons imported from the Far East began eroding its market share. The competition forced Radio Flyer itself to switch to plastic and diversify into tricycles and nontraditional wagons (with seats, canopies and dune buggy tires). There’s even a Radio Flyer Tesla Model S for Kids, which features working headlights and an MP3 sound system.

These days, plastic wagons outsell the metal ones, but Radio Flyer still sells plenty of its standard red metal wagon, which is such a classic that its shape—painted in “Radio Flyer Red”—is trademarked. “These elements,” Pasin said, “create something emblematic of American childhood.”

This past Saturday, Radio Flyer doubled down on its message that a wagon, and a little imagination, can take kids anyplace they want to go. In Chicago’s Lincoln Square neighborhood, the company opened a pop-up Kid’s Travel Agency. Inside, actor/travel agents booked kids to phantasmagorical locales—”destinations reachable only by imagination”—including Flipping Pancake Island and Octopus Shiny Treasure Bay, then walked them over to some waiting wagons to show them how to get there. A spot created by FCB Chicago (watch it below) captured some of the proceedings.

If you happened to miss the pop-up travel agency, take heart: Radio Flyer has an online customization feature that lets kids build and equip their wagons from scratch, adding seat pads, drink holders and umbrella canopies—just the sort of equipment that any trip to a land of unicorns and fire-breathing dragons clearly requires.

This story first appeared in the March 20, 2017, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.