How an Italian immigrant rolled out the Radio Flyer across America
It is just a wagon. But with a little imagination, there are no limits to what it can become. Robert Pasin, president and CEO of Radio Flyer, explained it: "It can be anything the child imagines it to be. It can be a spaceship, a train, a race car, a submarine."
That versatility has given the iconic, fire hydrant red Radio Flyer serious staying power. As of next year, the company will have been around a full century. Its roots stretch back to the early 1900s. That's when the future founder of the company, Antonio Pasin, arrived in America.
Antonio was born in 1898 to a family of Italian cabinetmakers that lived in a small town outside of Venice. At the age of 16, his family sold their mule and he used the funds to travel to America.
Settling in Chicago, he worked a series of odd jobs. He saved his money for woodworking equipment.
"He did whatever work he could. He didn't have any money. He didn't know anybody," his grandson, Robert Pasin, said.
By 1917, Antonio saved enough money to rent a one-room workshop. He began building phonograph cabinets and a variety of other objects upon request. He also built sturdy wooden wagons to haul around tools.
"As people were buying phonograph cabinets they would say, 'hey, can I get one of those wagons?'" Robert said. "And pretty soon he was selling more wagons than phonograph cabinets."
The popularity of the wagon as a toy grew from there.
As demand increased, Antonio hired several employees and eventually called his wagon Radio Flyer. He captured the two obsessions of the time: radios and airplanes.
For a simple wagon, the Radio Flyer was innovative in its design. Antonio integrated the relatively new methods of automotive assembly lines and metal stamping to keep costs low and production rolling along. In the late 1920s, the metal wagons sold for just fewer than three dollars. That is roughly 40 dollars in today's economy. This approach to manufacturing earned Antonio the nickname, "Little Ford."
One advertisement from 1973 deemed the Radio Flyer the "only wagon that outsells Ford station wagons."
The flashy red color became a mainstay for the Radio Flyers. Over the years, the company tried many colors, but red always zoomed ahead of the others in sales.
Times weren't always easy, however. As the Great Depression rippled through America in the 1930's, the company struggled. But it survived. That was "something that a lot of toy companies didn't do," said Gary Cross, a historian specializing in consumption, leisure and childhood at Pennsylvania State University. Even in the depths of the downturn, the company sold around 1,500 wagons a day.
Its survival, however notable, isn't necessarily surprising.
"Even people who were unemployed and saw their wages decreased felt the need to preserve a certain kind of normalcy with their children," said Cross. "And that meant gifting them."
Despite the Depression, Antonio had his sights set on the 1933 Chicago World's Fair. He took out a $30,000 loan to build a 45-foot-tall structure of a boy atop a wagon.
Antonio's wife, Anna Pasin, who recently passed away at age 107, described this as the only time she ever saw Antonio nervous. "He made a big bet financially," Robert said.
The massive art deco structure housed a kiosk. Inside, Anna helped work a mini assembly line putting together tiny steel wagons that sold for just 25 cents each. That is $4.56 today. They sold more than 100,000 of the trinkets.
"That was just a brilliant brand-building idea, because the World's Fair was such a huge deal," Robert said. It was during the 1950's that the little red wagon cemented its status as an American icon. The company touted the wagon as a hardy American toy.
But no one remains on top forever, and when Little Tykes and Step2 introduced plastic wagons in the early 1990s, Radio Flyer faltered. These flashy, cheaper wagons could take on a wider range of designs than the company's classic metal-stamped variety.
Antonio died in 1990 at age 93. When his son, Mario Pasin, passed the business down to Robert in 1997, growth was at a standstill and the company was only marginally profitable.
"It was a crisis situation," Robert said. The company had to find designers and manufacturers to create a product that could compete in an already competitive market.
The first plastic Radio Flyer was too small and foundered. The second and third similarly tanked.
"Finally the fourth and fifth versions were the real winners," Robert said.
Today, Robert has reinvented the company. He has done it by focusing exclusively on children's toys and moving manufacturing abroad.
It is one of America's fastest growing private companies.
Radio Flyer now offers a lot of products. Though these are important for the company to keep pace with the times, nostalgia is key to the allure of the wagons. People give their kids what they fondly remember from their childhood, Penn State's Cross explained.
"What you remember is stuff from the time that you were six or seven years old."
And that is the perfect age for a little red wagon.