Thursday, July 13, 2017

Radio Flyer turns 100

    Once I pulled a little red wagon down the center of Sheridan Road.
    OK, there was more to it than that. It was the WOOGMS Parade, an eccentric East Lakeview neighborhood event marking Memorial Day and the beginning of summer. Sheridan Road was closed; my boys were perched within the wagon. I'm sure I have an unwatched video of it, somewhere.
    The wagon was a Radio Flyer, a gift, mirabile dictu, of the newspaper, which once upon a time distributed catalogues to employees so they could select presents to mark their various work anniversaries. On my fifth I chose the proverbial set of steak knives. For my 10th, the wagon. For the past decade or so, your gift is you keep your job.
    The wagon proved very useful in carting boys. Not the metal wagon of my youth, but the less aesthetic plastic. Still, it had a certain fat, pleasing roundness, and a compartment inside for storing things. I did not mind it. 
    Radio Flyer is marking its centennial this year. The venerable Chicago company doesn't construct its little red wagons here anymore—production moved to China in 2004— but at least it still makes them, which is cause for celebration. If you are reading this Thursday, July 13, you can join the fun from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. at Pioneer Court, the plaza just south of Tribune Tower. Radio Flyer will have their World's Largest Wagon, somehow fitting outside what once imagined itself the World's Greatest Newspaper. 
      Strolling out to the garage to snap the above, I reflected how sentimental it is to keep the wagon. The boys certainly aren't going to ride in it again, and by the time grandchildren arrive, if they ever do, they'll have wagons that hover, and no doubt the tykes will demand them, as tykes do.
    This is probably enough for one day but, in case you are interested in the history of Radio Flyer -- such as why a wagon company has a form of communication in its name — I explain that in this late 1990s Christmas story on toys that originated in Chicago. I've left the other toys in, though the entirety, like old toys themselves, tends toward woodenness. 

      Furby may be hot now, but just wait. Odds are he won't stand the test of time. Someday, the babbling little furball may be as desirable a Christmas present as a Hula Hoop; or a Pet Rock is today.
     But certain toys keep their appeal. While they may never have created the intense -- and passing -- mania that the Tickle Me Elmos of the world once inspired, they've done something that is perhaps more incredible: They've survived (though some just barely) and become classics, delighting generation after generation of children who found them under their Christmas trees.
    Here is a roundup of some cherished toys which originated in the Chicago area.

     The Radio Flyer: The definitive "little red wagon" is manufactured on the West Side of Chicago, and has been for more than 80 years.
     In 1917, an Italian immigrant cabinet maker named Antonio Pasin founded The Liberty Coaster Wagon Co., named for the Statue of Liberty. Originally the wagons were wood, but when metal stamping became popular for cars in the 1920s, he borrowed the technology for wagons, rolling the edges so they wouldn't cut little fingers.
     In the 1920s, the company took to naming its wagons after popular figures and phenomena. There was the Lindy Flyer, in honor of Charles Lindbergh, and the Radio Flyer, named for the hot new communications medium. That wagon was particularly popular, and in 1930 the company renamed itself the Radio Steel & Manufacturing Co. (It officially adopted the name "Radio Flyer" in 1987).
     The wagons are still made in Chicago, of wood, steel and plastic, and the company is still owned and operated by the Pasin family. And they still name their products after the latest wave of pop culture: Recent wagons have mimicked burly all-terrain vehicles and been given brawny, sports-utility-vehicle-like names such as "Voyager" and "Navigator."
     Lionel trains: For decades, no Christmas tree was complete without a Lionel train circling the base. The trains were the brainchild of Joshua Lionel Cowen, who, in one of those amazing quirks of history, also invented the flashlight.
     He put a small electric motor in a model train, and began selling them by catalog in 1903. The company had some close calls over the years. It nearly went bankrupt during the Great Depression, then came up with an offering that hit the public fancy: a handcar pumped by a Mickey Mouse character. The handcar was the top toy in the nation in 1934, and it saved the company. Today a large part of Lionel's business is the adult hobby market -- a basic set runs a hefty $ 150 or so -- but nostalgic adults still buy their kids Lionel trains at Christmas, whether the children want them or not.
     Raggedy Ann: Like the first teddy bear, the first Raggedy Ann doll was promoting something else. Johnny Gruelle, a political cartoonist in Downstate Arcola, had created the Raggedy Ann character (named for James Whitcomb Riley's poems "The Raggedy Man" and "Little Orphan Annie") to amuse his daughter, Marcella.
     But he also had the foresight to patent the Raggedy Ann image in 1915. His book on the red-yarn-haired beauty, Raggedy Ann Stories, was published in 1918.
     Marshall Field's created the first Raggedy Ann doll to place in its window to promote the book, but customers wanted both the book and the doll. Raggedy Andy showed up two years later, when a friend of Gruelle's mother handmade a brother.
     Ironically, after 80 years, Field's once again isn't selling Raggedy Ann. It has stopped carrying the dolls.
     Tinkertoys; : An Evanston stonecutter named Charles Pajeau was disillusioned with the gravestone trade. Fishing around for a new line of work, he noticed how children played, for hours, with pencils and wooden spools from thread. A classic toy was born.
     He formed the Toy Tinkers Co. in Evanston and introduced the product at the New York Toy Fair in 1913 (the same year another classic, now faded, was introduced: A.C. Gilbert's Erector Set). Tinkertoys were an instant hit -- selling nearly a million sets in 1915, the first year it went national.
     Tinkertoys sold millions of sets, with almost no advertising. And not only kids played with them. Illinois Bell used Tinkertoys to test skills of job candidates; Harvard University bought the sets, in bulk, to study executive decision-making.
     Tinkertoy has been buffeted, in recent years, by construction sets with more flash and sizzle. But it still carries on, its wooden dowels and hubs replaced with plastic, manufactured by Hasbro.
—Originally published in the Chicago Sun-Times, Dec. 24, 1998


  1. Just saw an ad a couple days ago for Radio Flyers on sale for $4.59 at High-Low. Of course, the ad was from 1952 and the glorious prices tempered by my experience working at High-Low for less than a buck an hour.

    There's a canvas collapsible version of the red wagon that I noticed a few people using at Taste of Chicago. Perfect for my daughter and her 2 little boys, if it's as sturdy as it looks.


  2. Tinkertoys was one of my favorite toys as a kid. When it came time to buy a set for my son, I was devastated to discover they were now made of plastic. It's still a spectacular toy though.

  3. Those wagons bring back many a good memory.

  4. Off topic, hope the new ownership of the Sun-Times works out.

  5. Don't forget the fun of getting a Schwinn Bicycle. It expanded the range of exploration for kids by an order of magnitude. Of rugged construction, they got passed through a chain of siblings, and if well cared for another generation.

  6. and Lincoln Logs were the brainchild of Frank Lloyd Wright's son.


Comments are vetted and posted at the discretion of the proprietor.