When I was the age to get a classic red Radio Flyer wagon (1944), the country was at war, so all metal was being used to make ships and tanks and the like. By the time civilians could once again purchase wagons for their children, I was too old to have one. To ease my disappointment, for my ninth birthday, my parents gave me a strange-looking present. It was the right color–fire engine red–and it had four wheels. Otherwise, it bore little resemblance to the wagon I’d so wanted.
An Irish Mail was sort of like home-made box cars that little boys constructed in those day and raced down any hill they could find. Low-slung with a seat on which the user sat, this contraption moved when the person in that seat pumped their arms and steered with their feet firmly planted on a horizontal bar connecting the front tires. It went very fast but you needed to stay going in a straight line since turning was distinctly unwieldy. Invented by one Henry Hill, this vehicle caught on and Henry soon formed his own company, Standard Manufacturing, to handle the clamor from buyers. Needing a name for his invention, Henry chose “Irish Mail” after the Irish Mail Train which held the distinction of being the fastest train in the world at that time–the early 20th century. First built in 1902, this toy had its heyday in the 1950’s, precisely when I got mine.
I stored my treasured machine on our front porch and then took it inside on Halloween night since neighborhood boys always egged the houses on my block and sometimes dragged porch furniture out onto the owners’ lawns. My mother worried about my riding it, since she liked to keep me on a pretty short leash. Our house was at the top of a perfect hill so she feared I’d careen into a light post or, worse, into the street. But I became adroit at maneuvering the little red buggy, so no harm ever came to me. It let me pretend I was off to exotic places even if I always wound up at the bottom of Holly Court in Fairfield, Alabama–not exotic at all. I never minded the somewhat demanding chore of dragging the Irish Mail back up the hill because the reward was simple–I got to ride it back down again with the breeze in my face and escape in my imagination.
At some point I must have outgrown the Irish Mail. I have no idea what happened to it, but when I Googled “Irish Mail” before writing the blog, there was a picture of a little red machine that looked just like my “wheels.” I should add that no other girl I ever knew had owned one and Henry Hill intended this as a “boy’s toy,” along with BB guns and erector sets (both of which my parents gave me at some point in my maturation process). Had a boy in my world have been seen on an Irish Mail, he’d have been branded a “sissy” of the first order. So, once again, my parents provided me with serious mixed messages about gender appropriateness. But I just loved to sit in the red seat, pump my feet very fast, and steer my personal “train” out of my front yard.