“What walks down stairs, alone or in pairs, and makes a Slinkity sound?
A spring, a spring, a marvelous thing, Everyone knows it’s Slinky…
It’s Slinky, it’s Slinky, for fun it’s a wonderful toy
It’s fun for a girl or a boy”
I still remember that jingle from the television commercial from when I was a kid as if it were yesterday (though there were several variations of the song). Who knew that the creation of the Slinky was actually an accident, one that would wind up being in every child’s home.
The Slinky was created by engineer Richard James while working on a project in 1943 involving springs. When one fell to the ground it “walked” before coming to a stop. It was then that an inkling of an idea was born for a toy, and for the next two years James would toil with his idea, trying to find the best type of coil and spring to use, letting the neighborhood kids try them out to test their reactions. It was his wife, Betty James, who thought of calling the toy “Slinky”.
Ready for the 1945 Christmas season, James presented the Slinky at Gimbels Department Store in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania during a 90 minute presentation. Worried that the Slinky would be a flop, Richard had a friend attend the demonstration in secret to buy one to get the crowd going.
Except he didn’t need to. The shoppers in Gimbels were so fascinated by the Slinky that James sold 400 of them that night.
In 1946 the Slinky premiered at the American Toy Fair, the place where toys make or break into the toy industry. For the Slinky, it made it. With $500 in start up, Richard and Betty founded The James Spring & Wire Company. While not the most impressive of names, it did have a most impressive toy. With his engineering degree James was able to develop a machine to create the Slinkys. Each one was made from 80 feet of blue-black Swedish steel. The machine would take the straight wire, and as it’s fed into it, it would flatten it out, then wind it around a spindle to make the coil shape. To make one Slinky took 10 seconds and the end result was a 2.5 inch Slinky with 95 coils. The same machines that James created are still used today.
The James Spring & Wire Company was renamed James Industries in 1956; however by 1960 the James Industries was in extreme financial trouble. Richard left the company to follow a religious missionary in Bolivia where he spent most of the company’s fortune.
Just like the women of World War II took over the jobs of men who went off to fight the war and took to building planes, tanks, bombs and other weapons, creating the character “Rosie the Riveter” and her expression “We Can Do It”, Betty James became the “Rosie the Riveter” of the Slinky empire.
With six children to support and employees counting on her for their jobs, Betty started making changes to the company that would lead to financial success. She moved the company from Philadelphia to Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania (where it remains today), changed the steel the Slinky wire was made with from Swedish to silver colored American, and had the edges of each Slinky crimped for safety. She also hired Homer Fesperman and Charles Weagley in 1962, with what might have been the best advertising decision ever, to write the Slinky jingle for television commercials. She also kept the toy priced low at $1.00, so that every child could afford one.
Of the many versions of the Slinky that were made, from the Slinky Caterpillar, Turtle and Train, perhaps the most famous is the Slinky Dog, made ever popular thanks to the Disney/Pixar movies Toy Story (1995), Toy Story 2 (1999) and Toy Story 3 (2010). (Slinky Dog was voiced by Jim Varney for Toy Story 1 & 2, after his death Blake Clark voiced Slinky in Toy Story 3.)
Betty James created several Slinkies while she ran the company including the Slinky Jr., the Plastic Slinky, Slinky Pets, the novelty glasses “Crazy Eyes” (which was a pair of glasses with fake eye balls hanging from the lenses by Slinkies) and Neon Slinky.
In 1998 the Slinky was purchased by Poof Products. The Slinky continued with success and fame. In 1999 it appeared on a U.S. postage stamp. 2001 saw the state of Pennsylvania name the Slinky as the state’s official toy. 2001 also saw Betty James inducted into the Toy Industry Hall of Fame. She died in 2008 at the age of 90.
In 2003 the Slinky made it to the Toy Industry Association’s “Century of Toy List” which listed the 100 most memorable and creative toys of the 20th Century, and the Slinky is also on exhibit in the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C. plus the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
Even though the Slinky is a toy, many people have found other uses for them including: using them in pecan-picking machines, holding drapery, creative light fixtures or window decorations, gutter protectors, a useful tool to keep pigeons away and bird house protectors (wrap the Slinky around the pole the bird house rests on and the squirrel can’t climb it). During the Vietnam War U.S. Soldiers even used the Slinky as a mobile radio antenna.
While the Slinky still “walks down stairs”, its creative use is only inhibited by the users mind.
Ray: “You mean you never even had a Slinky?”
Egon: “We had part of a Slinky. But I straightened it.”
Ghostbuster 2 (1989)