By Zoe Mitchell
“It’s Slinky, it’s Slinky, it’s fun for a girl or a boy.” Those are the famous closing words of the 1962 television commercial jingle for the beloved American toy, Slinky. As a child, making a Slinky step perfectly from the top of the stairs to the bottom was an accomplishment worth celebrating. The toy has stood the test of time and not just in the hands of children. The Slinky technology has been used in the Vietnam War as a mobile radio antenna and to test zero-gravity physics at NASA.
In 1943, mechanical engineer Richard Thompson James was working at a shipyard in Philadelphia where he was tasked with designing an apparatus to stabilize maritime instruments on ships during rough seas. One day, after accidentally knocking a box of spare parts off his shelf, he watched a loose spring “walk” along his desk and drop to the floor. Inspired, James spent the next two years perfecting the tension, material, and balance of the spring to create what he saw as the perfect toy.
The original Slinky contained about 80 feet of high carbon steel wire that was less than a sixth of an inch wide and coiled 98 times. Legend has it that the name came from the sound a Slinky made when used, but the toy was named by James’ wife, Betty. She stumbled across the word ‘slinky’— which means sleek and graceful— while thumbing through a dictionary.
Richard James received a $500 loan, formed James Industries LLC, then set about handcrafting 400 Slinkys which he hoped to sell in department stores across Philadelphia. He found few takers. One Philadelphia store owner, who snapped at James for offering Slinky, told the Delaware County Daily Times, “This is the atomic age in toys. Kids want big, bright, fancy things with lots of colors and lights. An old beat up spring! We couldn’t give that thing away if it played God Bless America and picked the daily double at Hialeah as it walked down the steps.”
Eventually, James found a willing seller. Gimbels Department Store agreed to stock the spring as part of its 1945 holiday season display. Wrapped in parchment paper and surrounded by bright and vibrantly colored toys, Slinky didn’t exactly stand out on the shelves. In its first few weeks on the market, Slinky sales were dismal.
James decided to take matters into his own hands. He presented a live demonstration to showcase Slinky’s features by using a sloped board for the Slinkys to “walk” down. Within the first 90 minutes of his demo, he had sold 400 Slinkys. By the end of the 1945 holiday season, customers had snatched up nearly 20,000 Slinkys for a dollar a piece. “I think there was a taste in those post-war years for novelties. For things that — long before social media — went viral,” explains Christopher Bensch, Chief Curator at the National Toy Hall of Fame. As the toy began to fill department store shelves across the country, its popularity spread, selling 100 million Slinkys within the first ten years. Not only was the toy in high demand, so was the patent.
By 1947, James began sub-licensing to multiple industries. Wave motion coils, antennas, light’s fixtures, and therapeutic devices were all created using the Slinky manufacturing technology. But the success of Slinky no longer seemed to interest Richard James.
By the mid-1950s, James, his wife, and their six children were living in a 31-room estate outside of Philadelphia. James began to gift millions of dollars to evangelical religious groups, bringing the company close to bankruptcy. His son Tom recalled in an interview with a local newspaper in Pittsburgh, "Pop used to say, 'Money means nothing to me,' and he would tear it up. I'd find it and tape it back together.” In 1960, James left his family and flew to Bolivia, as Betty James told the New York Times, to join an “evangelical cult.”
Betty James took control of the company and became the sole proprietor of James Industries LLC just as Slinky’s sales began to decline and creditors were clamoring for overdue payments. In 1962, she began an aggressive television advertising campaign, commissioning the catchy song that would become the longest running jingle in television advertising history.
In the early 1990’s, Betty made a deal with Pixar to have Slinky Dog, a Slinky successor, appear as a supporting character in the 1995 animated film series, Toy Story. After years of serving as president and chief executive, Betty sold the company in 1998. "People have said to me, 'How was it being a woman in business at the time you started?',” she told the New York Times in a 1996 article. “And I always tell them, 'I really don't know. I was too busy to think about it.' ”
Slinkys popularity has endured. Bensch says the key to its success is manifold, “I think Slinky had a number of virtues in being so simple, so relatively cheap, and I think it was one of those things that not only got passed down from adults to their kids and grandkids but it sort of went through a kid tribal ritual that was passed along through generations.” However, Bensch notes that its success isn’t easy to replicate. “If toy manufacturers could discover the elixir to toy longevity, they would be doing it every time.”
TALKING TOYS WITH: Betty James;Persevering for Family and Slinky, The New York Times, Feb. 21, 1996
The Invention of the Slinky, Priceonomics, Dec. 3, 2014
How the Slinky Sprang Into Stores 70 Years Ago, Time, Nov. 27, 2015
Slinky survives decades of ups, downs, Post-Gazette, Dec. 24, 2003
The Twisted Tale of Slinky, the Most Popular Toy Ever, Adweek, Oct. 6, 2015
The Remarkable, War-Torn, Spacefaring History of the Slinky, Popular Mechanics, Aug. 8, 2017
Slinky Coil Dipole For 40-10 Mtrs, Nonstop Systems
Richard James, Lemelson MIT
Timeless Toys: Classic Toys and the Playmakers Who Created Them, Tim Walsh, 2005
Interview with Christopher Bensch, April 30, 2018
Published July 6, 2018.