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Betty James' Slinky Story

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An advert for Slinky worm and train from 1955
What walks down stairs
alone or in pairs
and makes a slinkety sound?
A spring a spring,
a marvelous thing.
Everyone knows it’s Slinky.

–   Commercial for Slinky

In the US, everyone in a certain age bracket remembers the Slinky jingle. Younger audiences probably remember the Slinky Dog in the film Toy Story. Slinky is still a popular toy: it has been sold around the world. Everyone knows it's Slinky – but does everyone know the story about the woman who named it and ran the company while dealing with six kids and a runaway inventor husband? Here's a tale about Betty James (1918-2008).

How to Invent a Toy

Patent illustration for a Slinky.

Richard T James (1918-74) was a mechanical engineer. In 1943, he worked at a Philadelphia shipyard. This was during the Second World War, and he was trying to figure out how to suspend sensitive equipment aboard a Navy ship so it wouldn't get damaged by rough seas. But when he accidentally dropped a tension spring, its motion across the shop floor gave him an idea. Why not turn the spring into a kids' toy? It took him a couple of years of his free time, but in 1945 he had a patent, a machine that could produce the springs, and a company: James Industries.

Richard's wife Betty named the Slinky. She combed the dictionary for the right word for that thing it does. She helped out with the company, in between raising a family of six children (three boys, three girls). The first thing they needed to do was test-market the toys.

Armed with Slinkys and an incline plane, Richard set out one Saturday for Gimbel's, a department store in Philadelphia. Betty, worried, asked her friend if she would buy one if Betty gave her the dollar price. By the time Betty and her friend got to the store, they couldn't get to the counter: a crowd was waving dollar bills at Richard. Their stock of 400 Slinkys sold out in an hour and a half. They were on their way.

Slinky became a good go-to stocking stuffer in the 1950s. In addition to the plain spring toy, James Industries produced a Slinky Dog and a Slinky Train. Kids appreciated the fun and parents the low price. Richard and Betty were doing well enough to move into a big house in the posh neighbourhood of Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. Then trouble loomed in the form of Richard's midlife crisis.

How to Save a Company

In 1960, Betty James faced problem after problem: she and Richard were divorced, her ex-husband had decamped to Bolivia with a group she regarded as a 'religious cult1', and the company was nearly bankrupt. It was going to take some doing to rescue the Slinky.

Betty took over as CEO of the company. She moved the family and her company to her hometown of Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania. She launched into national advertising. She made Slinky a household name. A generation of children grew up playing with the springy toy. A generation of high schoolers were caught walking the springs down the school staircases when they were supposed to be in study hall. A generation of teachers used the versatile toy as a 'teachable moment' to explain some of the vagaries of physics.

Drama teachers probably preferred the Slinky 'googly eyes' glasses.

Betty ran the company until 1998, when she sold it to POOF Products and retired. She died in 2008. By 2015, 350 million Slinkys had been sold. They had even been played with in space.

Betty James was appreciated by many people, including the child who wrote her about his frustration at not being able to find the 'Toy Story Dog'. (She sent him one; it pays to ask.) Her tombstone reads, 'Betty Mattas James, cherished mother of six children and the Slinky toy.'

1Most people do not regard the Wycliffe Bible Translators, an organisation that promotes literacy and Bible reading around the world, as a cult. However, Betty James is frequently quoted as using the term, even in her New York Times obituary. She had some justification. Richard James almost bankrupted the company and gave enormous sums of money to Wycliffe, finally choosing to abandon his family and go on mission to Bolivia, where he died in 1974. He left his wife and children with a failing company and no other means of support. David Rupert, a religious blogger, disapproves of James' behaviour and refers to his 'misguided fervency.'

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