It's Slinky, it's Slinky
Inventor's widow named to toy hall of fame
(CNN) - Betty James has the world on a spring.
The co-creator of the Slinky, one of America's most enduring toys, James was inducted into the Toy Manufacturers' Association's Hall of Fame Saturday during the annual toy fair in New York.
"I was absolutely floored when they called me," the 82-year-old James said in a telephone interview from her Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania, home. "I never expected this in my wildest dreams. I'm very excited."
It was James' late husband, Richard James, who got the idea for the Slinky in 1943. He was working as a mechanical engineer in a naval shipyard in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, when he saw a torsion spring fall off of a table and hit the floor, his widow recalled.
"It wiggled, and he thought he could make it into a toy," James said. "I could have seen a whole bunch of springs fall off and not seen it."
What her husband saw, however, was potential. For the next two years, James said, he tinkered with different types of steel wire, searching for just the right combination of tension and elasticity to allow his vision to "walk."
"He kept testing and testing until he got what he wanted," James said, adding that her husband gave her the task of naming the invention.
"I never named a toy in my life, and some of the things that came to mind were awful," she said. "And I said 'I wonder if I looked in the dictionary' and I found 'slinky' and that was it."
Stealthy and sinuous
The definition -- stealthy, sinuous and graceful of movement -- just seemed to fit best, James said.
At first, sales were lackluster. But toy history was made in December 1946 at Gimbel's department store in Philadelphia.
"A Slinky just sitting there isn't very exciting," James said. "It has to move. If it hadn't been for Gimbel's giving us the end of a counter to demonstrate, I don't know what would have happened."
She still remembers a phone call from her husband on that snowy day, asking her to come to Gimbel's and help to sell the toys.
"I called a friend of mine and asked her if she would buy one if I gave her $1, and I thought we could at least make one sale if nobody was buying them," James said. "But when we got off the elevator, we saw this huge crowd and everyone was waving dollar bills."
The Jameses had 400 Slinky toys, and sold them all in 90 minutes.
In 1960, the company relocated from Philadelphia to Hollidaysburg, where James Industries Inc. still makes Slinkies today -- an estimated 300 million to date. That same year, the new Hall of Fame inductee took over the running of the company when her husband joined a religious cult and moved to Bolivia. He died there in 1974.
"I just retired two years ago," said James, who sold the company to Detroit, Michigan-based Poof Products Inc. in 1998.
Ray Dallavecchia Jr., president of Poof Products, is proud of Slinky's legacy.
"We hold Betty James in the highest esteem," Dallavecchia said. "She is to be commended for building a company through very troubled times in the '60s -- and in a very male-dominated industry." She "was able to build an American icon," he continued.
Surveys show that the Slinky toy has a 90 percent recognition rate in the United States. With starring roles in Pixar's "Toy Story" and "Toy Story 2," and featured appearances in the Jim Carrey film "Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls" and John Waters' "Hairspray," it's no wonder.
"We're proud we still manufacture the product in the U.S.," said Dallavecchia. "That makes us a dinosaur in the toy industry."
Just like the dinosaur, however, the public fascination with the Slinky endures.
"I think it's the simplicity. It's not a sophisticated toy, but it's fun and has a nice sound," said James. "There's nothing to wind up or put chips in or anything else."
Making Slinkies "was my life," continued James, the mother of six and grandmother of 16. "It was like having a seventh child."
When the company began, her husband turned the coils out, and James put them in boxes to prepare for sale. In 1973, the original design was changed to include crimped ends for safety. Other permutations followed, including springs of colorful plastic and a "classic" version that is gold-plated.
"In the late 1940s, it sold for $1.Today, it's approximately $3," said Dallavecchia. "Compared to the change in the cost of a home or a car, the Slinky's a tremendous value."
And not just because it can walk downstairs.
James is the 41st inductee into the TMA Toy Hall of Fame -- and the only one for 2001, according to association spokeswoman Marisa Gordon. The Hall of Fame was established in 1984 to honor those individuals who have made an outstanding contribution to the toy industry.
The Slinky itself was inducted into the Hall last year.
Slinky Home Page
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