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The Toy Story of Betty James

Published: 11/20/2013
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Slinky (Wikimedia Commons)

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.



In the beginning it was Betty James who found the word “slinky” in a dictionary and thought it aptly described the toy her husband had invented. In the long haul, she was the one who ran the business and rejuvenated the Slinky, boosting sales and production until the company was sold in 1998.

By the time she died five years ago today –– on Nov. 20, 2008 –– more than 300 million Slinkys had been sold: metal, colorful plastic and Slinky Dog models. According to her obituary in the New York Times, that’s enough Slinkys to “circle the earth about 150 times, if stretched, which they shouldn’t be.”

Richard James was a naval engineer for a shipbuilding company in Pennsylvania when a steel spring flipped off a table and “stepped” its way end over end to the floor, inspiring him to replicate its tension-spring action as a toy. His wife thought the word “slinky” simulated the movement and sound of the metal spring. By Christmas 1945, they had a product ready to sell. And sell it did: 400 Slinkys at $1 each in 90 minutes at Gimbels department store in New York City.

Betty Mattas James was an only child, born in 1918 in Altoona, Pa. She attended Pennsylvania State University until she left to marry Richard James. With $500, they founded the James Spring & Wire Company and ran it together for 14 years –– rolling out the popular toy manufactured from 80 feet of wire on machinery designed by James. She answered the phone, took orders and packed Slinkys to ship. The success of the toy landed the couple on a 12-acre estate near Bryn Mawr where they raised their children.

By 1960, however, sales slumped –– and so did Richard James. Struggling with a mid-life crisis, he left Betty with their six children ages 2 to 18 to join a religious group in Bolivia. He died there in 1974. By then, Betty had invented the Slinky Dog –– basically the same toy with a head and tail –– and sales had rebounded. Other versions of the original Slinky followed: Slinky Jr., Plastic Slinky, Crazy Eyes (glasses with Slinky-extended fake eyeballs) and Neon Slinky.

The company relocated to Hollidaysburg, Pa., closer to Betty’s hometown, and was sold to a Michigan company (now called Poof-Slinky) in 1998. Company president Ray Dallavecchia Jr. told the Detroit Free Press, "Slinky was (the) best single transaction of my business career.”

A Slinky Dog featured in Toy Story in 1995 inspired a new version of the toy and reinvigorated sales once again.

In 2001, Slinky became official state toy of Pennsylvania and Betty James was inducted into the Toy Industry Hall of Fame. She died in Philadelphia from congestive heart failure seven years later, survived by her three sons, three daughters, 16 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

 

Susan Soper is the author of ObitKit®, A Guide to Celebrating Your Life. A lifelong journalist, she has written for Newsday and CNN, and was Features Editor at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, where she launched a series called "Living with Grief." Find her on Google+.
 

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