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Throwback Products We Love: The Slinky

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Its inventor left his family to join a cult in Bolivia, but this classic toy kept moving.

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The Slinky isn't as innocent as it looks. Since it first strutted off a desk in 1943, the legendary toy lived through marital abandonment, devastating financial blows, and even a cult.

In 1943, however, the Slinky made its breakthrough in the classic way -- by accident.

Naval engineer Richard James was trying devise a torsion spring that would stabilize ship instruments in rough seas. When he accidentally knocked one of the prototypes off his desk, he was astounded to see the spring walk its way to the floor. "I think if I got the right property of steel and the right tension," his wife Betty recalls him saying in Tim Walsh's Timeless Toys: Classic Toys and the Playmakers Who Created Them (Andrews McMeel, 2005), "I could make it walk."

"Oh boy, here we go again," Betty replied to Richard, who was always inventing something. Richard spent about a year tinkering with the spring before it walked the way he wanted. When Betty saw how much neighborhood kids loved playing with it, she too became a convert. She named the "'stealthy, sleek and sinuous' plaything" Slinky, thanks to a dictionary look-up.

The Jameses borrowed $500 to hand-coil and wrap their first batch of 400 Slinkys. They displayed their fledgling creations at Philadelphia's Gimbels department store for $1 each. When shoppers snatched up every single Slinky in less than two hours, James Industries was born.
Richard devised a machine that could turn 80 feet of wire into a Slinky in roughly 10 seconds, giving the company the ability to scale the Slinky nationally. The toys ended up being so popular that within five years, the James had to build five additional coiling machines to keep up with demand.

By 1950, the couple had sold 100 million Slinkys, enough to afford six children and a 12-acre estate near the Philadelphia suburb of Bryn Mawr. James Industries, slogging through one of its first sales slumps, had also matured onto a plateau.

Holding patterns did not suit the charismatic Richard well. In an odd formula designed to both stoke his adrenaline and absolve him of his sins, he became a womanizer and began attending the revival meetings of an evangelical Christian sect.

Unbeknownst to Betty, Richard was also plotting his exit strategy. He secretly funneled company funds to his church. In 1960, he left to live with his sect's mission in Bolivia, saddling Betty with millions of dollars in unpaid bills.

When Eleanor Roosevelt said "you never know how strong [a woman] is until she gets into hot water," she might have been talking about Betty James. The jilted wife pulled up her shirt sleeves and stalled hungry creditors, upped Slinky advertising, and moved the company to her hometown of Hollidaysburg, PA. The new Slinky Dog, released around the time Richard left, jumped in to help, becoming a new James Industries top seller.

Betty successfully ran James Industries for the next 38 years. She always priced Slinkys in the $2-$3 range. "So many children can't have expensive toys, and I feel a real obligation to them," she told the New York Times in an interview.

In 1995, the redesigned Slinky Dog became a movie star in Pixar's (DIS) hit animation Toy Story. Three years later, Betty sold the company to foam ball manufacturer Poof Products for an undisclosed amount. In 2001, Betty was inducted into the Toy Industry Hall of Fame, and Philadelphia named the Slinky its official state toy.

Betty succumbed to congestive heart failure in 2008, outliving the strayed Richard by 34 years. The Slinky, now priced at $6, remains a testament to toymaking's toughest woman.


Betty James took over the family business after her husband joined a cult in Bolivia.
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