In A Nutshell
Although Betty James came up with the toy’s name in 1944, her husband, Richard James, is credited with inventing the Slinky, a toy spring that walked down stairs and delighted children. This simple toy became an incredible success, but Richard James didn’t handle it well. He gave away large sums of money to questionable religious charities, then abandoned his wife and six children to join a cult in Bolivia. With the business in shambles and her family nearing bankruptcy, Betty James revived the company and built an empire, all around an inexpensive toy spring that ultimately got her inducted into the Toy Industry Hall of Fame.
The Whole Bushel
Although Betty James came up with the toy’s name in 1944, her husband, Richard James, is credited with inventing the Slinky, a toy spring that walked down stairs and delighted children. Richard was an engineer in the Navy when he watched a spring fall off a shelf and bounce around doing a version of the Slinky walk we all know so well. That gave him the idea to make a walking toy from a spring. It took him two years to get it right, but the Slinky finally debuted around Christmas in 1945 at a Philadelphia department store.
After demonstrating the new toy to the crowd, the entire stock of 400 Slinky toys sold out in an hour for $1 each. Although Richard and Betty James founded their company, James Industries, with a $500 loan, their simple toy soon became an incredible success. A little over 10 years later, they owned a 12-acre property in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, headed a thriving company, and had six children.
But Richard James couldn’t handle the success or the fame he derived from Slinky. He gave away large sums of money to questionable religious charities, then abandoned his wife and six children to join a cult in Bolivia in 1960.
“The children then were ages 2, 4, 6, 8, 16 and 18,” Betty James recalled in an interview with the New York Times. “So, no, I wasn’t interested in South America. When we first had Slinky, we got a lot of publicity, made a lot of money, and he just didn’t handle it well. He thought he was big time. And these religious people always had their hands out. He had given so much away that I was almost bankrupt. I sold the factory and decided to move from the Philadelphia area back to Altoona, where I grew up, with the business.”
Mrs. James took out a mortgage on her house, traveled to a toy show in New York, and watched orders surge. She also kicked off a television advertising campaign with a memorable jingle that became known nationwide. Ultimately, Betty James revived the company and built an empire, all around an inexpensive toy spring that saw her inducted into the Toy Industry Hall of Fame. In 2001, Slinky also became the official state toy of Pennsylvania.
Of course, there were offshoot toys like the Slinky Dog, which also contributed to the company’s success. Slinky has appeared in the movie, Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls, and a revamped Slinky Dog appeared in the Toy Story series. Through it all, Mrs. James was determined to keep the basic Slinky affordable, so that parents could buy them for their kids without breaking the bank.
Mrs. James retired when James Industries was acquired by Poof Products in 1998. Sadly, she passed away in 2008.
Show Me The Proof
NY Times: Betty James, Who Named the Slinky Toy, Is Dead at 90
NY Times: TALKING TOYS WITH: Betty James; Persevering for Family and Slinky
LA Times: Betty James dies at 90; namer of Slinky kept the toy brand alive
The Atlantic: The Story of the Slinky