A spring! A spring! A marvelous thing! Pa. hometown honors its Slinky

Historian Robyn Young proposed the historical marker because of the toy's popularity and the remarkable story of its matriarch.

  • Peter Crimmins/WHYY

A new state historical marker has sprung up in Clifton Heights, Pa., the first for the borough outside of Philadelphia. It commemorates the town’s most famous native: the Slinky.

The coiled toy that walks down stairs — alone or in pairs — was invented by Richard James, an engineer at the old Navy shipyard in Port Richmond, Philadelphia. At the time he was creating stabilizers for nautical navigation equipment.

He noticed how a loose coil of wire that had been accidentally dropped appeared to walk. He thought: that looks pretty fun.

He showed it to his wife, Betty, and she called it Slinky.

Betty James, retired president of James Industries, plays with a toy Slinky that made the family company famous on Thursday, Jan. 18, 2001, in Hollidaysburg, Pa. James will be inducted into the Toy Industry Hall of Fame next month. More than 250-thousand Slinkys have been sold since the founding of James Industries in 1945.

J.D. Cavrich / The Altoona Mirror via AP Photo

Betty James, retired president of James Industries, plays with a toy Slinky that made the family company famous on Thursday, Jan. 18, 2001, in Hollidaysburg, Pa. James will be inducted into the Toy Industry Hall of Fame next month. More than 250-thousand Slinkys have been sold since the founding of James Industries in 1945.

That was in 1943. When the couple first started manufacturing the toy it was not an instant success. It wasn’t until Gimbels Department store in Philadelphia let them demonstrate the Slinky in the store in 1945 that it caught on.

“You don’t have to plug it in. It doesn’t require batteries. It’s portable,” said Joan Francis, 70, who grew up with the Slinky and attended the historic marker ceremony on Friday. “It’s just fun.”

Her husband Bob chimed in with those famous words: “Everyone knows it’s Slinky.”

It was Betty James who developed the Slinky’s infectious advertising jingle and made the toy an American success story.

James Industries had established manufacturing operations in Clifton Heights, but by the 1950s the company was nearly bankrupt. In 1960 the couple divorced; Richard left the family to be an evangelical missionary with an obscure religious group in Bolivia. He would die of a heart attack in 1974.

Betty took over the reigns of the company, relocating manufacturing to Hollidaysburg in central Pennsylvania, in 1965. She is the one who built the Slinky into an icon of the American toy industry.

“She was, like, 5 foot, 98 pounds, with six kids she’s raising by herself,” said Rebekkah James Morris, about her mother Betty. “My dad left when I was 2, I was the youngest. She was just a powerhouse. She was in an industry that was totally male dominated.”

Christopher James and Rebekah James Morris, the children of Slinky inventor Richard James and Betty James, who made the Slinky one of the most popular toys of the 20th century, attend a ceremony at Clifton Heights Historical Society marking the 75th anniversary of the toy's debut.

Emma Lee / WHYY

Christopher James and Rebekah James Morris, the children of Slinky inventor Richard James and Betty James, who made the Slinky one of the most popular toys of the 20th century, attend a ceremony at Clifton Heights Historical Society marking the 75th anniversary of the toy’s debut.

Betty James, who died in 2008 at age 90, inspired the state marker. Historian Robyn Young proposed the marker to the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission on the strength of both the popularity of the toy and the remarkable story of its matriarch.

“She took a company on the verge of bankruptcy and turned it into a multi-million dollar enterprise,” said Young. “She went to Hollidaysburg to move the Slinky plant to be around family. In the 1960s, to do that was hard for a woman with six children.”

Historian Robyn Young successfully lobbied for a historical marker identifying Clifton Heights as a site where the Slinky was manufactured.

Emma Lee / WHYY

Historian Robyn Young successfully lobbied for a historical marker identifying Clifton Heights as a site where the Slinky was manufactured.

The marker is not at the original site of the Slinky factory, but rather outside the newly formed Clifton Heights Historical Society. The Society plans to make a permanent display inside its historic building on Baltimore Pike about the origins of the toy.

Betty James always insisted the Slinky be sold relatively cheaply, even when its popularity could have commanded a higher retail price. Its variations are sold at a higher price: Slinky pull-toys that look like animals. The Slinky Dog is one of the memorable characters in the “Toy Story” movie franchise.

The simplicity of the original Slinky is its strong suit.

“It surprises. It has an element of magic to it,” said state Rep. Mike Zabel, who represents Clifton Heights, speaking at the ceremony. “It has that fluidity to it.”

The low-tech nature of the toy makes it attractive to people on the autism spectrum. Kate McConnell of Clifton Heights grew up with her autistic cousin and said the Slinky was essential to his well-being.

Kate McConnell (left) and Kathy Quinn remember how their cousin and brother, Richard, who was autistic, used the toy as a way to communicate with his family.

Emma Lee / WHYY

Kate McConnell (left) and Kathy Quinn remember how their cousin and brother, Richard, who was autistic, used the toy as a way to communicate with his family.

“It was mesmerizing to him. It was something he could control,” said McConnell. “It was his form of communication, because he was non-verbal. It became a way he could communicate with all of the family members.”

Even the neuro-typical Rebekah Morris finds the Slinky therapeutic. Unaccustomed to the spotlight, on the day of the public ceremony honoring her mother she rocked the toy her mother made famous from one hand to the other, as a way to relieve stress.

“It’s bilateral stimulation,” she explained. “So I can calm down.”

 

WHYY is the leading public media station serving the Philadelphia region, including Delaware, South Jersey and Pennsylvania. This story originally appeared on WHYY.org.

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