Metallically sinuous, mysteriously mobile, the Slinky has enchanted kids since 1945—and for much of that remarkable toy’s production, its home has been Hollidaysburg, Pa.
The Slinky made its debut in November 1945, a few years after the late Richard James (then a young mechanical engineer) discovered the acrobatic antics of his now-famous device while onboard a World War II Navy vessel.
“He was out working on a trial run on a ship,” his wife Betty recalls, “when a spring fell on the deck.” When it slithered and gyrated across the floor, Richard had an inspiration, Betty recalls. “I could make it walk, he thought; then he came home and asked me what I thought.”
Betty thought Richard’s unique invention needed an equally unique name before it could spring to life. She spent hours combing the dictionary and eventually came up with a word that means “stealthy, sleek, and sinuous.” In the meantime, Richard perfected the dynamics of winding 67 feet of steel into a compact toy that could bound down stair after stair fueled by nothing more than a gentle nudge, the assistance of gravity, and its own momentum. The couple christened their bouncing baby toy in 1945 at Gimbel’s in Philadelphia, where pre-Christmas sales of the “amazing walking spring toy” surpassed all expectations.
“I called a friend and said, ‘I’ll give you a dollar if you’ll buy one,’” Betty remembers. “But when we arrived at Gimbel’s and rounded a corner, we saw a sea of raised arms with hands clutching dollar bills as people huddled around our toy counter display.”
The rest is Slinky history. Since those early days, Slinky has starred in Hollywood productions such as Demolition Man, Other People’s Money, Hairspray, and Toy Story, in which the Slinky Dog made a featured appearance. It’s traveled into space with the astronauts and even saw service in Vietnam, where American soldiers tossed Slinkys into trees to create makeshift radio antennas.
Teachers also have found it useful as an educational tool, employing Slinky in the classroom to demonstrate wave properties, forces, and energy states. But whatever its unexpected uses, the Slinky remains one of the most popular toys ever invented, with more than 250 million sold worldwide in its several versions, including a plastic one. A survey conducted in the 1990s showed that 90 percent of Americans know what a slinky is.
Although the first Slinkys were manufactured in Philadelphia, the tightly coiled toy has become the particular pet of Hollidaysburg. In 1961, the town approached Betty with an offer she couldn’t refuse: a gift of six acres—one for each of her children—to relocate the business she and her husband Richard had launched earlier, a business by then abandoned by Richard and struggling to stay afloat. Betty came—moving her family “back home” to set up the Slinky factory in Hollidaysburg (pop. 5,368), a few miles south of her Altoona birthplace—and Slinky has remained there ever since, thriving under Betty’s guidance as head of the company.
Today, the Slinky remains absolutely loyal to its adopted hometown. And so does Betty, now in her 80s. A few years ago when she sold the company, it was on one condition: that Hollidaysburg remain “The Home of Slinky.” Betty’s oldest son, Richard T. “Tom” James II, in fact, works as a sales manager at Hollidaysburg’s Slinky factory.
“I was the person who—at two—discovered that Slinky could walk down stairs,” Tom muses, adding, “There’s more art than science to making Slinkys.”
He began working for the family enterprise in his early 20s and has, like his mother, been at home in Hollidaysburg—the seat of Blair County—ever since the James family sprang into town in the early 1960s.“There’s a closeness here,” Betty says. “I love it.”
Around town, the feeling seems to be mutual. It’s safe to say that, in Hollidaysburg, “everybody loves a Slinky.”