Baby boomers grew up in a time full of historical events. Many of those events are cemented into our memories. The assassination of John F. Kennedy and landing on the moon are a few examples baby boomers remember like it was yesterday.

Other memories are more personal like seeing TV for the first time or licking your first ice cream cone. Some of my personal memories as a kid are toys. Erector sets, Lincoln Logs, Etch A Sketch, Mr. Potato Head and Army men kept me occupied for hours.

The “Less is more” philosophy suggests that there is value in simplicity and that more can be accomplished with less. Toys of my past for the most part fell into the less is more category. They were easy to use and play with. Many toys today are complicated. They involve computer technology with lots of instructions on how to operate them. Plus they are expensive. But that’s what kids want today. It’s really not their fault though because that’s what they have been raised with and exposed to. From my own experience the majority of today’s youth would rather play with a cell phone or video game than a Yo Yo.

One toy in my youth stands out as very simple to operate but still provided loads of fun. This toy even had it’s own song. I’m talking about the one and only Slinky.

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Original Slinky

Slinky song

Born January 1, 1914, in Delaware, Richard Thompson James was a very curious child. According to his family when the United States entered a brief economic depression in the 1920s, being poor he had to be creative to stay entertained. He would often use old springs and pieces of glass to create toys.

His brother, Samuel, in a 1976 interview with the Delaware County Daily Times said, “James had an indeterminable spirit to “get things done,” and to make money. I remember a Sunday morning hike when Richard found an old abandoned 1923 Buick car. He was only 13 years old at the time but he was determined to fix up the car. It was full of wild cherry seeds and mice. It was a mess. But he got it to run and he sold it for $25.”

Later on James became interested in how things were built and applied his curiosity at college. He graduated from Pennsylvania State University in 1939 with a degree in mechanical engineering, and entered the workforce as a naval engineer.

After the United States became involved in World War II, James got a job at the William Cramp & Sons shipyard in Philadelphia, where he was tasked with building tools for submarines and iron ships.

In 1943 while  developing a system that could “support and stabilize sensitive instruments aboard ships in rough seas,” James clumsily knocked a tin of spare parts from a shelf.  He watched as lone spring as it wobbled in “steps” across his desk then  down a stack of books and finally onto the floor. The remainder of his day was spent  thinking about that spring.

For almost a year he tinkered with various wire types and tensions in his free time after work.

Eventually he figured out the right property of steel … a high carbon steel wire 0.0575 inches in diameter and the right tension to create a walking spring. With the wire type and tension working in harmony his spring walked effortlessly down his staircase.

Excited about his new invention, James visited his neighbors for a little product testing. The kids in the neighborhood really enjoyed the spring. To the children the spring was magical. After James saw their reaction he knew his spring had potential as a toy. 

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Richard James and son 1945

   Slinky on stairs video 1

After arriving  home he asked his wife Betty to help him come up with a name. After hitting the dictionary and thinking about it for a few weeks she came up with the name Slinky.

In November 1945, after getting a $500 loan, the couple formed James Industries and had 400 Slinky units made by a local machine shop. They then approached the local Gimbels department store in Philadelphia to see if they would be interested. The store gave them a chance by letting the James set up a booth with a incline to demonstrate the toy. Slinky was a hit and the first 400 units were sold within ninety minutes at $1 a piece. Slinky on stairs video 2

Year after year millions of Slinkys were sold and everything seemed to be going great. Then in February 1960, James made an unexpected and dramatic exit.

With little explanation, he bought a one-way ticket to Bolivia, and joined what his wife later called “an evangelical Christian cult.” By July, he’d severed all ties and disappeared. Just before leaving, he’d left Betty with a choice: she could liquidate the company, or become sole owner. She chose the latter.

The toy was on a decline somewhat because of all the different toys available. Just a lot of competition and changing taste by children. The company was also 1 million in debt, and she’d been left to raise six children. Slinky on an escalator

But Betty was a fighter and came up with a plan. First in 1962 she hired a team to create a Slinky song. The jingle worked and rejuvenated interest in the toy plus sales. That jingle became one of  the longest-running jingles in the history of television advertising. Most boomers know the jingle to this day.

There have been close to 400 million Slinkys sold. Two million are still sold a year throughout the world. Quite a feat in the digital age. Slinky on a treadmill

Slinkys were first made in Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania. The original equipment is still there and that’s where they’re still made.

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Slinky ad 1950s

The company these days also sells a few other toys, as well as Slinky variations, including a smaller size and a plastic version created in the 1970s. Those plastic Slinkys will probably remain in the minds of the kids now growing up with them the same way the original Slinkys have stayed with the baby boomers.

In 1993 the Philadelphia Inquirer Magazine had this to say about Slinky, “You don’t have to be smart, athletic, rich, or clever to appreciate the Slinky. It’s a toy for regular people.”

Contributed by

Craig Francom

Craig Francom was born in San Diego California and raised in Midvale Utah. Craig had a "Leave it to Beaver" childhood. If not at the local fishing hole, camping out …

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