James, Betty & James, Richard
James, Betty & James, Richard
Richard and Betty James created one of America's most recognizable and enduring toys: the Slinky. More than 250 million Slinkys have been sold, or one for every person in the United States. The Slinky has been sold in all of the continents worldwide, except Antarctica, and the catchy jingle that sold the toy since 1962 is one of the most familiar on television. In addition to its role as a toy, Slinky also has been used for such diverse purposes as therapeutic devices, makeshift antennas, drapery holders, and mail holders. Created by accident when Richard James saw a torsion spring fall on the deck of a ship and fall down some stairs, the Slinky got its moniker when his wife Betty saw the word in the dictionary, which means stealthy, sleek, and sinuous in Swedish. The company they founded, James Industries, developed several other Slinky toys after the original came out, including the Slinky dog, as well as other basic children's toys. After Richard James left in 1960 for Bolivia to join a religious sect/cult, Betty ran James Industries for nearly 40 years as president and CEO, until the company was sold in 1998 to the Michigan–based POOF Products, Inc.
Betty and Richard James were married and had six children. The couple lived in their native Pennsylvania on a 12–acre estate in a suburb of Bryn Mawr until Richard left for Bolivia in February of 1960. In 1974 Betty learned her husband had died there of a heart attack. Betty James retired in 1998 and lives in Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania.
Betty James joined other toy industry greats when she became the 41st inductee in the Toy Industry Hall of Fame on February 10, 2001. The Hall of Fame was established in 1984 to honor individuals who have made outstanding contributions to the toy industry. She has garnered several awards for her business achievements, including the Douglas D. Danforth Award for Quality in Manufacturing from the L.C. Smith College of Engineering and Computer Science in 1995 and the WITTY Award by the Women in Toys organization in 1998. She was inducted into the Blair County Business Hall of Fame for her contribution to the community and named one of Pennsylvania's Best 50 Women in Business in 1996.
While working as a mechanical engineer at a naval shipyard in Philadelphia in 1943, Richard James began work on producing an antivibration device for ship instruments with the goal of developing a spring that would counterbalance the wave motion that rocks a ship. As he observed the torsion spring fall off a table and jiggle as it hit the floor, the idea for the Slinky suddenly sprang to life. Betty recalled in the Las Vegas Review–Journal, "He came home and said, 'I think if I got the right property of steel and the right tension, I could make it walk.' Over the next two years, Richard experimented with different types of steel wire with the right properties to allow the spring to walk."
Betty was given the task of naming Richard's new invention. Betty told CNN.com, "I never named a toy in my life, and some of the things that came to mind were awful. And I said, 'I wonder if I looked in the dictionary,' and I found 'slinky' and that was it." The Swedish word meant stealthy, sleek, and sinuous, which James thought perfectly suited the toy.
In November 1945, the Jameses took their new invention to Gimbel's in Philadelphia where sales were slow at first. In order to generate sales and interest in the toy, the Jameses then returned to the store to demonstrate the toy's stair–walking ability to shoppers. "A Slinky just sitting there isn't very exciting," James recalled in CNN.com. "It has to move. If it hadn't been for Gimbel's giving us the end of a counter to demonstrate, I don't know what would have happened." To help sell the toy the day of the demonstration, Betty called a friend and asked if she would go down to Gimbel's and buy one if she supplied her with a dollar, the going price at the time. She reasoned at least one sale would then be made. When Betty and her friend got to the store, they saw the large crowd waving dollar bills, clamoring for the Slinky. The Jameses sold all of the 400 toys that they had in 90 minutes.
The same year they officially introduced the Slinky, in 1945, the couple formed James Spring & Wire Company with $500 to mass produce the Slinky. They later founded James Industries to make toys in 1956. Richard James designed and engineered all the equipment used to create the product, which is still made using the original machinery. The first Slinkys were made of an expensive blue–black Swedish steel and sold for one dollar. The company later began using a more silvery–colored steel. The Slinkys were coated and then colored even more silver by the mid–1960s. The Slinky dog was added to the line in 1952 after a suggestion sent to the Jameses by a Mrs. Helen Malsed of Seattle, Washington.
By the late 1950s the Jameses had amassed a small fortune, giving them enough money to purchase their 12–acre suburban estate near Bryn Mawr. Richard, however, became discontent with material success and at some juncture, he became affiliated with an evangelical Christian sect that Betty deemed a cult. He began associating with others in the sect that Betty found dubious, attending revival meetings and making large financial donations to the group. Puzzled and embarrassed, Betty attended one of his revival meetings but failed to convert to his newfound religion. Betty speculated that this sudden change in Richard may have been attributed to the fact that by the mid–1950s, Slinky sales were in a downward spiral and the charismatic Richard, who had grown used to success, craved more attention. He also felt he needed to confess and atone for his past marital indiscretions that Betty was aware of but tolerated for the sake of their six children.
In February 1960, Richard's involvement in his religious group had grown to the point at which he felt he needed to move to Bolivia to continue their work there. He informed his wife and their two oldest children that they could run the business themselves or sell it as they pleased, but he would no longer be involved in the company. He left in July of that year to perform what Betty considered missionary work, but the exact nature of his mission was unknown. She later learned that at one point he was printing religious pamphlets.
Richard had left the company in a state of near–bankruptcy. He had used considerable company resources to fund his religious activities, and Betty had to contend with millions of dollars of unpaid bills. She kept the company going, however, becoming its CEO, to provide for her large family. She managed to work out a deal with her many creditors, allowing her time to get the company back on track again. Betty periodically received letters from Richard in Bolivia urging her to convert to his religion and join him, at one point even asking that she leave the children to be with him. Betty never replied. She later received the news that he had suffered a fatal heart attack in 1974. After Richard's departure, Betty moved the Slinky plant back to her hometown of Hollidaysburg and began her plan to take the company back to profitability.
One of Betty's most successful initiatives was to launch a highly successful advertising campaign touting the Slinky. The famous Slinky jingle was part of the national campaign that became familiar to the Baby Boom generation: "What walks down stairs, alone or in pairs, And makes a slinkity sound?/A spring, a spring, a marvelous thing, Everyone knows it's Slinky/It's Slinky, it's Slinky, for fun it's a wonderful toy/It's Slinky, it's Slinky, it's fun for a girl and a boy." Betty was also responsible for changing the metal used in the toy at that time. She was also credited with diversifying the Slinky line to include Slinky Jr., Plastic Slinky, Slinky Dog, Slinky Pets, Crazy Eyes (which was a pair of glasses with attached Slinky eyeballs), and Neon Slinky. James claimed the original Slinky was targeted for ages six to 60 but developed a line of brightly colored plastic versions to appeal to younger consumers. There were gold–colored Slinkys, animal and frog Slinkys, and even a Slinky train.
Chronology: Betty James and Richard James
1914: Richard James born.
1918: Betty James born.
1943: Invented the Slinky.
1945: Founded James Industries.
1960: Betty James becomes CEO; James Industries relocated to Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania.
1962: Slinky advertising campaign featuring famous jingle launched.
1974: Richard James died.
1998: James Industries sold to POOF Products; Betty James retired.
2000: Slinky inducted into the Toy Industry Hall of Fame.
2001: Betty James inducted into the Toy Industry Hall of Fame.
Due to the company's steady success under her reign, Betty regularly received offers from other toymakers to purchase the company she'd built. "Maybe someday I'll take them up on it," James told Forbes in 1984. "But it is going to be hard to let go. Slinkys are like my children, and they've been around longer." She did indeed take them up on it in 1998, when she sold the company for a large, undisclosed sum of money to the Michigan–based POOF Products. POOF assured Mrs. James that they would keep the Slinky plant in Hollidaysburg and its 120 employees. At the time of the sale, the company Betty had headed for nearly four decades had sold nearly 300 million of the springy toys.
Social and Economic Impact
The Slinky has become an important part of Americana that is on permanent display in the Smithsonian Institution and was inducted into the Toy Manufacturer's Association's Toy Hall of Fame in 2000. Modestly priced at about two dollars apiece, three to four million of the clever spring toys are sold yearly. Betty reflected on the toy's enduring popularity in National Engineers Week saying, "It's the simplicity. There are no batteries, no wind up. And, they are reasonably priced. There's something magic about a Slinky. It sort of comes alive." It has entertained generations of children, and adults have discovered the stress–reducing qualities of the toy for themselves. More than 250 million of the toys have been sold since its inception. More than 3,030,000 miles of wire have been used in the Slinky's production, or enough to circle the Earth 126 times. Available on every continent in the world except Antarctica, the Slinky is recognized by 90 percent of all American households. An original blue–black Slinky sells today for about $100, and the company's 50th anniversary Slinky was also a dark–steel that was packaged in a replica of the original 1945 box.
Slinky has pervaded American culture, appearing in movies such as Ace Ventura, When Nature Calls, Demolition Man, Other People's Money, and Hairspray. The Slinky dog made a comeback thanks to its appearance in the acclaimed Disney's 1995 blockbuster Toy Story. It was also immortalized on a U.S. postage stamp.
Richard James' invention made a difference in the way American's work and play, and his innovation in engineering was celebrated by National Engineers Week. The Slinky was thrown into trees to serve as makeshift antennas during the Vietnam War, and NASA even shot the Slinky into space in a space shuttle to test its gravitational properties. Although Richard James invented one of the country's most enduring toys, it was his wife that guided the company through over four decades of prosperity. The year after Slinky was inducted, Betty herself joined the toy in the TMA Toy Hall of Fame during the annual toy fair in New York. The president of TMA, David A. Miller, said after her induction, "It is a tribute to Betty James' leadership, Foresight, and business acumen that 90 percent of U.S. households recognize the Slinky name today...more than 50 years after its introduction. We are proud to honor Betty for her commitment and perseverance, which has allowed children the world over the opportunity to relish the ingenuity and pure fun of a Slinky." Betty was one of the early leaders among women business owners. Ray Dallavecchia Jr., president of POOF Products, spoke of her legacy to CNN.com: "We hold Betty James in the highest esteem. She is to be commended for building a company through very troubled times in the '60s—and in a very male–dominated industry." She "was able to build an American icon."
Sources of Information
Contact at: James Industries
45400 Helm St.
Plymouth, MI 48170–0964
Business Phone: (734)454–9552
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