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Collectors Corner: Slinky

Collectors Corner
Collectors Corner: 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 or a boy…
— Television advertising jingle

Inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame in 2000 and named to TIME magazine’s list of the 100 Greatest Toys of the last 100 years, Slinky was the result of an accident.

World War II was raging across the globe in 1943 when Naval engineer Richard James began working on creating springs that could better cushion sensitive equipment on ships at sea. One day, he accidentally knocked one of the springs off a shelf and was amazed to see it “walk” its way down to a stack of books and then to a tabletop before landing – coiled – on the floor in an upright position.

Believing that the springs would make a great novelty toy, James demonstrated one for his wife Betty, who christened it Slinky for its sinuous movement and shushing sound.

Several months were spent refining the product before the couple used a $500 loan to have a local machine shop manufacture 400 Slinkys – a 2.5-inch-tall stack of coiled Swedish steel – which they hand-wrapped in yellow paper and priced at a dollar each.

Marketing the new toy was met with some indifference by toy stores, but in November 1945, Gimbels in Philadelphia allowed the couple to demonstrate the toy using an inclined plane set up in the toy department.

They sold out within two hours.

Richard James soon developed a machine that could turn out a Slinky in seconds, and the couple set up shop in Albany, New York, as James Industries. In 1952, they expanded their product line with the introduction of Slinky Dog, followed later by such toys as Slinky Train and Slinky Worm.

The new toys were based upon a suggestion by Helen H. Malsed of Washington State. Malsed had sent the Jameses a letter and drawings describing the proposed toys, and the couple were so impressed that they helped her obtain a patent, and paid her royalties of $60,000 to $70,000 per year for 17 years.

In 1960, Betty James took control of James Industries when she and Richard divorced. In 1962, she commissioned the Slinky jingle – the longest-running jingle in television history – for the company’s commercials; moved the company to its present location in Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania, in 1964; and continued to expand the company’s offerings, all while sticking to her desire to keep Slinky toys affordable.

Plastic Slinkys, available in a rainbow of colors, made their appearance in the 1970s, and there were a number of color variations of the company’s pull-toys, but the original Slinky Dog had been retired for several years by the time Pixar redesigned the toy for its first Toy Story movie, released in 1995. Betty James very much approved the changes – she felt the new version was much cuter than the original – and her factory issued 825,000 of the new-design Slinky Dogs. The entire run sold out before Christmas.

Betty James retired and sold the company in 1998, and passed away at the age of 90 in 2008, but the company she founded with her husband 75 years ago is still going strong.

Considering how popular Slinky toys have been, it should not be a surprise to discover that they’re also popular among collectors, though values in the secondary markets can be quite modest. The original steel Slinky sold in the millions (250-300 million to date), so specimens, even with an original box, can often be acquired for just a few dollars, and most other items – including the Slinky Dog Toy Story tie-in with original packaging – usually fetch less than $30.

On the other hand, harder-to-find pull-toys from the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s – such as a turquoise-blue Hippo, a Slinky Worm (Suzie), and Loco, the Slinky Train – can sell for $40+ if in good condition. Include mint or near-mint original packaging and the price can rise to $200+.

This also applies to pull toys made by other manufacturers such as Wilkening Mfg. (Philadelphia/Toronto) to whom the Jameses licensed their patents. Wilkening produced the Mr. Wiggles line including Mr. Wiggle’s Cata-puller and Mr. Wiggle’s Leap Frog. Though they don’t appear to have survived in as many numbers as Slinky-branded toys, prices for these items are still highly dependent upon condition.

Would like to find out more about this memorable collectible? Check out the resources listed below, and

Happy Hunting!

Books

“Slinky Innovators: The James Family,” by Lee Slater (Amazon.com)

Websites

ALL-TIME 100 Greatest Toys (TIME Magazine) – Click on each toy for information and photos.

Classic TV Commercial 1960s – Slinky #3 (Youtube) – We remember this one!

The Department Store Museum: Gimbel Brothers (The Department Store Museum) – For those who’d like to know more about Gimbels, and for those who’d like to just stroll down memory lane, don’t pass up this beautiful site.

Just Play Acquires Slinky and Shrinky Dinks Brands (ToyBook.com) – News includes reopening of long-time Hollidaysburg, PA manufacturing site.

Slinky (National Toy Hall of Fame) – Brief, but interesting history.

Michele Alice
Michele Alice
Michele Alice is EcommerceBytes Update Contributing Editor. Michele is a freelance writer in the Berkshire mountains of Massachusetts. She collects books, science fiction memorabilia and more!

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