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Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Everyone Knows It's Slinky!

I am going to make a statement, and you can choose to agree with me, or not.

Sometimes, some of the best toys were objects that were never meant to be toys in the first place. Can I get a “hell yeah” on that one?

No? Not even a little bit of a whimper? Oh, well.

I'm sure that all parents who are reading this blog entry can sort of understand what I am saying. Imagine buying your child one of the biggest-selling, very expensive toys that is currently available for sale at retailers all over the world...only to discover that your child would rather play with the box that the toy came in. I imagine some of you out there have found yourselves in that very situation and have been incredibly frustrated over wasting so much money when you could have just bought a box.

But, admit it...boxes were fun to play with. You could do almost anything you wanted with a box. If the box was big enough, you could turn it into a fort, or a secret hideout. Or, at the very least, you could make something out of the box. You could make a car, you could make a hat, you could make almost anything out of a box.

(Well, maybe not an electric generator that could power half of Toronto...or maybe you can, I don't know...I've never made one myself.)

Boxes were great to have around, but there were other ordinary household items that could make great toys as well. Feather dusters made great magic wands. Popsicle sticks could be used to build houses and fences. Even bathroom tissue could be used to make fancy arts and crafts, especially back in the 1980s when it used to come in a variety of different colours.

And then there are metal springs.

I bet that none of you would have ever expected that something as simple as a metal spring could be used to make one of the most popular toys ever created, but that's exactly what happened back in the early 1940's.

Richard James was a naval engineer back in 1943 stationed at the William Cramp and Sons shipyard in the city of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. At that time, he was in the process of developing a spring that had the ability to support and stabilize sensitive instruments aboard ships that could tip over if the water below was choppy. While he was working on it, James accidentally knocked one of the springs over, and to his amazement, the spring ended up descending downward in a series of steps until it re-coiled itself and stood in an upright position.

It was then that James believed that he could make the metal spring “walk” just by switching the material of the spring. He experimented with different types, sizes, and thicknesses of various steel wires until he found one that would walk. His wife (Betty James) was skeptical at first, believing that her husband was just wasting his time, but once James fine-tuned the toy, and wowed neighbourhood kids with his new design, she changed her mind.

In fact, it was Betty James who came up with the name of the creation, using the word found in Webster's Dictionary that meant “sleek and graceful”, and deciding that the word could also be used to describe the sound of a metal spring contracting and expanding.

The Slinky.

With the process perfected, James decided to go for the next logical step...the manufacturing of Slinkys to sell. With a $500 loan, the James' started up their business, “James Spring & Wire Company”. They produced 400 units of product, wrapped them up individually and set a price of one dollar for each one. The original Slinky was two and a half inches tall, and included 98 coils of high-grade Swedish steel. But when the James' tried to pitch their new product to individual toy stores, they were turned down. It wasn't until department store chain Gimbels granted the James' permission to set up an inclined plane inside their Philadelphia location to demonstrate the Slinky.

In November 1945, the demonstration was held inside Gimbels toy department, and immediately the spectators were very impressed. Within an hour and a half, all 400 units were sold. The following year, the Slinky was introduced at the American Toy Fair.

By 1952, James had perfected the design of the Slinky enough to manufacture a machine that could produce hundreds of units in just hours, and he would often make appearances on television programs to promote the Slinky. In 1952, the first “Slinky Dog” was manufactured and sold, and throughout the 1950s, other Slinky creations would be invented including Loco the Slinky Train, Suzie the Slinky Worm, and the Slinky Crazy Eyes.

TRIVIA: During the first two years of making and selling the Slinky, it was reported that James Industries had sold 100 million Slinkys at a dollar a piece. Adjusting for inflation, that would mean that James Industries became a billion dollar company within two years!

Alas, by 1960, Richard James had left the company following his divorce from his wife, Betty. Oddly enough, he left the toy business entirely to become a missionary in Bolivia. He died in 1974. Betty took over the company and relocated the business from Philadelphia to Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania in an effort to save money. She served as president of the company until 1998, when James Industries was sold to Plymouth, Michigan based company Poof Products, Inc. Five years later, the company would merge to form Poof-Slinky, Inc. while remaining in Hollidaysburg. Betty James passed away in 2008 from congestive heart failure at the age of 90.

I have to tell you, I loved playing with the Slinky when I was younger. You couldn't possibly imagine the joy I felt the first time I held one in my hands. The feeling of the metal contracting and expanding was quite stress-relieving (not that I had that much stress when I was five years old, mind you). Plus, it was literally the only toy that I could throw down a flight of stairs and not get in trouble for it. I was blown away by the fact that a Slinky could walk down a flight of stairs better (and more gracefully) than I ever could!

And, of course, who can forget the classic jingle for the Slinky, which you can hear below.

Now, when I was younger, I mostly played with the classic metal Slinky. But there were also plastic, multicoloured Slinkys that were made as well. I only ever owned one plastic Slinky...I believe that it was one of those neon coloured tie-dyed ones. 

It was okay, and it looked cool...but I just didn't like the plastic ones as well as the metal ones. The main reason being that the plastic Slinkys were more prone to getting bent and damaged.

And everyone knows that once a Slinky got a dent or a kink inside of it, it was basically useless, and you needed to buy another one.

The good news was that Betty James insisted on making the Slinky affordable enough that every child could play with it. And, certainly you can find Slinkys that can be as little as a buck or two at certain dollar stores.

But Slinkys were more than just toys. Would you believe that the Slinky is a common tool that a lot of high school teachers and college professors use to demonstrate scientific properties? And would you believe that at one point, soldiers that fought in the Vietnam War used Slinkys as makeshift radio antennas? And would you believe that NASA has used the Slinky in experiments that have involved zero-gravity simulations in preparation for space shuttle missions?

So, not only was the Slinky cool to play with, but it was extremely versatile as well. It's as if the Slinky was a wonder toy!

Almost 70 years since the Slinky was born, it continues to be one of the best-selling toys of all time. In 1999, the Slinky was forever immortalized in a postage stamp design, put out by the U.S. Postal Service. One year later, the Slinky was inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame. And in 2003, which was the 60th anniversary of the Slinky, the toy was named to the Toy Industry Association's “Century of Toys List”, which was a list of the 100 most memorable toys of the 20th century.

And, here's one more piece of trivia. Between 1945 and 2005, an estimated 300 MILLION Slinky toys have been manufactured and sold.

Not bad for starting out life as a metal spring, huh?

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