The Twisted Tale of Slinky, the Most Popular Toy Ever

Simplicity and a catchy jingle helped sell 350 million of them

Slinky took its first springy steps toward becoming a fixture of popular culture on a November day in 1945. Richard James, who had invented the coiled-spring toy, and his wife Betty, who coined the "Slinky" name (based on the novelty's sleek, sinuous style of motion), persuaded Gimbels department store in Philadelphia to provide counter space for a demonstration. To the delight of shoppers, the Slinky appeared to "walk" down a ramp, end-over-end, owing to gravity's pull and its own momentum. Richard and Betty sold out of their initial run of 400 Slinkys, priced at $1 each, in just 90 minutes.

Photo: Nick Ferrari

Two years earlier, as a Navy engineer tasked with stabilizing instruments aboard ships in rough seas, creating a toy was the farthest thing from Richard James' mind. But when he accidentally knocked a spring from a shelf and it appeared to walk across his desk and onto the floor, the idea for a classic was born. "Strictly speaking, I didn't invent the Slinky," Richard James once said. "He practically walked into my life." After perfecting the design, he concluded that a 2.5-inch configuration of 98 steel coils worked best. Following Slinky's triumphant debut at Gimbels, Richard and Betty James borrowed $500 and began mass production. Amazingly, they sold 20,000 additional units during the '45 holiday season.

Slinky was soon making huge strides, and, by the time it turned 10 years old, more than 100 million had been sold.

Why was it so popular? Lou Harry, author of It's Slinky: The Fun and Wonderful Toy, counts simplicity and the ability to spark kids' imaginations as its key assets. "The Slinky didn't come burdened with complex ideas—once you got it, you got it," he said. "It doesn't require anyone else to be in the room with the kid and the toy. And, apart from the spinoffs, it doesn't have an imposed personality."

On an even more basic level, Slinky "is extremely pleasant from a sensory standpoint," said Richard Gottlieb, founder of Global Toy Experts. "Holding it in your hands provides visual, aural and kinesthetic stimulation all at the same time. It seems to be alive."

Variations, including a Slinky dog and train, were strong sellers, but the march toward icon status nearly went astray as the '60s began. Richard James was, by most accounts, even more tightly wound than his coiled creation. He became an evangelical zealot, and this obsession took a heavy toll.

"These religious people always had their hands out," Betty James recalled in a 1996 interview. "He had given so much away that I was almost bankrupt." Richard left Betty, their six kids and the business in 1960 to become a missionary in Bolivia. Betty ran the company for nearly 40 years, and early in her tenure as president, green-lighted an advertising campaign that would become almost as famous as the Slinky itself.

TV spots launched in 1962 by South Carolina agency Barton & Cureton featured kitschy images of kids pushing Slinkys down stairways—accompanied by an impossibly catchy jingle that would, through the next two decades, sear itself into the national consciousness. The song's best-remembered version, from the early 1970s, included the lines: "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 fun for a girl and a boy!" By the 1980s, despite (or perhaps owing to) line extensions that included Slinkys made of plastic, the toy's pace began to slow as increasingly sophisticated novelties encroached on its shelf space.

To date, some 350 million Slinkys have been sold, and the toy is still being produced by Alex Brands of Fairfield, N.J.

"I like to think that Slinky's persistence has to do with its timeless qualities," said Christopher Bensch, vp, collections at The Strong, a Rochester, N.Y., museum dedicated to toys and amusements. "It's so streamlined and elemental that there's nothing to make it feel outdated. It's as appealing today as it was in 1945. A lot of things have changed in the past 70 years, but what hasn't changed is the sound, feel and movement of Slinky."

 

 

This story first appeared in the Oct. 5 issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.