Gil Asakawa's Nikkei View | Slinky, a truly classic Baby Boomer toy
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Slinky, a truly classic Baby Boomer toy

Betty James just passed away. Who’s that, you say?

She’s the woman whose husband invented the Slinky, and the woman who headed the company that manufactured all the wacky variations of Slinky, from Slinky Dogs to Plastic Rainbow Slinkys, for decades. My friend Leland Rucker, with whom I co-authored “The Toy Book” in 1991, just posted his thoughts about the time we were lucky enough to meet her while researching the book.

I vividly remember meeting Betty James. She was appreciative that a couple of aging boomers like us were interested in her company. She was a giant, but unknown to the zillions of kids who grew up with her toy. She gave us brass special edition Slinkys after meeting us. I still have mine on my desk….

The story of the Slinky, which I’ll include below from “The Toy Book”‘s first chapter, is pretty fascinating, because it was discovered by chance, and was a bellwether — the first truly original toy for the nascent generation, because it was first sold in the fall of 1945 in the flush of the post-war holiday season. That’s why it led off the book.

But Betty James was a fascinating story herself. Richard James may have invented the Slinky but Betty made it a generational icon. Around 1960 Richard James left his wife and six children to join a religious cult in Bolivia. He died in 1974. Betty James took over as CEO of James Industries when he left, brought the company out of its debts (her husband had apparently “donated” a lot of profits to the religious group), and then started diversifying the Slinky product line and running the TV commercials that many Boomers can still sing along to.

It’s because of her efforts that to this day, if you say “Slinky” to almost anyone in in the US of almost any age, they’ll hold out there hands, palms up, and wave them up and down to mimic playing with the spring.

Betty James was a pioneering woman executive — a single mom running a very successful, nationally-known corporation. She was inducted into the Toy Hall of Fame in 2001.

And, she was incredibly humble. When Leland and I met her that day in 1989 or 1990, it was at the annual Toy Fair in New York City, the toy industry’s unveiling of that year’s latest and greatest toys and games for retailers and media. She was with some of her sons, and when we met her she was gracious and sweet, and I recall her answer to one question we asked: “Why is Slinky still so cheap?” (It was at the time, still something like $2.99). Her answer, which I’ll paraphrase because I don’t have it written down, was “Because it doesn’t have to be.” It didn’t cost her much to make, and she wasn’t greedy. We walked away wondering how long she could hold on to that wonderful way of thinking.

The Original Slinky now made by Poof sells today on Toys R Us’ website for $4.99.

RIP, Betty James – 1918-2008. And, thanks.

Chapter One of The Toy Book (Knopf, 1991), which I co-authored with Leland Rucker:

Slinky may be one of the most familiar toys in the world today, but retailers in the fall of l945 were reluctant to stock a toy that looked like a refugee from the hardware department. Realizing that Slinky’s appeal was in its motion, Richard and Betty James convinced their first retailer, Gimbel Bros., to let them set up a sloping board as a display, giving Slinky the chance to walk its way down to the amazement of shoppers.

They sold their first four hundred Slinkys in an hour and a half. Nobody wanted to buy them just sitting there. But when they were demonstrated, they literally walked away.

Slinkys are still walking away, at a rate of more than two million a year. The family company still manufactures the spring at a plant at Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania. In 1960, Richard left his family and became a religious missionary in South America, where he remarried and died in l974. Betty and her six children have run the company ever since.

The Jameses introduced Slinky to the world at an ideal time: in the giddy postwar flush, the economy was booming and so was the population. But in 1945, Richard was still an engineer during the day, and Betty was a housewife with two children to handle in between wrapping, packaging and driving the toys to retailers. The baby boom was the last thing on the Jameses’ minds.

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

Thanks to scientific advances made during the war, technology was helping to reshape American lifestyles during the late forties and fifties. And many of the advances made in the name of science were quickly reflected in the toy industry — either with science-based imagery or in the actual creation of a new toy.

Silly Putty, for one, was a by-product of the effort to find a synthetic substitute for rubber. During the war, the Allies suffered a shortage of rubber, requiring strict rationing of products like tires, because the Japanese had cut off access to the world’s major rubber-producing regions in Southeast Asia. James Wright, a chemical engineer working for General Electric during World War II, came up with flesh-colored silicone compound that was close, but not quite rubber.

It bounced when rolled into a ball and stretched like rubber, but snapped when it reached its limits. The compound also was handy for picking up lint and cleaning surfaces like an eraser. Most interesting, it picked up images off the printed page, such as newspaper photos and panels from comic books. It wasn’t the right stuff for General Electric, but Wright was intrigued enough to dub it Gooey Gupp, and create enough to sell it out of a New Haven, Connecticut, toy store.

In a classic example of old-fashioned entrepreneurship, a businessman named Peter Hodgson happened upon Gooey Gupp at the store in 1949 and bought the rights from Wright. Hodgson renamed it Silly Putty, enclosed it in a bright red plastic egg, and sold it through Doubleday bookstores. Silly Putty caught on immediately; Hodgson sold 32 million eggs in five years — not a bad way to start a business. “The real solid liquid,” boasted the package the egg came in, which, not surprisingly, was shaped like a TV screen, with illustrations of a boy and a girl looking fondly at the egg.

Silly Putty’s still on the shelves today, with only a slight difference in packaging. In 1988, its manufacturer, Binney & Smith, began selling it for the first time ever in green, yellow, and blue eggs as well as the familiar red.

Not introduced until 1965, Wham-O’s Super Ball was another toy developed as a result of scientific research. The hard-rubber, high-bouncing ball was created as part of a chemistry experiment with a high-resilience synthetic compound.

The ball took some weird bounces, but it kept going forever. Wham-O licensed the ball and took a year to perfect it before introducing it to the public. When the company unveiled Super Ball, it pulled out all the stops.

The balls were manufactured in regular, small, and mini sizes, and Wham-O emphasized its impressive scientific origins with slogans like: “made of new amazing Zectron, four times more bouncy, four times more fun!” Within a year, competitors had flooded the market with Super Ball clones, and in the spring of 1966 Wham-O felt compelled to announce “the granting of United States Patent #3,241,834 covering the chemical composition of…Super Balls, the products that changed an industry.

Other companies couldn’t copy Wham-O’s exact Super Ball formula, but that didn’t stop them from making inferior, less bouncy versions. Those imitations are still available by the dozens in gumball machines standing outside supermarkets across the country.

Wham-O was accustomed to being a much-copied innovator. The company’s Pluto Platter was quietly introduced in 1957. Within a year, Wham-O had renamed the toy FRISBEE. The idea came from the metal pie tins used by the Frisbie Baking Company of Bridgeport, Connecticut, during the earlier part of the century. Students from nearby Yale University during the Roaring Twenties threw the tins around for fun, and yelled “Frisbie!” to warn passersby.

But those humble origins didn’t lead to the Pluto Platter until 1948. Fred Morrison, a California carpenter and building inspector, merged his fascination with flight and a new postwar material, a flexible plastic, and came up with a design for a flying disc that could be aerodynamically controlled with a little wrist action. Wham-O bought the idea and named it the Pluto Platter to capitalize on the country’s fascination with space. UFOs were a topic of great discussion in 57, and the toy resembled a flying saucer.

The name was changed to FRISBEE because the public mistook it for a reference to Pluto, the Disney cartoon character. After the switch, the FRISBEE became one of those rare products that can claim total name recognition — virtually all Americans have heard of the FRISBEE, and nine out of ten have played with one sometime in their lives. If your family didn’t have one, someone in the neighborhood did. Along with the many varieties of FRISBEEs that Wham-O produced, the glow-in-the-dark model was ideal for late-night summertime FRISBEE tag games. But the discs weren’t all just fun and games; in 1968, the U.S. Navy spent $400,000 to test them as a way to keep flares aloft, shot out of a mechanical launcher.

The toy never made it as a wartime weapon, but FRISBEE throwing did develop into a sanctioned international sport, with world championships and organized competitive meets. There’s a section for FRISBEE facts in the Guinness Book of World Records, and Wham-O’s produced more than 100 million discs over the years.

Wham-O was also busy in 1958 with another toy. On a trip to Australia, Wham-O founders Arthur Melin and Richard Knerr saw children using a bamboo hoop during a school exercise routine. The two entrepreneurs thought the hoop idea might catch on with American kids, too. They were right; the Hula Hoop caught on first in Southern California playgrounds and spread like wildfire. The company sold 25 million in four months, and an incredible 100 million within two years.

The Hula Hoop’s prototypes were made of wood–ash, the same wood Wham-O used for its famous slingshots (the company’s first products in 1948, hence the name)–to imitate the Australian originals. But for mass production they were switched to plastic. During the toy’s design stage, Wham-O experimented with other names, including Twirl-A-Hoop and Swing-A-Hoop, before settling on Hula Hoop.

After the hoops were manufactured, the two company founders demonstrated them in playgrounds near their San Gabriel headquarters. If a kid could keep one swirling around him, the men gave it to the kid. The hoops became
all the rage. But they really rose to mania stage when a Hula Hoop was featured on “The Dinah Shore Chevy Show”–an early example of telemarketing at work.

In the sixties, Hula Hoop’s popularity faded, and other manufacturers who’d jumped on the bandwagon got off. Wham-O kept making them, refining the idea by adding little plastic pellets inside to give the shoop shoop sound, and even copyrighting the name and the idea, and the hoop celebrated its thirtieth birthday in 1988.

Some toys that have been around for centuries were updated for the space age. In the late fifties, the Amsco company sold a new variation on tops, the Whizzler; this 79-cent spinning toy made a humming noise that escalated into a high-pitched screech as it went faster and faster. The toy was suspended in the air, and it spun when both ends of its nylon cord were pulled.

In 1971, the idea was reprised by the Kenner Corp. in its Screecher Siren Top. Instead of a string to get it spinning, the Screecher came with a plastic T-Handle Spin-Stick that revved it up. When it got going, it screeched loudly (even kids had to cover their ears), squeezed out sparks, and even launched a twirling triple-bladed “flying saucer.

Another variation on the venerable top, the early sixties MagneTop, featured a conventional top with a powerful magnet built in so it could balance on a wire or a clothes hanger while it spun. The Whee-Lo wasn’t quite a top, but its mysterious spinning movement was as entrancing. Its red centerpiece traveled at a deliberate pace along a curved steel wire handle, and it seemed to defy gravity. It never really did anything, but it sure seemed cool at the time.

Later in the sixties, Matchbox, a company better known for its miniature cars, came up with a self-propelling top called the Wizzzer, which had a built-in friction-run motor that you revved up by dragging the top’s rubber tip along a smooth surface. Like a gyroscope, the ultimate, scientific top, the Wizzzer balanced on its tip as long as its motor spun with enough revolutions. Unlike the Whizzler, the Screecher, the Whee-Lo, and the MagneTop, the Wizzzer has survived the last two decades, still “the world’s wildest whirler,” spinning “over 10,000 rpm!!” Kids didn’t have to go for novelty tops, though; manufacturers such as Ohio Art, which made its reputation with metal toys, have always produced lines of more traditional tops.

Another ancient toy that’s become a modem favorite is the yo-yo. Like the Hula Hoop, the yo-yo has its origins in South Pacific cultures. In the Philippines, natives used a crude form of the yoyo, tying a vine around a piece of flint to kill their prey, and retrieving the weapon with the vine. The idea made its way to Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, where the yo-yo became a favorite plaything of the French and Spanish ruling classes. The toy wasn’t officially introduced to Americans until the eve of the Great Depression. In 1929, a toymaker named Donald Duncan (who also has the grim distinction of being the man who invented the parking meter) began making wooden yo-yos, and realizing the power of marketing, hired native Filipinos to demonstrate them to curious department-store crowds.

Yo-yos were a popular fad during the Depression, but the public largely lost interest until 1959, when Duncan contracted with the Flambeau Corporation to manufacture yo-yos out of plastic instead of wood. With the wild, flashy colors and new styles, yo-yos were a hot item again, from the “profession~” models to glow-in-the-dark.

During the sixties peak, more than 16 million yo-yos rolled off Duncan’s assembly lines a year, but by 1969, when the fad faded again, Flambeau had to buy Duncan out of bankruptcy. Flambeau continues today as Duncan’s parent company, and yo-yos have settled down as one of the staples of the toy industry.

In between Duncan’s rise and fall and rise again, other companies tried to fill the yo-yo market. In the late forties, Corey Games sold the Glo-Yo. “In the daylight it looks like any other plastic yo-yo. But it isn’t like any other plastic yoyo,” the company promised. “IN THE DARK IT GLOWS Like A BALL OF FIRE.”

Unfortunately, the fire faded long before the Glo-Yo could establish itself as a classic.

The latest resurgence of yo-yo interest, thanks in part to the efforts of comedian/musician/entertainer Tommy Smothers, who bills himself as the Yo-Yo Man and does tricks during performances with his brother Dick, has led to companies making handcrafted wooden models again, and even one that claims the title of “The Yo-Yo with a Brain.

What goes ’round comes ’round; kids today are still playing with yoyos, Hula Hoops, FRISBEES, Slinkys, and Silly Putty.