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 deskâ€¦.
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.