Children around the world have played with springy Slinkies for 43 years, but the 70-year-old woman who kept the wire toy alive says it hasn't been all fun and games.
Betty James, president of James Industries Inc., says her late husband, Richard James, a mechanical engineer and naval architect, came up with the idea of the toy in 1943 while aboard a ship. He saw a torsion spring fall from a table and bounce.Mrs. James took control of the business in 1960, when her husband lost interest and left the family to join what she called a religious cult in Bolivia. He died there in 1974.
"To this day," she said, "I don't know what a torsion spring is."
James Industries is a spartan, no-nonsense firm that turns out Slinkies by the millions in this small central Pennsylvania town. It employs 120 people who manufacture, package, sell and ship Slinkies from a single building.
A grandmother of 10, Mrs. James says she's basically a doting mother devoted to her six adult children and their families. According to her oldest son, she's also a demanding and assertive boss.
"She expects a lot out of you. She expects you to produce. And, so you do produce," said Richard James II, 46. He is Slinky sales manager and the only one of three sons and three daughters to join the family business.
Mrs. James, who is known as "Big Betty," is not too big to take telephone messages for her staff and do many other tasks. "When we first moved into this building, I used to clean the toilets, too," she said.
Slinky was put on the market in 1945, after the Jameses spent two years experimenting with various types of steel.
After receiving a patent, they demonstrated the toys at a Gimbel's department store in Philadelphia. "They gave us the end of a counter so we could show how it walked," Mrs. James recalled.
"I was so scared that no one would buy them, I called a friend and asked her to come along. I thought we would each buy one if nobody else did," she said.
She needn't have worried. After a quick demonstration, the first 400 Slinkies sold out in 90 minutes at a dollar each.
"I was so taken aback when I saw this crowd of people - and everyone was waving dollar bills."
Each night, Mrs. James took the day's production home from the manufacturer and wrapped the Slinkies by hand with yellow paper.
Richard James, meanwhile, came up with other inventions, but none were successful.
"He was a dreamer," she said. "He developed a refrigerator that would dispense soft drinks, but we took it out because we were drinking so many soft drinks we were getting fat. He also wanted to work on an amphibious car."
When her husband left, Mrs. James struggled to keep the business alive to feed herself and her children.
"To me, my family is the most precious thing in life . . . I always wanted a family because I was an only child," she said.
The first Slinky plant was in Philadelphia's Germantown section. Mrs. James moved to Hollidaysburg, 180 miles away, 23 years ago because she had family and friends in the area who could help care for her children.
The family moved a year and a half before the company's move was complete, and Mrs. James commuted to Philadelphia each week. She drove to Philadelphia on Sunday evenings, returning home on Thursdays.
"It was hard to see her crying because she had to leave the six of us," her son Richard said.
Today, James Industries sells millions of Slinkies around the world. Mrs. James, who with her children owns all company stock, declined to release the number of units sold annually or annual sales figures. Slinkies usually retail for less than $2.
The company produces other toys, including building blocks, plastic rings, games and pin wheels. "But Slinky outsells them all," Mrs. James said.
"It's simple. It's a universal toy. It's a toy that doesn't need any explanation. It has intrinsic play value," her son said. "There are very few other toys like that."