Toyland Treasures: Slinky

Slinky

What walks down stairs, alone, or in pairs,
And makes a slinkety 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 Slinky, it’s Slinky –
It’s fun for a girl and a boy.

In the early 1940s, Richard James, a mechanical engineer, was working on a solution using springs to address the problem of keeping sensitive equipment stable aboard oceangoing ships. After a mishap caused one of his experimental springs to gracefully “step” down a series of stacked items after being knocked off a shelf and finally coming to rest, recoiled and upright, on the floor, the proverbial light bulb went off in James’ head. Inspired by the idea of creating a spring that could seemingly “walk” on its own, he continued experimenting with different steel properties and tensions over the next year.

He finally arrived at a solution made from 80 feet of high-grade blue-black Swedish steel, coiled 98 times, and standing 2.5" tall in its collapsed, upright position. Meanwhile, his wife, Betty, had been researching possibilities for a catchy, marketable name for the new toy, and came up with “Slinky,” based on the word that describes a movement with smooth, graceful steps. (As a happy coincidence, the sound of the word also seems to echo onomatopoeically the sound which the Slinky makes as it uncoils and recoils upon itself repeatedly.)

With a $500 loan, the couple started a company, produced 400 units, and started marketing them to individual toy retailers. Sales were sluggish initially, until a major Philadelphia department store allowed them to set up a demonstration just as the Christmas shopping season of 1945 was getting underway. Those first 400 units were gone in 90 minutes.

Decades later, there are colorful plastic versions, and there have been a myriad of variations featuring Slinky-animals and Slinky-vehicles (including a canine Slinky who had a major role in Pixar’s “Toy Story” films), but the toy’s enduring success seems to lie in the core product’s simplicity and comparatively low price. (The original version is still sold for well under $5, typically.)

Be sure to check out more of our favorite Toyland Treasures!

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