Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

On National Slinky Day, the Delco-born toy gets its own historical marker

Mechanical engineer Richard James invented the Slinky. His wife, Betty James, gave the toy its name and saved the company.

(From left to right) The children of the Slinky inventors, Christopher, Rebekah, and Elysabethe James, stand by the new Slinky Toy historical roadside marker outside the James Industries building on Baltimore Pike.
(From left to right) The children of the Slinky inventors, Christopher, Rebekah, and Elysabethe James, stand by the new Slinky Toy historical roadside marker outside the James Industries building on Baltimore Pike.Read moreANTHONY PEZZOTTI / Staff Photographer

The pride exuded by residents of Delaware County — the Philly suburb affectionately known as Delco — is so kinetic you can almost feel the energy shift when you cross the county border.

Wawa! Tina Fey! Delco Lager! Eat it, Montco!

But many residents remain unaware of a major point of pride they could add to their bragging arsenal, and this one is pretty metal.

On Friday, Delconians added even more spring to their step when a roadside historical marker commemorating the invention of the Slinky was dedicated at the corner of Baltimore Pike and Springfield Road in Clifton Heights, near where the toy was first manufactured.

The dedication coincides with National Slinky Day.

Delco historian Robyn Young advocated for the Slinky marker, the 20th she’s gotten dedicated in Pennsylvania, all commemorating achievements by women.

While it was mechanical engineer Richard James who invented the Slinky while working at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard in 1943 — trying to create springs that could hold items tight aboard moving ships — it was his wife, Betty, who gave the toy its name and brought the company out of financial ruin after Richard left her and their six children in 1960 to join a religious cult in Bolivia.

The plaque — placed near the original Slinky factory — commemorates both of the Jameses, but it was Betty’s story that moved Young to fight for the marker.

“She’s the one that really turned the company around, and I felt it really needed to be spoken about,” Young said. “I never knew a woman was behind that.”

Rebekah James Morris, 61, the youngest of the Jameses’ six children, said her mom’s ability to bring the company out of debt in the male-dominated toy industry while raising six kids was “amazing.”

“She always said, ‘I didn’t have a choice.’ She was incredibly humble,” Morris recalled. “She never really took credit.”

Betty moved the factory from Clifton Heights to Hollidaysburg, Pa., in the early 1960s so she could be closer to family. Although the Slinky company is now owned by Alex Brands Inc. of Fairfield, N.J., Slinkys are still made at the Hollidaysburg factory, near Altoona, on the same machine Richard James invented.

“Nobody else has ever been able to reproduce it,” Morris said of the machine.

The Slinky — still on shelves today — will mark its 75th birthday next year, and Alex Brands will be “celebrating in a big way” with activities and Slinky history, said Lauren Diani, senior brand manager.

More than 360 million Slinkys have been sold since they hit the market in 1945, Diani said. One of the most enduring toys of the modern era, the Slinky has been inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame, named one of Time magazine’s All-Time 100 Greatest Toys, and commemorated on a postage stamp. It also has one of the catchiest jingles of all time.

Guinness records are even made with Slinkys. Two Brits hold the record for “most stairs descended by a Slinky,” which was 30, according to a Guinness spokesperson.

People have also found uses for the toy beyond just play.

“Physical therapists use it to help with hand-eye coordination; teachers use it for physics; they’re used for bird feeders [to keep squirrels away]; and they used them for makeshift antennae in the Vietnam War,” Diani said.

The Slinky has also played prominent roles in TV and movies like Ace Ventura and Pixar’s Toy Story franchise, which features the Slinky Dog.

Morris said she remembers when John Lasseter, former chief creative officer for Pixar, came to Hollidaysburg to meet with her mother about including the Slinky Dog in Toy Story. She gave him her blessing.

When the first Toy Story movie came out, Betty and her family all went to see it together. Her mother’s final verdict?

“She was ecstatic,” Morris said.

Betty James died at age 90 in 2008, but her legacy will live on through her family, through the toy she worked so hard for, and now, too, through a historical marker in Delco.

“It’s like tearing a page out of a history book and posting it up on the road for all to see,” Young said of the marker. “It may inspire some young girl to research the story and Betty more.”