In Memoriam: Betty James

December 22, 2008

Betty James, the co-founder of the Slinky company, died Thursday, November 20, 2008 at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. No cause of death was announced; she was 90 years-old.

Children and adults around the world have been playing with Slinky, the coil shaped springing toy, for decades of fun and scientific educational purposes. Not only was Betty part of revolutionizing the toy industry, she was a single mother and a successful executive in the late 1950s. Betty had six children and was the head of James Industries after her husband abandoned the company and her family in 1959. Rather than turn the company over, Betty helped ensure that Slinkys would make their way to children and adults throughout the world. She helped expand the company to include the Slinky Jr., plastic and neon colored versions, the Slinky Dog, and other products, serving as Chief Executive for the family run company for almost 40 years.

In 1943 Richard James, a Navy engineer was working on stabilizing instruments on ships at sea when a spring fell off the shelf and bounced end over end. He went home to his wife Betty and told her about the toy. When he asked what to call it, Betty decided Slinky because it can be defined as something stealthy, sleek, and sinuous. They worked on different types of steel and tension before introducing the Slinky at Gimbels department store in 1945. Their success rose, but unfortunately Richard didn't handle it well. By the late 1950s, he began complaining that he was uncomfortable with material wealth and left his family to join a religious cult.

Not someone to give up, Betty moved her children closer to her hometown in Altoona, PA in 1961 and made a 450-mile weekly round trip to the factory while a caregiver stayed with the children from Monday to Thursday. Using a mortgage taken out on her house she gambled on taking the toy to a New York show in 1963. The show was a success and orders poured in. She moved the Slinky plant to Hollidaysburg, near her home in 1965, where it still resides today.

The company has sold more than 300 million Slinkys throughout the company’s history. Betty retired in 1998 and sold James Industries to the Michigan based company Poof Products. In 2001 she was honored by being inducted into the Toy Industry Hall of Fame, which praised her for leadership skills and foresight. She is survived by her three daughters and three sons.

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