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Unwinding the long history of the Slinky

First there’s that familiar sound. Then there’s that jingle. They’re sounds most Americans recognize from childhood. And they all spring from a simple coil of wire made in Hollidaysburg, Pa., home of the Slinky.
/ Source: CNBC

"What walks down stairs, alone or in pairs, And makes a slinkity sound?"

Do you feel compelled to sing along with those words? Maybe that’s because it's a jingle many Americans remember from their childhoods... the siren song of the Slinky, a simple coil of wire made in Hollidaysburg, Pa.

At Poof-Slinky, the procedure for making the toy hasn't changed much since the first time it came off the line. They haven’t found a more efficient way to do it in over 60 years.

Tom James, the son of the Slinky’s inventor, gave CNBC a factory tour.

Standing by a gleaming column of cable, he said, “Our wire comes in 2,000 pound spools of galvanized spring steel wire. It’s all American-made in Shelbyville, Ky."

The steel, which arrives as round wire is fed into a flattener at 12 miles an hour… the same flattener created by Tom James’s dad, Richard James more than 60 years ago.

“After the wire’s flattened it comes into the coiling unit ... also designed by my father," James says.

James told us that the coiler was off-limits to our camera. Although the process is over sixty years old, Poof-Slinky worries that foreign competitors could copy it and make knock-off Slinkys. But the mechanism basically wraps 62 feet of wire around a spindle about 80 times, spitting out a new Slinky every 15 seconds. Once spring steel is wound it doesn’t unwind.

After getting coiled, each Slinky gets a crimp — or a band — around both ends of the toy "for child safety,” James says.

Because the crimp was added in 1973, many people may not have childhood memories of it. Instead they may remember getting jabbed by the toy a few times over the years.

Once crimped, the Slinkys proceed single-file along a conveyor belt to be boxed. James proudly showed us the end of that belt where the coils of wire truly became Slinkys.

There, as each did a graceful somersault off the end of the conveyor belt, he explained,

“Each one takes its first step right there. And then they’re pushed into the boxes automatically and sealed automatically.”

Since the first dollar was handed over for a Slinky in 1945, about 300 million of them have been sold. Beyond simply enjoying them for their slinkiness, their owners have made many other uses of them, from serving as birdhouse protectors to acting as antennas during the Vietnam War.

No matter what their use, the Slinkys have gone far. "These go all over the world — every continent except Antarctica,” James said, pointing to cases of Slinky that were packed and ready to go.

Hollidaysburg, the starting point of those slinky journeys around the world, is a small town 90 miles east of Pittsburgh.

It was a vital gateway to the west in the 1800s when barges from the Pennsylvania Canal were broken into sections, hauled up over the Allegheny ridge, and sent on to the Ohio Valley.

It wasn’t a foregone conclusion that Slinky would make its home in Hollidaysburg. Much of that is owed to one tough woman, Tom’s mother Betty James, who worked hard to make it her home.

In 1943 Betty married naval engineer Richard James who was working on a device to stabilize shipboard instruments.

Tom James described the moment his father had the revelation that changed his family’s life. “A spring took a step in the lab he was working in. He looked at it, he picked it up, he tried it again and it did it again. He took it home to my mother and he said, ‘you know, there’s something here.’”

Richard James worked for two years to perfect the toy and then, one winter night, he and Betty set up a table at the Gimbels department store in Philadelphia to try to entice buyers. Betty asked a friend to come along.

“I gave her a dollar and I said, ‘Let’s go down and we’ll each buy one to make him feel better," Betty James says. "Well, we got off the elevator and over in one corner there were just hundreds of people waving dollar bills. And my husband was in the middle of it.”

That night they sold 400 Slinkys in just 90 minutes and from there they took off. As the Slinkys got more attention… and brought in bigger sales… Betty and Richard rapidly grew out of their first factory. The Jameses grew rich and their family grew too.

By 1960, Jameses had six children. It was then that Richard, who had grown increasingly religious and was giving away company assets to charity, presented the family with a bombshell.

“He called all of us downstairs to the kitchen — and we were living in a 31 room home, it was a magnificent home — and Pop said, ‘I’m going to Bolivia. Who’s going with me?’” James says.

“And he said to me, ‘What are you going to do? Run the factory or sell it?’" Betty James recalls, laughing. "I didn’t know what I was saying but I said, ‘I’ll run it.’”

Betty started to commute each week to the factory outside Philadelphia. Her kids were over two hundred miles away near her family.

“She’d leave Sunday nights crying and she’d come back Thursday evenings," Tom explains. "We had a nursemaid, but it was so hard seeing Mom leave every week in tears.”

A couple of years after finally finding a spot for the factory near the kids, Betty had a meeting with one of the town fathers of Hollidaysburg, which was a town right nearby.

“He said to me, ‘how many acres do you need?’ I had absolutely no conception of how big an acre was,” she says, still amazed. “And I thought, ‘Well, I have six children… I need six acres.’ And he said 'Well, do you think a dollar would be too much?'”

And with the generosity of the community — for a dollar — what was then “James Industries” came to Hollidaysburg. Betty — five-foot-one and feisty — had slowly pulled the company together again.

And then John Lasseter, director of Disney’s “Toy Story," came to Betty with the idea of having a Slinky Dog in the film.

“He said, would I be interested? Ha! You bet we were interested," she exclaims. "So they chose to use the Slinky Dog. And we had dogs all over the factory for a while. The orders were coming in so fast and it did affect Slinky sales too.”

When "Toy Story" came out in 1995 it was the 50th anniversary of the Slinky. That year, James Industries sold 3 million Slinky Dogs. Then, four years later, the Postal Service honored the Slinky with a stamp.

Betty James has a theory about why such an ultra-low-tech toy — really just a distant cousin to the bedspring — continues to entice small hands.

“It’s one of those things that once you get it in your hand, it’s hard to put down,” she says. “I’ve often said that it reminded me of eating peanuts. Once you get it started, you don’t want to put it down.”