Chairs are fine for derrières. But can they walk down stairiéres?

Chairs, lamps and tableware can be beautiful examples of American designs, and you’ll find some particularly fine specimens in the appropriately named, American Design, a new text from the Museum of Modern Art by design historian Russell Flinchum. The book catalogs and examines hundreds of objects from the MoMA’s collection that typify the last 9 decades of American industrial design. While his list is extensive, an overabundance of dining utensils and chairs—with dozens of entries from the Eameses might get the impression that Americans spent their life sitting, in the dark, whilst preparing to eat. Sure, this is a valid observation. Yet, given the opportunity to address objects that are just as an important part of the story of design in America, and the American dream, there is one in particular I would like to include into this catalog.

The Slinky is an odd little object that was introduced in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1945, at Gimbel’s Department Store. It’s designed accredited to Richard and Betty James, the story goes that the couple was so afraid their product wouldn’t sell because it was so basic that they actually paid friends to pretend to buy them. Their fears turned out to be unfounded however and the “amazing walking spring toy” was an instant hit. It was even voted 1946’s new toy of the year at the American Toy Fair in New York City. From there, the Slinky went on to become one of the most successful toys of all time. It remains a touchstone of Americana well into the new millennium.

Two years prior to the Slinky’s debut, in 1943, Richard James was an American Navy engineer serving in the Second World War. He was first inspired by a falling torsion spring while trying to develop stabilizing equipment for Navy ships. Though his military inventions were failures, when he returned home he recalled the way the spring had flopped along the floor, tumbling end-over-end. His wife recognized that his fluke spring effect could make fore a great toy and for the next two years James experimented with different wire grades and tensile strengths to until he had the right combination to make the coil “walk.” He then designed a machine process that would tightly coil eighty-feet of steel ribbon into a spiral Slinky. With borrowed money, Richard and Betty opened James Spring & Wire Company in Clifton Heights, Pa. They began production in 1945.

The Slinky is almost the same design today as it was at Gimbel’s.  The only modifications have been changes of material and crimping the ends of the coil for safety. Yet, despite its simplicity of form, this low-tech spring has persisted in its captivation of children and adults alike for generations. Both Richard and Betty, though they would later separate, became millionaires with the continued success of their product. It proves itself as a great American product in all of its design, manufacturing, marketing, and application. The creation of Slinky is the quintessential American success story.

The design of the Slinky, is deceptively simplistic. Really it is just a specialized torsion spring, an object that stores mechanical energy when it is twisted. A spring is certainly not a new idea; they have existed in various forms since the Bronze Age. The technology first became more refined during the Renaissance for watch making and firearms. Then, with the industrial revolution in the eighteenth century, manufacturing techniques were developed so that large, accurate, and inexpensive springs became common.

Simply put, a slinky is a weak spring, but, because of its physical properties, the Slinky is more than a great kids toy, it becomes a valuable tool for science education. Teachers have adapted the Slinky to classroom demonstrations of various wave properties, forces and energy states. How a slinky is designed to move may seem simple at first, but in fact there are many scientific principles at work. Through different exorcises the slinky can teach students about wave types such as longitudinal waves and transverse waves, as well as centrifugal force.

Slinky physics are even applied in NASA. In 1985, Slinkies were used in space to test the physical mechanics of springs under zero gravity conditions. Interestingly, it was found to behave unlike any traditional spring or even as a toy, instead, it acted as a continuously propagating wave. Present day engineers have adapted Slinky-like supports into a new design called SAILMAST. The thin coils can expand and contract to deploy and store solar sails for low energy propulsion in space. These designs, are set to be tested as part of NASA’s Space Technology 8 mission.

In fact, true of the best American ingenuity, the Slinky has found its way into many other applications. US soldiers during the Vietnam War adapted it to use as a radio antenna by throwing it around high tree branches. Pecan farmers in Texas and Alabama incorporated it into harvesting devices. Doctors have prescribed them as therapeutic devices for coordination development. They are even applied as decoration such as in lighting fixtures, drapery ties, mail holders and table decoration. Page thirty-six of American Design shows an example of the slinky form as Ekco Products Co.’s Candleholders, c. 1953.

 

 

The Slinky has becomes a perpetual metaphor of the country’s ingenuity and skill at reinvention. The complexity in such a simple form is part of the beauty of James’ Design. As an industrial form that became a plaything and then applied again to new industries, the slinky proves itself as a great American design.

But one cannot talk about the Slinky’s ascension to its status as an American Icon without discussing its marketing. And while Richard James is probably rightly credited as the Slinky’s originator –he held the patent– I would argue that it was in fact Betty James whose brand stewardship over the years made the Slinky a true icon of American culture. She was even the one who gave the invention its name. She chose the name “Slinky,” out of a dictionary to describe product’s “sleek and sinuous in movement.” I would guess it was also really she who paid their friends to purchase the dubious slinky at Gimbel’s.

 

 

Even from the early days of the product in the mid 1940’s to the 1950s the James’ did an admirable job of promoting their product. They found good opportunities for targeted product placement such as the Slinky’s TV debuting in 1946, on the romper room show. The packaging of the Slinky was even interactive; a hinged box that could open and close like a jewel case and thereby expand the slinky inside. It was perfect for showing off the product. And by the 1950s the James had embraced forms of line extension, with the inclusion of slinky pull-toys, such as the Slinky Train and game activity kits. All of these features and expansions were showcased in reasonably successful print campaigns.

 

            

 

In 1960, Richard James went through a mid-life crisis and become increasingly involved with a Bolivian religious cult, to the point of diverting large sums of the profits from the Slinky toward the order. He scandalously left his wife and six children, to pursue his religion. But here is where American feminism creeps a bit into the slinky story. When Betty James takes over the management of the Slinky her decisions as CEO propelled Slinky to even greater success and cultural status. She moved the company from its Clifton Heights location to Hollidaysburg Pa. and then hired a relatively unknown advertising agency, Barton-Curteon, from Columbia, South Carolina. From this partnership emerged a successful television campaign and, most notably, the famous slinky jingle, “It’s Slinky.”

 

“What walks down stairs, alone or in pairs,

 And makes a slinkity 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”

 

The Jingle like the slinky itself was simple catchy, and instantly successful. A Single of the song was even released in 1962. Variations of “It’s Slinky” would remain attached with the product and its branding for decades to come and become one of the most remembered advertising jingles of all time.


         
This ad campaign also contained an early example of a product inspired mnemonic device. The “slinkity sound” of the coils moving back and forth was not only mentioned in the lyrics but was laid into the soundtrack, underscoring the music and message of the commercial. The slinky can even still be heard in sound design in modern movies. Under Betty’s guidance, Slinky began to tap into the intangibles of the brand that would lead to the object’s American cultural status and memorability.

But Betty wasn’t shy about tangible product changes as well. She replaced the original material of the slinky, which up to this point had been a blue-black Swedish steel with the now familiar silver American steel. She then further extended the toy line to include many famous slink toy adaptations such as: Slinky Jr., Plastic Slinky, Slinky Dog, Slinky Pets, and Neon Slinky. She even added Crazy Eyes, the Slinky suspended eyeball glasses that became a classic American gag prop.

Betty’s shrewd business sense kept her product fresh while maintaining low costs and holding back competitors. Despite the changes to the line Slinky’s price went nearly unchanged from it original one dollar cost from 1945. Through her efforts Betty rescued her company from her husbands debts and secured the Slinky’s place as a classic American toy. In 1974 Richard James died. When Betty sold the line to Poof Toys in 1998 she insisted that the manufacturing remain in Hollidaysburg, still using the same equipment that her husband had created. She was a class act and in 2001 Betty James was even inducted into the Toy History Hall of Fame.

 

     

 

The Slinky made waves when it was introduced to America in 1945 and it remains relevant to this day in both industry and pup culture. In the 1990s a survey showed that ninety percent of Americans could identify the Slinky. This was probably helped further by the featuring of The Slinky Dog, voiced by Jim Varney, in Disney-Pixar’s 1995 movie Toy Story. In 1999 Slinky was honored by the US Postal Service as a commemorative stamp and the state of Pennsylvania officially adopted the Slinky as the state toy in 2001.  The Slinky had become so iconic that it was placed in The Discovery and the History Channels top-ten list of the greatest toys of the 20th century.

The story of the Slinky is as amazing and as American as its design. Generations of Americans have grown up pulling slinky toys, racing Slinkies down flights of stairs, or just listing to the rhythmic whirring of the coils in our hands. Who can forget their first Slinky? Even when surrounded by talking dolls, game boys, and ever more detailed action figures this simple eighty-foot piece of coiled wire remains beloved and continues to inspire us more than sixty years later. The simple but elegant design of the Slinky remains relevant to this very day as entertainment, as marketing and as a scientific and technological application. It has changed so very little from when we first saw it and yet it has changed us. What chair can claim that?

 

 

Sources
 
• Flinchum, Russell. American Design. The Museum of Modern Art, New York (October 1, 2008)
• Freeman, Allyn & Golden, Bob. Why Didn’t I Think of That?: Bizarre Origins of Ingenious Inventions We Couldn’t Live Without.John Wiley and Sons, 1997. pgs. 136-140
•Walker, Rob & Adelman, Clem. A Guide to Classroom Observation. Routledge, 1975, pg 102.
•Wulffson, Don L. & Keller, Laurie Toys!: Amazing Stories Behind Some Great Inventions. Macmillan, 2000.  pgs 5-10.
•www.poof-slinky.com
•www.spring-makers-resource.net/torsion-springs
•www.teachingtools.com/Slinky
•www.nasa.gov
•spaceplace.nasa.gov/en/kids/st8/sailmast


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