Betty James dies at 90; namer of Slinky kept the toy brand alive

Betty James, who named the toy her husband invented -- the Slinky -- and rebuilt the toy company he abandoned, making the springy plaything a pervasive part of American culture, has died. She was 90.

James, who served as chief executive of the family-run business for almost 40 years, died Thursday at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, a hospital spokeswoman said. No cause of death was given.

In 1943, Richard James was a Navy engineer trying to figure out a way to stabilize instruments on ships at sea when a spring fell off a shelf. He watched it bounce end over end and went home to tell his wife, Betty, he thought he could make it into a toy that "walks."

When he asked her to name it, she turned to the dictionary and found "slinky," which means stealthy, sleek and sinuous.

Richard James tinkered with different types of steel and tension before debuting the coiled Slinky at a Gimbels department store on a snowy day in 1945 in Philadelphia.

"A Slinky just sitting there isn't very exciting. It has to move," Betty James told CNN.com in 2001. "It if hadn't been for Gimbels giving us the end of a counter to demonstrate, I don't know what would have happened."

The couple sold 400 of the toys in 90 minutes for $1 apiece.

The same year they introduced the Slinky, they borrowed $500 to form a company that was eventually known as James Industries to mass-produce the toy in the Philadelphia area.

By the late 1950s, the couple had a 12-acre estate near Bryn Mawr, Pa., but Richard James seemed uncomfortable with material success, according to biographical references.

He left his family in 1960 to join a religious cult in Bolivia and died there in 1974. He left behind six children between the ages of 2 and 18 and a business in shambles.

"These religious people always had their hands out. He had given so much away that I was almost bankrupt," Betty James said in 1996 in the Austin, Texas, American-Statesman.

She later recalled 1961 as her toughest year: She moved her children near her hometown of Altoona, Pa., and made a 450-mile weekly round-trip commute to the factory while a caregiver stayed with her children Monday through Thursday.

By 1965, she had moved the Slinky plant to Hollidaysburg, near her home, where it remains today.

Using a mortgage taken out on her house, James "gambled everything she had" and went to a New York toy show in 1963 -- and orders once again came pouring in, said her son, Tom James, in 2005 in the Philadelphia Inquirer.

More than 300 million Slinkys have been sold, according to a company history. The toys now sell for about $4 to $5.

James also was credited with expanding the Slinky line to include the Slinky Jr., plastic and neon-colored versions, the Slinky Dog -- made newly popular by 1995's "Toy Story" -- and Slinky Pets, among other products.

The "grzzzzzink" sound that the rolled-steel Slinky makes while in motion is but one aural memory of childhood for many baby boomers and their offspring.

The other is the catchy commercial jingle, which debuted on television in 1963 and includes this refrain:

Ev'ryone knows it's Slinky

It's Slinky, it's Slinky,

For fun, it's a wonderful toy

It's fun for a girl and a boy.

"The reason everyone knows the jingle," her son told the Philadelphia Inquirer, "is that we were too broke to buy a new one. We burned it into the mentality of the country."

Betty Mattas was born Feb. 13, 1918, in Altoona and met Richard James while attending Pennsylvania State University.

Upon retiring in 1998, she sold James Industries to Michigan-based Poof Products.

She never remarried.

"I had my family, and that was the center of my existence and still is," James said in 1995 in USA Today. "And I had Slinky."

In 2001, she became one of the few women inducted into the Toy Industry Hall of Fame, which praised her "leadership, foresight and business acumen" for turning around a struggling company to "produce what would become one of the country's true classic toys."

The success of Slinky was simple, she often said: "No batteries, nothing to wind up. These new toys on the market are lovely, but not everyone has $40, $50, $60 to spend on a child."

Among her survivors are three daughters and three sons.

Nelson is a Times staff writer.

valerie.nelson@latimes.com

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