AKA Elizabeth James
Birthplace: Altoona, PA
Location of death: Philadelphia, PA
Cause of death: Heart Failure
Race or Ethnicity: White
Sexual orientation: Straight
Nationality: United States
Executive summary: Slinky entrepreneur
Naval engineer Richard James was working with tension springs in 1943, when one of the springs fell off his desk and briefly wobble-walked on the floor. Amused and intrigued, he brought the spring home and showed its "walking" action to his wife, Betty. Mr James is usually credited as the inventor of the Slinky, but it was Mrs James who made Slinkies a business -- marketing it as a toy was her idea, and she did the research that led to its name, finding "slinky" in a dictionary as a word meaning stealthy and sleek. For two years, they tinkered with different types of steel wire, seeking the tension and elasticity that would better enable "walking". In 1945, with $500 in borrowed funds, they bought a supply of the proper wire and a machine for wrapping it, and founded the James Spring & Wire Company (renamed James Industries in 1956).
For fifteen years they worked together to modest success, with Richard operating the machine and Betty answering the phone, taking orders, and boxing the toys. In 1960 he joined a religious cult and -- after giving away virtually all their money without her knowledge -- walked out on their marriage and six children, and vanished to South America. "I didn't know what it was," she said later of his conversion. "A lot of 'praise be, I'm saved.'" She moved back to her home town of Altoona, brought the company with her, and took over as CEO. With the business nearly bankrupt, she convinced creditors to be patient and borrowed funds against the company to launch Slinky's first major advertising campaign, including the jingle that made Slinky sales skyrocket: "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."
During Mr James tenure in charge of the company, about 300,000 Slinkies were sold annually. With Mrs James in charge over the next several decades, about 6,000,000 Slinkies were sold in an average year. In 1998, she sold her interest in the company to Poof Products of Detroit, and retired. She lives in Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania, a short drive from the factory where Slinkies are still manufactured. Her husband James died in Bolivia in 1974.
Husband: Richard James (Naval officer, b. 1914, m. 6-Apr-1940, d. 1974, six children)
Son: Thomas James (toy executive, b. 1943)
Daughter: Libby James
Son: Chris James
Daughter: Susan James
Son: Peter James
Daughter: Rebecca James
High School: Altoona High School, Altoona, PA (1936)
University: Pennsylvania State University (attended, 1936-38)
James Industries President (1960-98)
James Industries Co-Founder (1945)
Toy Manufacturers' Association Hall of Fame 2001
Appears on postage stamps:
USA, Scott #3186m (33¢, depicting Slinky, issued 18-Feb-1999)
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