Slinky is one of the world’s most recognizable toys, but not everyone is aware of its Pennsylvania roots — a factory outside Altoona made the iconic toy for decades before closing down earlier this year.
Now, the Slinky factory in Hollidaysburg is getting new life thanks to an acquisition by global toy company Just Play, which is also based in Pennsylvania.
“Every Slinky in the world is made there,” says Matt Fox, director of business expansion at Altoona Blair County Development Corporation.
Navy mechanical engineer Richard T. James invented the Slinky in 1943 while stationed in a Philadelphia shipyard. He was developing springs that could be used to stabilize instruments onboard ships in rough waters, and in Slinky lore, he accidentally bumped a few springs and watched them “walk” their way from a shelf, to a stack of books, to a table, to the floor.
That, James thought, would make an excellent toy. He teamed with his wife Betty, who was born in Altoona in 1918 and attended Penn State before her marriage, to develop the Slinky. (Betty came up with the name.) The couple formed James Industries, headquartered in Clifton Heights, PA, to manufacture their invention. The toy didn’t take off until 1945, when a Christmastime display in Philadelphia’s Gimbels Department Store sold 400 Slinkys (at a dollar apiece) in 90 minutes.
Richard and Betty worked together for 15 years, but sales slumped in 1960. Richard abandoned Betty, the company, and their six children for a cult in Bolivia, where he died in 1974. Betty James moved James Industries to her native region; Slinkys have been made in a Hollidaysburg factory since 1964.
Betty James always believed that Slinky should be an affordable toy, accessible to all children regardless of family income. She helmed the Slinky business for 38 years. It was sold for the first time in 1998. When she died at the age of 90 in 2008, her New York Times obituary noted that the number of Slinkys sold since the 1940s topped 300 million—enough to circle the Earth 150 times.
It’s not just turning the lights on. There’s definitely pride here.Matt Fox, ABCDC
Slinky has changed hands a few times since the late 90s, and things looked grim last spring, when the then-owner of the brand suddenly shuttered the factory.
“There’s always a little bit of concern anytime something shuts,” says Fox. Locals didn’t want to see “the iconic name and brand moved out of the region.”
Fortunately, Just Play stepped in. They reopened the original facility — it’s up and running in time for the Christmas retail season. The factory employs about 25 people, including a general manager, and front office and production staff.
“It’s not just turning the lights on,” says Fox of firing up the Slinky production line; they are still manufactured on the original machines. “There’s definitely pride here,” he says of longtime local workers, who know the historic factory better than anyone and are glad to be back on the job.
Being the home of the Slinky is also a tourist draw for Hollidaysburg. According to Fox, Betty James is as an important figure in American business, all the more notable for being a woman who shepherded a world-famous brand through the latter half of the 20th century.
Fox hopes that Just Play, whose other brands include Barbie, My Little Pony, Fisher-Price, and more, might bring additional manufacturing to Hollidaysburg (which is conveniently located on Pennsylvania’s I-99 corridor). And 2020 marks Slinky’s 75th anniversary, an additional point of pride for the Blair County workers. They join a long Hollidaysburg manufacturing tradition, continuing what Fox calls “a proud heritage of things being made.”
ALAINA JOHNS is a Philadelphia-based freelance writer and the Editor-in-Chief of BroadStreetReview.com, Philly’s hub for arts, culture and commentary.