This Immortal Coil
Jeanne Marie Laskas | Philadelphia Inquirer Sunday Magazine | July 1993
BETTY JAMES, 75, COMES TO WORK every morning here at the Slinky factory at the end of Beaver Street.
It isn’t a fancy place; no big neon signs announcing The Home of the Slinky or anything. There is a junkyard next door, honeysuckle invading the parking lot, and outside her office window Betty has a bird feeder set up. Thirty six thousand original metal Slinkys a day are made, boxed, wrapped and shipped out of this factory to toy stores on every continent in the world except Antarctica. And that’s not counting all the Slinky juniors, the plastic Slinkys, the plastic Slinky juniors, the Slinky pull toys, and the Slinky glasses with the eyeballs that pop out.
Slinky is definitely the most famous thing to ever come out of Hollidaysburg, a tiny blip of a town tucked within one deep fold of the Allegheny Mountains where James Industries, maker of the Slinky for all of Slinky’s 48 years of life, is located. Technically speaking, the first Slinky was made in Philadelphia, but Betty moved the company out here to central Pennsylvania in 1961. Betty is the one who made the Slinky what it is today, although this was not exactly what she originally set out to do with her time here on earth.
“Life is so uncertain,” Betty will tell you, “at its best.” There you have one of life’s deceptively simple certainties with which Betty James is extremely well acquainted.
Betty stands just over 5 feet tall, gets her hair done once a week, dresses in dresses every day and walks with so much dignity she reminds you of Queen Elizabeth except with a more relaxed sense of humor. If you are looking to find the essence of Slinky, you really can’t get any closer than by just being with Betty.
She is, after all, the one who came up with the name Slinky. Her husband, Richard James, invented the Slinky, but he’s long gone by now. Richard was the love of Betty’s life, but in 1960 he up and moved to Bolivia to join a religious cult. Betty has definitely seen a lot in her lifetime that no human being could ever in her wildest dreams predict.
“Oh, I have had an exciting life,” says Betty, sitting behind her desk in a big olive-colored swivel chair. The walls are paneled and covered with plaques honoring Betty for things like Excellence in Packaging and Shipping Punctuality/Fill Rate. These plaques are interspersed among pictures of Betty’s six children and 16 grandchildren. Betty raised her kids without Richard, just as she raised the Slinky without Richard.
Just one set of double doors away from Betty’s office are the whir, clank, cha-ching and other industrial music put out by the six Slinky machines in action. These are the exact same machines that always made Slinkys, and Number One, as it is called, is still notoriously slow. There are barrels of water under the Slinky machines, each stenciled with a request: “No Spitting In Barrels. ” One hundred twenty people work round the clock in shifts making Slinky after Slinky after Slinky, plus the lesser items Betty has acquired over the years – pinwheels, pickup sticks, I’m A Cheerleader pompoms and Moli Q’s play shapes.
This is a quirky place. It is odd, first of all, to even find a toy still being made in the United States. Something like 150,000 items can be found on the shelves of America’s toy stores on any given day, and a full 75 percent of them are imported. Toy manufacturing is extremely labor intensive and most American toys long ago headed off-shore in search of cheap labor. But not Slinky. Another strange thing is that the Slinky company remained so small. You’ll find no R&D department here at James Industries, no PR office and not a single MBA walking these halls. You want a Slinky press kit? There isn’t one. But Betty will happily let you see a scrapbook with some brittle newspaper clippings from the 1950s in it. If you’d like you can even use the photocopier.
“We’re not big-time,” says Betty. “We like it the way it is. Slinky is like a child, and you don’t exploit your child.”
People with advanced degrees and calculators in their pockets become utterly dumbfounded when they hear that Betty James didn’t sell Slinky to some giant toy conglomerate years ago. Wouldn’t that, after all, be the American way? Betty could sign a few papers, make zillions, and go sit poolside at some lovely condo off the coast of Florida for the rest of her life instead of coming in here to this old factory five days a week. It’s not as if she hasn’t had offers. “Oh, I have been wooed by some of the best,” says Betty, pointing out that once a week someone will breeze through here and try to buy her out. But Betty just says no, no, a thousand times no.
The closest she ever got was when CBS, the TV network, was into toys and put in a bid for Slinky.
“They were offering me, you know, everything,” says Betty. “And I almost did it. I went to a meeting up in their tower, in their dining room, the executive dining room, you know, real classy, and they said, ‘Well, you ought to go down to our showroom and look our toys over. ‘ So I went down, I looked, and then I called the man with whom I had been working. I said, ‘I’m not going to sell to you. ‘ And he said, ‘What’s the matter? ‘ And I said, ‘I don’t like your toys. ‘ I said, ‘I think they look cheap. And I don’t want to put my toy in there with yours.’
“It was like one of your children. You’re putting it up for adoption and you don’t like the family so you don’t let it go.”
Betty James is definitely not what you’d call a business tycoon. People might say she lets her heart make too many of her decisions. People might, for instance, wonder why Betty still makes the Slinky the same size as the original, with the same fine American steel; she could have used cheaper steel, or made it smaller, and, really, who would notice? Also, people wonder why in tarnation Betty doesn’t raise prices. When Slinky first came out it retailed for $1. Now, nearly a half-century later, you can still get one for about $1.89. People say that’s a pretty pathetic rate of inflation.
“No, we haven’t done too badly by the public,” admits Betty. “I think a lot of people think, hey, everyone else is increasing prices, we’ll increase prices too. But no, I don’t go by that. See, my theory is, if it’s a child’s toy, make it affordable. That’s just what I go by.”
Betty defies the conventional wisdom of just about anybody you’ll talk to in the business world. Betty goes her own way. But this is nothing new. Betty will tell you her whole life she has felt like an island, just one person out here all alone trying to survive in a crazy world. Well, she was an orphan so that might have something to do with it. Her mother died when she was 8 and that’s when her father took off.
You’d think she’d be bitter, given some of the nasty twists of fate life has thrown her way. But Betty will just sit back, shake her head and grin, as if she is privy to some God-given insider’s tip about human nature. Betty embodies the spirit of the Slinky, rolling through life according to the way life, like gravity, pushes and pulls. She learned long ago to give up the notion of control. Betty’s life story is completely intertwined with Slinky’s life story, and that is why the two are so much alike they could be sisters, although Betty insists it’s more a mother-daughter type thing.
THE ESSENCE OF SLINKY LIES somewhere in its ordinariness. Slinky is not pretentious. This gives it a dignified quality that attracts people.
“Everyone,” said the old TV commercial, “loves the Slinky. You ought to have a Slinky.” That direct little jingle was written in 1961 and it’s still being used today, although modified somewhat. In the 1970s they took out the xylophone and added guitar.
The truth is that everyone probably does love the Slinky. Slinky has a 87 percent recognition rate among the public. Slinky is a toy for regular people. You don’t have to be smart, athletic, rich or clever to appreciate Slinky. Slinky is a toy that does not discriminate. Boys love Slinkys just like girls love Slinkys just like men love Slinkys just like women do. Slinky is universal. You pick up a Slinky and the metal feels cold against your hands. Instinctively, you know to part those coils into two halves and rock the Slinky back and forth. This is just a human drive we all have. What happens next is a completely individualized experience. Maybe you are the visual type and you become transfixed by the sight of the Slinky undulations, the geometric designs formed by a coil in motion. Maybe you are more the musical type and you like to listen to the ping-ping percussion of metal landing on metal, the dim echo of Slinky in song. Maybe you are the engineer type so you will push Slinky to its physical limits trying to see how far apart you can put your hands and still keep the Slinky in motion.
Maybe you are the imaginative type and you will look at the Slinky going back and forth and you will see stories.
No matter what type you are, you will, of course, one day be faced with the problem of a tangled Slinky; one coil will bend and you will try everything in your power to bend it back perfectly but you will fail. This is a fundamental Slinky truth. Slinkys don’t recuperate. A sick Slinky is a dead Slinky. When your Slinky dies you will feel totally lost for a brief period of time but then you will snap out of it. But all of this is just if you are an ordinary person.
Extraordinary people have found other uses for Slinky. A fellow in Tuscumbia, Ala., invented The Better Pecan Picker, out of a Slinky. “No more sore hands! No more sore back! Just roll it around and watch it pick up all the pecans with the greatest of ease. ” A lady in Maine buys thousands of Slinkys a year to use in her drapery business. Slinky is in the Smithsonian Institution as a piece of genuine Americana. Slinky was taken on the space shuttle Discovery to see if it would slink in zero gravity. After much experimentation, astronauts Rhea Seddon and Jeffrey Hoffman found out that Slinky in space was a total dud.
Physicists have long been fascinated with Slinky’s usefulness in demonstrating the physics of waves. One journal article points out that “the speed of propagation of expansion waves (c), with respect to the coils of the unextended Slinky, is described by the formula c = (kl/M) 1/2” – in case you’re interested. For further reading, try “The Slinky as a Model for Transverse Waves in a Tenuous Plasma,” “Slinky Oscillations and the Notion of Effective Mass,” “On Slinky: The Dynamics of a Loose, Heavy Spring,” and the ever popular “Slinky Zum 40 Geburtstag – Das Spizzichino-Problem.”
As you have probably guessed by now, Slinky is also popular with biologists in demonstrating the primary structure of polypeptides.
Betty James doesn’t understand too much about polypeptides – or pecan pickers, for that matter. And, anyway, today she has more pressing concerns.
“Where shall we sit?” says Betty. Space is such a problem here at the Slinky factory. Sometimes it seems you don’t have room to turn around. The insurance people have come for a meeting and Betty has given her office over to them. Well, that was better than having to sit in on the boring meeting. ”Let’s go to the lunchroom,” Betty says. Pushing open the doors to the factory, turning right and, settling in near the candy machine, she tells the story of how Slinky came to be.
It began as the perfect American Dream:
Betty Mattas met Richard James at Penn State, where both attended college. He was a handsome and brilliant engineer, Class of 1939. They fell madly in love, got married and moved to Philadelphia, where Richard worked as an engineer at the Cramp shipyard for $50 a week. One of his jobs was to test the horsepower on the mighty naval battleships. To do this, he would use a torsion meter, and a torsion meter required the use of a torsion spring.
One day, Richard saw one one of these springs fall off his desk. It rolled over itself in the most fascinating way. He brought it home to Betty and said, ”I think I can make a toy out of this.”
Betty recalls: “And he said, ‘We have to name this toy. ‘ Well, I didn’t know anything about toys. I really didn’t. But he said find a name for it. So I was thinking and I couldn’t think of anything. So I got the dictionary and I said, ‘I’ll try to find a word that depicts the slithering action of it. ‘ So that’s how slinky came. It just seemed to depict everything.”
Slinky didn’t sell at first. “A Slinky just sitting there on a shelf isn’t awfully inspiring if you think about it,” says Betty. “It’s kind of like a blob.”
Then the Gimbels department store gave Richard and Betty the use of a counter where they could demonstrate the Slinky. This was in 1945. “And it was a terrible night,” recalls Betty. “It was snowing and raining, oh, it was horrible. So my husband, we had 400 Slinkys made, so he took them in and I said to him, ‘Now you go ahead and I’ll come in, I’ll get a friend of mine, and if nobody’s buying we’ll come over and buy some Slinkys. ‘ To stimulate people, you know. We thought we would have to get some enthusiasm going.
“So we got off the elevator and I can see it now, I’m looking around the toy department and I didn’t see anybody, but over in one corner there’s this mob of people, people everywhere, and they all had dollars in their hands, and it was, Wow! Go for it! So we went over, I didn’t even have to spend my dollar. We sold 400 Slinkys in 90 minutes. And that’s how we started.”
Richard and Betty went on to make Slinkys out of a factory on Portico Street in Germantown. Richard would bring the Slinkys home and Betty would wrap the Slinkys with yellow paper, roll them and fold the ends in. “That was what we called packaging,” Betty will tell you now. Oh, Betty laughs about some of those old days. Soon they were opening a new, larger factory in Clifton Heights with 20 employees. By 1951 they had moved the company to an even larger factory in Paoli.
Richard and Betty were happy. In particular, Betty was happy having babies. That was the main thing. Betty had what she had always dreamed of as an orphaned child: a family. And Richard was happy being rich and famous. Maybe too happy. Betty didn’t like what was happening to him.
“The man I married was a delight,” says Betty. “He really was. But he didn’t handle success well. I don’t think. The way I look at it he didn’t handle it well.
“Money corrupted him,” says Betty. “And power. And publicity. He liked it all. It came too fast. It was overwhelming. That’s what happened. He got real important way too suddenly. And that’s when he got religious.”
And that’s when Betty’s life fell to pieces.
“These people from England, that was his first step into it,” she says. ”They were parasites. I don’t know how he met them. They came to the house and settled in. That was horrible. That was the introduction, and that just dissolved everything.
“And then he announced one night, he called my son Tom and my daughter Libby and I to the downstairs and he said, ‘I’m going to leave. I’m going to South America. Do you want to run the company or sell it? ‘ And I said, ‘I’ll run it.'”
And Richard left. He moved to Cochabamba, Bolivia, to be a part of a religious cult that to this day Betty knows almost nothing about. “I don’t even know what they believed in,” says Betty. “They were perfect. And I was not. That’s all I knew.”
Richard wrote to her a lot at first. “He kept writing and writing and telling me that I was damned and I should come join him in South America and he was the head of the family and I should do what he said. He wanted me to join the cult and leave the children here. And he said if I didn’t I was going to hell.
“And so I stayed here and sinned, I guess.”
Betty soon learned that Richard had donated an awful big hunk of the family fortune to that cult. And he had been ignoring the business. “We were really for all practical purposes bankrupt,” says Betty. “But I was too dumb to know it. ” And Betty knew nothing about business, much less anything about bringing a bankrupt business back to life, much less about how a woman survives in a man’s world. And Betty had a broken heart to mend. And Betty had a whole huge lump of philosophical and spiritual madness to sort through, not to mention six kids to raise.
“I had to do something to take care of my family,” says Betty. “I had to make the company work. I just had to. But it was stupid. If I had known what I was getting into I wouldn’t have tried. I would not have.
“Fools walk in where angels fear to tread, you know. That is so true.”
NOW LOOK WHAT IS happening. The first shift is coming in with their lunch pails and Big Gulp sodas and it looks as if Betty will have to relocate once again. “That’s my only real problem here at the factory is space,” Betty reasserts. She’s taken to moving trailers into the parking lot and using them to hold the Slinky inventory. At this point there are so many trailers out there that the neighbors down Beaver Street seriously wonder if Betty hasn’t gotten into the trailer business.
Space wouldn’t be a problem if Betty could just build on the rest of the land she owns behind the factory. But the government has stepped in and declared this land part of a wetlands zone and so Betty is stuck. “It’s kind of ridiculous,” says Betty, standing now out on the loading dock. She looks down. The land in question is a narrow strip that separates her factory from a Conrail line. “I mean, no self-respecting animal would even come back here.”
But Betty is not one to complain. Betty has no illusions. Betty knows life is full of problems and chaos. Here is how she got out of the mess Richard left her with:
The first thing she did was protect the children. She bought a big, old, empty house in Hollidaysburg where she had, at least, some aunts and uncles who might help out. She fixed the house up and had the children’s bedrooms all done up exactly to match their bedrooms in the old house, right down to every piece of furniture and every stuffed animal. “The children had had enough trauma,” says Betty. She remembers crying every single Sunday night for a year when she would have to leave those children. She’d get in the car and make the four-hour trek to Philadelphia, where she would stay through Thursday trying to revive the Slinky factory there. It seemed so hopeless. Richard had left her with a stack of unpaid bills sky high. She became determined to pay those bills.
A short time later, she rented a factory in Bellwood, near Hollidaysburg, a building so small she also needed a barn and a garage for storage. Four years later, the Slinky company finally made some money. And Betty not only paid every bill, but she included a thank-you note with each.
“Any one person could have said, ‘Pay me now,'” says Betty. “And I would have been finished. And they didn’t. They waited. And I was so thankful so I told them so.”
With the company springing back, Betty needed her own factory. But she had no land. The townspeople of Hollidaysburg came to the rescue. They wanted the factory. They needed jobs. A local pharmacist and town father called Betty and said, “Meet me tomorrow morning down by the Conrail line on Beaver Street. ” She went. He said, “How much do you need?”
“Well,” Betty recalls, “I didn’t know an acre from a half acre, I mean I had no conception. So I looked and I said, ‘Well, I have six kids, how about six acres? ‘ And he said, ‘Fine. Will a dollar be too much? ‘ And I handed him a dollar.”
James Industries is still a private company and does not release sales figures, but the Standard & Poor’s Registry shows an estimate of $5 million to $10 million.
“See,” says Betty “I was fortunate. I wasn’t clever. I was just lucky. I mean really and truly. Cleverness didn’t enter into it. It was all a lot of dumb luck.”
BETTY TAKES ALMOST no credit for turning the Slinky company around. She says it was the people who helped her that did it, her creditors, the townspeople and most notably her controller, Bob Lestochi, whom she hired 32 years ago. He took it as a temporary job. He is still with the company today. Bob knows that if Betty sells the Slinky company to some toy industry giant, he’ll probably be out of a job, a pension, a future. And Betty knows this, too. Betty’s sense of loyalty to her workers and to the town is what keeps the Slinky out here in the middle of, relatively speaking, nowhere.
“Over the years I could have just sold it, and I would have been better off, much better off,” she admits. “But you know, these people that are here working, some of them have been with me, oh, I think the average is probably around 20 years. And a lot of them for 25, 28 years. Well, you can’t turn your back on that. They’re good people. And we’re their livelihood. You know, and I have to think of them. And I do think of them. Because I like them. Not all of them, you know, but most of them.
“And I don’t care for greed,” says Betty. “I have everything I need. Me and my dogs. Oh, you’ll die – their names are Mork and Mindy, isn’t that original? You know, I had heard of that TV show, but I had never even seen it. It was just one of those things.
“So, I am happy. I live alone in the big house I raised my kids in. People say, ‘Why do you live there alone? ‘ It is a big place, you know. But I say, ‘It’s home.'”
Betty’s feelings for her home run especially deep considering the fact that the whole place burned down in 1974. She mentions this fact as if she were referring to a day of grocery shopping. “Oh, yes, the house was completely gutted. I was out of it for 11 months, living in a hotel. I had it all done over again. ” She put it back exactly as it was before, same layout, same wall coverings, same furniture in the children’s rooms.
Just another one of life’s little bowling balls that rolled over Betty. Betty doesn’t understand why in the world she should be angry at life for asking her to participate in this sort of sport.
“You know, you fall and you land on your feet,” she says. “You hope you do. ” And you don’t count on standing up for very long. Because life, as Betty says, is at its best uncertain. Happy people, she says, are people who embrace that notion, people who surrender control. Happy people, she says, are people who stop being gluttonous with the world’s riches and stop feeling all big and entitled. Happy people are people who focus on what’s important: other people. In fact, that might be the secret to happiness in old age right there. “Being loving,” Betty says. “And being loved. I think. I can’t think of anything else that is more important. Being content. That’s it. Just being satisfied with your lot. You’re not envious. You’re not greedy. You don’t want the unattainable. You’re not striving to prove something.
“People now think they deserve some individual flattery. You know, ‘I am wonderful, I have done this, I am doing my own thing. ‘ I think so, don’t you? I think people are greedier, or they’re more just out for themselves. I think everyone’s afraid that they’re going to give up something for somebody else. And you know the funny thing is, if people would just know how much pleasure they would get out of just giving something up for somebody else. Not always. But I mean basically.”
In the end, Betty gets her office back. Tom, her oldest son and sales manager, tells her the insurance meeting was just as thrilling as always. Tom, a Shakespeare scholar, is keeping the tradition of his mother’s soul intact in this place. The rest of Betty’s children are off doing other things, and the family remains very close.
Richard James died 19 years ago in Bolivia, and no one knows how.
The essence of Slinky is in its history. Slinky is resilient. Slinky is a survivor. Slinky is loyal. Slinky is honest. Slinky never got a big head. Slinky never had to do anything tricky to win hearts. Slinky just is Slinky. The thing about being ordinary is that there is so much dignity in it.
Writer bio: Jeanne Marie Laskas was born in Philadelphia, raised in our suburbs and earned her bachelors degree from Saint Joseph’s University. She has written for national publications for more than 20 years, including GQ, Esquire, The New York Times Magazine and the now-defunct Philadelphia Inquirer Sunday Magazine. She was a finalist for the National Magazine Award in 2007.