Walks downstairs, alone or in pairs

An inflection point, an icon, a toy. Plus, 7 other things worth your time.

It looked like a bad gamble—out $500, what can you do? Win some, lose some.

The gamblers — I guess we’ll call them that, at this point in the story — were named Richard and Betty James, and the time we’re talking about was just after World War II.

I was trying to figure out how big a deal losing $500 would have been was to them; it was the equivalent of maybe $7,500 today. I think they were working middle class, so it wasn’t nothing.

Anyway, Richard James had been a mechanical engineer at the Philadelphia Navy Yard, in the war, trying to find a way to keep shipboard instruments in place during rough seas. The idea he came up with involved tension springs, but the Navy wasn’t really interested.

Then, he accidentally dropped one of his springs, and he was enthralled by how it moved across the floor.

How to describe this? The spring “‘stepped’ in a series of arcs,” as an MIT history put it, “from the shelf, to a stack of books, to a tabletop, to the floor, where it re-coiled itself and stood upright.”

Hmmm. Even if the Navy didn’t want this spring-thing, Betty James, thought, maybe it could make a toy. She even came up with a name: a “Slinky.”

So, the Jameses borrowed the $500 to finance a run of 400 units in a local machine shop. Only, they didn’t sell at all. Pure dud. For a while, it looked as if they’d had thrown time and money out the window.

I’m sure a lot of side hustlers and entrepreneurs out there can relate. You can have a great idea and a memorable name, but if you can’t find the right marketing hook and a good distribution channel, it doesn’t matter.

That said, sometimes timing is everything.

In 1945, we had the first peacetime Christmas shopping season after years at war, and the big department stores were jockeying for sales. They were willing to try a lot of different things — big ideas and small ones.

Gimbels, for example, was willing to let the Jameses set up a Slinky display in their flagship store. So, they built an incline, gathered a crowd, marched the Slinky down the plane—and this time, sold 400 units in 90 minutes.

Slinky became a sensation, the Cabbage Patch doll or Ninja Turtles or Xbox of its time. In two years, they sold 100 million toys at $1 a head. By the late 1950s, the Jameses were super-wealthy, and their toy was an icon.

Was it all storybook? Well, for one thing the marriage didn’t last. Richard James took off for Bolivia. He died there in 1974.

Betty took over the company, relocated it to her hometown of Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania, and ran it for 38 years. She developed a killer marketing campaign—including the “the jingle.”

“What walks downstairs, alone or in pairs, and makes a slinkety sound?”

Yes, the Slinky was a 20th century icon. By the time Betty James died in 2008, the there had been more than 300 million sold — a shade under one for each modern day American.

To the extent people tell this kind of story, I think they focus on that kind of number at the end. But do you know what part I like most from this story?

It’s that moment in September or October 1945, when the whole thing seems a failure, and Richard and Betty James have to decide to keep going.

It’s when they’re still the gamblers, deciding whether to play one more hand.

What happens if they don’t spend the day at Gimbels?

What happens if they give up?

I’d love to know more about their state of mind then, but we can’t ever know for sure.

So, I’ll enjoy the story, and stick with the one thing I actually do know: You’ll probably have that jingle in your head for the rest of the day.

7 other things worth your time

  • Bill Gates Sr., 94, has died. “He was everything I try to be,” Bill Gates Jr. said. (People)

  • President Donald Trump awarded seven California National Guard soldiers the Distinguished Flying Cross for rescuing 242 campers trapped by the massive Creek Fire in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. (Army Times)

  • It’s funny, right? Taco Bell is now selling red wine to pair with food … food that a lot of people eat when they’ve already been drinking or maybe ingesting something even more interesting. (Insider)

  •  The NFL’s ratings fell for every single game this weekend, except for the one starring Tom Brady (who lost, so we shall see). (MSN Sports)

  • A teenager in Connecticut is being called a hero after saving a mother and her three children from a burning car. (ABC 11)

  • I know almost nothing about farming, but this seems like a nice story — to say nothing of some pretty wild local color: About 60 North Dakota farmers “put their own harvesting on hold to cut 1,000 acres for a neighbor who suffered a heart attack after his combine caught fire last week.” (NBC 15)

  • I think Gretchen Goldman, research director at a group called the Center for Science and Democracy, gets the prize for most honest tweet of the week so far, showing what she looks like on TV—and what it would look like if they backed the camera up. (Twitter)

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