Slinky inches forward to being named Pennsylvania state toy

HARRISBURG, Pa. — Pennsylvania has a state dog, a state insect, a state fossil, and even a state beverage.

Why, Bob Swaim wonders, can’t it also have a state toy?

Swaim, a retired math teacher from Springfield Township in upper Bucks County, has made it his mission over the last five years to persuade the state Legislature to do just that with the Slinky, the springy, walking wonder that became on overnight sensation in the 1940s — thanks to shoppers in Philadelphia. It saw a resurgence with a generation of latchkey kids in the 1980s and is still being produced today at a plant outside Altoona.

The Slinky, Swaim said, is a Pennsylvania story. It is also a women’s story. Yet, getting legislators to adopt his cause has been a challenge.

“It’s been fun, but I never realized how difficult it would be,” Swaim told Philly.com on a recent weekday afternoon, as he sat at a table in the municipal building in nearby Coopersburg, surrounded by mounds of paper he has amassed in his research on the toy. “Nobody wants to go out on that limb politically. … Maybe they think people will make fun of them — that the only legislation they ever passed is a Slinky bill.”

If people knew the toy’s history, Swaim believes, they wouldn’t feel embarrassed.

Swaim is happy to tell the tale to anyone who will listen. The 73-year-old is a collector of human-powered toys and has spent a chunk of his retirement doing demonstrations of his collections, which he carts around in a large white van.

The Slinky, of course, is among them. On a recent frigid December afternoon he set up different types of stairs and ramps in a spacious room to show the toy’s simple yet oddly mesmerizing walk. The teacher in him — he taught math and computer science at Souderton Area High School — can’t help noting the toy’s value in teaching about math and physics.

But it’s the story behind the toy that animates Swaim.

As with so many innovations, he says, the Slinky came to life by accident.

Its inventor, Richard James, was a Pennsylvania State University graduate working at the Cramp shipyard in Philadelphia in 1943. His mission was to devise a spring to stabilize equipment on ships, when one day, a coil sitting atop a shelf was knocked down. It began to do a bouncy dance that would later become the signature move of the Slinky.

James spent the next two years perfecting a spiral that could replicate that “walk,” and enlisted his wife, Betty, to name it. She came up with Slinky after poring over a dictionary. “Sleek and sinuous in movement or outline,” the definition goes.

Sales were initially slow. But that changed in an instant when, in 1945, the Gimbels department store in Philadelphia let James demonstrate the Slinky during perhaps the best time of the year: the sweet spot between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

“They sold 400 of them in 90 minutes,” marvels Swaim, adding that the toy sold for a crisp $1 at the time.

Success followed — and then ebbed. By the 1960s, the company was beset with financial problems and was dealt another blow when James announced to Betty and their six children that he was moving to Bolivia to join a religious mission.

That is where it turns into a woman’s story, Swaim said.

Betty James, who also attended Penn State, took over running the company. She not only nursed it back to health; she led the charge on a marketing campaign that helped turn the Slinky into one of the landmark toys for a generation of kids — one with staying power, despite the growing popularity of battery-powered toys.

“It’s Slinky, it’s Slinky. It’s fun, it’s a wonderful toy,” went the catchy jingle on television commercials.

“She was a risk-taker,” said Swaim.

Betty James moved production to Hollidaysburg, outside Altoona in central Pennsylvania, where she had grown up. And when she sold the company in the 1990s, multiple accounts of the sale state that she required that production remain there.

Indeed, it is still there today. And the classic metal Slinky is still produced in Hollidaysburg, said Lauren Diani, senior marketing manager at Alex Brands, which now owns the Slinky — although a handful of other Slinky items, she said, are made in China.

The Slinky has been “made here in Hollidaysburg since 1964,” said Paul Luther, the plant’s general manager, who has worked for the company either as a contractor or an employee for nearly 40 years.

In an interview, Luther credited Betty James for that.

“She looked after people,” he said of James, who died at age 90 in 2008. “She took care of people.”

Swaim said he has spoken to several lawmakers over the last six years in efforts to persuade them to introduce a bill on the Slinky. Among the arguments he presents: They wouldn’t be charting new territory, just righting a historical wrong of failing to recognize the Slinky’s deep roots in the state.

Back in the early 2000s, several lawmakers pushed legislation to make the Slinky the state toy. One was former State Rep. Rick Geist, a Republican from Blair County whose district included Hollidaysburg and who recalled standing in the Capitol rotunda and launching Slinkys down the marble steps that lead to the House and Senate.

By then, the Slinky had been inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame, in Rochester, N.Y.

Geist said in an interview his colleagues liked the idea, but his bill never got a vote.

“Everybody just smiled and did nothing,” he said. “People think it’s frivolous to pass that kind of legislation.”

Yet, the legislature has passed numerous bills designating everything from a state game bird (the ruffed grouse) to a state steam locomotive (the Pennsylvania Railroad K4s), according to state records.

The Great Dane was named the state dog in 1965, the firefly was designated the state insect in 1974 (the legislature in 1988 even fine-tuned that to name a particular species of firefly, Photuris pennsylvanica), and milk was chosen as the state beverage in 1982. Phacops rana, a small water animal, has been the state fossil since 1988.

And just in the last legislative session, there was polite disagreement between the House and Senate over whether the Eastern hellbender — sometimes called a snot otter — or Wehrle’s salamander should be the state’s official amphibian. (The two sides never reached a meeting of the minds, and the effort died with the close of the legislature’s two-year session last month.)

Newly elected Sen. Judy Ward, a Republican from Blair County who said she admired Betty James growing up, said she is open to the idea of introducing legislation. But she thinks she would need to hit precisely the right timing to make it successful.

“I so appreciate his efforts,” Ward said of Swaim, recalling when he contacted her as she made her first successful run for office in 2014. “He has so much energy and he has such a passion and fascination with the Slinky. I’m grateful for him because he’s kept this alive.”

For Swaim, that means hope.

“An injustice was done by not passing a law,” said Swaim, who envisions the legislature recognizing one person or product every year as a way to market the state.

“We should be proud of Pennsylvania,” he said, “And one way to show that is to recognize its history and teach it to the kids.”

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