Top 25 "It" products of all time: #22 -- The Slinky
There's a dollhouse that, if it were a real house, could be boarded up since nobody seems to live there any longer, and scattered game pieces are--well, scattered. But my daughters still pull out their Slinkys every other day or so, it seems. They were afterthoughts last Christmas, just two simple, cheap toys that I bought--er, Santa brought--and stuffed into the stockings over the fireplace.
They loved that springy, wiry toy that, if you drop it down the stairs, will "walk" all the way down.
Two days after Christmas, my four-year-old had mangled hers, and I had to go right out and buy a replacement, which I was happy to do, since they're so inexpensive. Over 60 years after the debut of Slinky, you can still buy one for just four or five bucks, and I've seen them on the Internet as cheap as $2. Back in 1945--the year the Slinky debuted--it cost $1. It's one of America's few recession-friendly, economical toys.
According to a recent Los Angeles Times article, 300 million Slinky toys have been sold since inventor Richard James introduced them to the United States. As has often been recounted, the Slinky came about because James was trying to design a way to use springs to protect fragile ship instruments from shocks and vibrations. The U.S. Navy never adopted James' idea, but after World War II, he started eyeing his spring as a possible toy.
From the moment the toy came about, it was a hit. Richard and his wife Betty took their toy to a department store and sold 400 of the toys in 90 minutes. As Ms. James told CNN.com in 2001, "A Slinky just sitting there isn't very exciting. It has to move. If it hadn't been for Gimbels giving us the end of a counter to demonstrate, I don't know what would have happened."
During Ms. James' lifetime, she saw the Slinky become a cultural icon. Slinky spin-offs came--the Slinky, Jr., the Slinky Dog, among other things. It was featured on a stamp in 1999. It's been poked fun of on late night television (Jay Leno once said it's the only toy that encourages kids to play on the stairs), and the Slinky Dog is a co-star in the Toy Story movies. Children, particularly those growing up on Saturday morning cartoons during the 1960s, 70s and 80s, grew to love the theme song:
Everyone knows it's Slinky,
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.
It's Slinky, it's Slnky,
For fun, it's a wonderful toy,
It's Slinky, it's Slinky,
It's fun for a girl and a boy
It's fun for a girl and a boy.
And there seems to be no reason to think that children 50 or 100 years from now won't be enjoying the Slinky. The Slinky Dog will, I assume, make an appearance in Toy Story 3, set for release in 2010, and there's even been talk recently of putting together a musical based on Betty James' life and the Slinky. But mostly, the Slinky will probably endure for the reasons Ms. James gave the Associated Press in 1995: "I think, really, it's the simplicity of it. There's nothing to wind up; it doesn't take batteries. I think also the price helps. More children can play with it than a $40 or $60 toy."
Geoff Williams is a freelance journalist and the author of C.C. Pyle's Amazing Foot Race: The True Story of the 1928 Coast-to-Coast Run Across America (Rodale).