By ANGELA COULOUMBIS The Philadelphia Inquirer
HARRISBURG (AP) — 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 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.