How the Slinky played an important role in World War II

It’s a toy story. 

The new History Channel docuseries, “The Toys That Built America,” premiering Sunday (Nov. 29) at 9 p.m., uncovers the surprising history of iconic products such as the Slinky, Silly Putty, Matchbox cars, slingshots and board games (including Monopoly).

“Doing this through the lens of history is important because these American toys are so much a part of our history. You’re talking about toys and terminology that has entered into our lexicon as a culture,” sais Jordan Hembrough, 51, (“Toy Hunter”), a New Jersey-based toy expert featured on the show.

“People know what a Slinky is, and to really put a historical backstory behind a lot of these is to educate consumers about the history of their childhood.” 

Through re-enactments, the show reveals how the Slinky originated in the 1940s, when Naval engineer Richard James was tasked with creating a device to stabilize sensitive equipment that was being transported through rough seas during World War II. 

A man cradles a slinky in his hands.
A re-enactment scene from the show, showing an actor playing engineer Richard James developing the now famous slinky.

“These cargo ships were traveling across the ocean and they needed stabilizers, so that’s what the engineer Richard James tried to invent the Slinky for. But, when it didn’t work out, he was able to make up a toy,” said Hembrough. “I thought that whole backstory was really interesting.” 

Actors sit around a table playing a board game.
A re-enactment scene on the show depicts the origins of the board game Monopoly.

He also cited the super bounce ball as one of his favorite toys to dive into.  

“Everyone grew up with a little rubber ball. We all had one or more friends who had one,” he said. “It was invented in 1964 by a chemist [and] that’s a great backstory as well. I think the toys that are underrated are the ones we use so much that we don’t recognize how great they are.

“Believe it or not, my favorite toy was the simplest toy — the Frisbee — because growing up in the ’70s and early ’80s, they were all over the place. So that’s what I loved learning about, because it’s one of those toys that was in every house you went to.”

Hembrough himself got into the toy industry on a whim, when he was a teenager. 

“I started at 16 years old, buying and selling vintage retro toys. It was better than getting a paper route and the money was good. And I never stopped — I made a career out of it.”

Jordan Hembrough wears a leather jacket and smiles.
Toy expert. dealer, and TV host Jordan Hembrough
Jemal Countess

Ever since then, aside from hosting “Toy Hunter” for Travel Channel, he’s worked with companies such as Marvel and Lucasfilms, hosting digital series “Our Star Wars Stories” and hosting Disney’s 2019 D23 Expo. 

“I think a lot of adults are getting into toys right now. There’s a broader demographic,” he said. “Even toy juggernaut Lego is actually targeting their advertising campaigns towards adult collectors because they realize that adults are buying these really high- end Lego sets for $400 or $500.

“Hasbro has a very high line of ‘Star Wars’ toys that is targeted towards adult collectors. So really within the past 10 years, you’re seeing toy and comic collecting coming back into the mainstream because of the Lucasfilm and Star Wars and Marvel movies, and the incredible impact they’ve had on cinema.”

“Everyone had a childhood. We all had a favorite childhood toy, so this truly is a series that families can watch together and really talk about shared experiences,” Hembrough said. “Mom and dad can talk about their favorite toys with the kids. Toys are universal, so this will appeal to everyone.”