Playthings were serious business for Helen Malsed. The Magnolia housewife reportedly banked upwards of $1 million in royalties for the more than two dozen toys and games she created. Well, maybe not banked. “I’d get checks for $50,000 and just spend the money,” she told The Seattle Times in 1983.
Not all on herself. Malsed, who died in 1998 after a series of strokes, wasn’t just an insatiably curious tinkerer who read both Seattle newspapers daily; she was as selfless as she was ingenious.
When her son, Rick, was a boy, he suffered from illnesses that left him confined to their house for a few months. “Mom stayed close by and created a multitude of distractions to entertain me, to overcome the isolation and darkened house,” Rick wrote in a column for the Magnolia News after her death.
One Christmas, he got a Slinky. The coiled spring developed by a marine engineer would somersault down the stairs, but Rick wondered how it would move if it had wheels. His father swiftly headed for the basement to attach some. Helen snagged a string from a window to tug the new contraption around. Later, she’d add plastic heads and tails of different creatures—a hippo, a caterpillar, a dog—to it.
In the early 1950s, she sold the Slinky Dog to James Industries, a Pennsylvania company that would have to expand its production facility time and time again to accommodate the sudden demand for the wiggling figure. Toy Story’s Slinky Dog character inspired another sales bonanza in the mid-’90s.
Malsed wasn’t done inventing. She licensed Snap-Lock Beads, a plastic, infant-safe descendant of beaded bracelets and necklaces, to Fisher-Price a handful of years later. But the Slinky Dog would forever be her cash cow—and a welcome distraction for kids around the world.