While working on a detailed taxonomy of Montague fishing reels, L.P. Brooks, James Garrett and myself often discussed a conundrum that has probably come up several times in your reel collecting experience: why do identical fishing reels have different yardage markings on the foot? We found numerous examples of Montague-made reels with this phenomenon, something also found on reels made by Montague's great trade reel rival, A.B. Hendryx.
Long discussions derived several theories but nothing substantiated. We posited that perhaps reel makers were somewhat lax in their inventory, and if they had extra orders for 60-yard reels, for example, but only had identical reel feet marked "80 Yards" in stock then they would be tempted to put the later foot on the 60-yard reel and mail it out. This theory is based in part on the well-known cannibalistic habits of tackle companies; G.M. Skinner was noted for farming out orders to other New York tackle companies, and lure and reel boxes are often found with new labels stuck over old ones. And it was not just tackle companies that were stingy with a buck; when Savage Arms bought out the A.H. Fox Gun Company in 1930, for several years thereafter they mailed out stock catalogs with a Savage sticker over the Fox Co. logo.
Tackle companies were also known for using up the stock of any company they might have bought out or merged with, creating hybrid or “transition” reels or lures. Examples of these include Howe/South Bend Vacuum Baits and Enterprise Manufacturing Co./E.A. Pflueger spinners.
Such a theory is certainly not out of the pale of possibility. However, the sheer number of identical examples that show up with different reel feet mitigate against this hypothesis. A different theory we posited had to do with the possibility that the fishing lines changed, affecting the yardage markings on standard reels. A more persuasive theory than the first option, but difficult to prove. Until, however, I found a fascinating vignette in a 1909 Marshall-Wells Catalog (dated June 1, 1908), kindly provided to me by Otto Bishop. The following article preceded the section on Marshall-Wells fishing reels:
How Much Line will a Reel Hold?
A reel will hold more Raw Silk, or Pliable Line Similar to it, then Oiled Silk or Hard, Stiff Line. A Multiplying Reel will hold more than a Single Action Reel of the same Nominal Capacity, that is, if a 60-yard Multiplying Reel holds 60 yards, then the same make Single Action Reel will hold about 40 yards. The explanation for this is that a Multiplying Reel is made wider than a Single Action Reel of the same diameter of plate, and will hold about one-quarter more Line. An Oiled Silk or Enameled Line will take up about one-fifth more room than a softer or more pliable line.
Clearly, even in 1909 there was sufficient confusion about yardage markings to warrant an introduction such as this. Raw silk lines were rapidly being replaced by the likes of the larger-diameter enameled silk lines, changing the yardage capacity of the very same reels. Enameled silk line, pioneered by Elisha J. Martin of Kingfisher Fishing Line fame in the 1880s, had become the standard fishing line in the country by the turn of the century. By the time the 1909 Marshall-Wells catalog reached its market, the days of the raw silk line as a baitcasting option were increasingly numbered. By 1920, almost all standard casting lines available in trade catalogs were either enameled silk or braided silk line, both larger-diameter lines requiring larger capacity reel spools for the same amount of line.
Thus, due to the prevalence of larger lines, the old 60-yard multiplying model had become an antiquated 40-yard baitcasting reel. Further evidence of this change comes in the fact that standard baitcasting sizes in the era before World War I (1914) were 60 and 80 yard models; by 1920 this had changed to 80 and 100 yard models although the reels apparently did not change (except for different yardage markings on the foot). The advent of popular level-wind mechanisms in the 1920s inaugurated the era of the "true" 100-yard baitcaster—larger reels with an actual 100-yard capacity, or according to the Marshall-Wells equation the equivalent of a 120-yard spool of pliable silk line in the olden days.
Perhaps this is not the only reason why the same exact reels show up with different yardage markings on the foot, but Ockham's Razor argues that the simplest explanation is usually correct. The more literary-minded may recall Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, who noted that when one eliminates the impossible, whatever remains—no matter how improbable—must be the truth. My personal theory I like to call “Sherlock’s Razor”: when you find yourself thinking too much about things like this, forget about it and go buy another reel.
Dr. Larson would like to thank Otto Bishop for providing a copy of the 1909 Marshall-Wells catalog, and L.P. Brooks and J.K. Garrett for many hours of discussion on the subject. Part II of this discussion will be posted a week from today.