NOTE: Unless noted, All photos of Shmoo Lures and catalogs provided by Chris Labuz.
In upstate New York, Richard Balch, director of one of the largest tackle manufacturers in the country, got caught up in Shmoomania like everyone else. Unlike most, however, Balch had an idea, and that idea would morph into one of the neatest fishing lures of the post-World War II era: The Shmoo.
There has been some speculation over who actually manufactured the Shmoo--various sources state either the Shurkatch Company of New York or an unknown maker. We can conclusively put the rumors to rest. We get a great glimpse at the manufacturer of the "Shmoo" bait in an article in the Utica Daily Press dated 01 August 1950. Entitled "Salesman Attend 3-Day Meeting of Local Firm," it covered the annual meeting of the approximately 50 salesmen of the Horrocks-Ibbotson Company of Utica, New York. As the article declared:
The conference, featuring the presentation of the company's new lines, opened yesterday morning and will continue through tomorrow. The 1951 line, President Richard H. Balch said, include new split bamboo rods, tubular and solid fibre glass casting and fly rods, and improved models of fishing reels. The exhibit of the company's complete [line of manufactured] products includes for the first time the new Robatrola automatic trolling device and "Shmoo" bait plugs.
So we know that Balch--a very important figure in the history of American fishing tackle and the son-in-law and successor to Edward D. Ibbotson--and his company were both the manufacturers and sellers of the Shmoo Plug Bait. They also, by the way, purchased Shurkatch as well.
The Shmoo bait was a neat idea. Clearly, like all Shmoo products, H-I paid a royalty for use of the L'il Abner figures directly to Al Capp. Capp himself was one of the pioneers of licensing and merchandising for cartoon figures. In a successful $14 million lawsuit against King Features Syndicate in 1947, he wrested control over his creations and thus benefitted financially from its merchandising, unlike so many other less fortunate cartoonists.
The lure itself first appears in the 1950 Horrocks-Ibbotson catalog.
The Shmoo certainly has abundant collector appeal. The box is an outstanding pictorial two-piece cardboard item with the modern cellophane cut out window. Festooning the side are pictures drawn by Al Capp for the lure, including one of the Shmoo fishing, and another showing L'il Abner and a suitably tressed blonde declaring "The Shmoo Plug Bait kin ketch anythin' 'cept L'il Abner." This of course references L'il Abner's legendary ability to avoid the alter in Dogpatch, Kentucky.
The only problem with H-I's Shmoo Plug Bait is the timing. Certainly conceived in early 1949, when Shmoo mania swept America, the time table for producing a new lure was certainly a full year, which explains why the Shmoo hit the stores only in the spring of 1950. The problem is, this was almost two years from when the character was introduced, and the mania over the Shmoo had certainly waned by this point. Oversaturation and the fact that the Shmoo was conceived only as a short-term character (its final appearance was on 20 December 1948) meant that, like most fads, Shmoomania was short-lived.
The Shmoo was always a collectable bait, as is almost all Shmoo items, but particularly after the great Ted Williams Upper Deck commercial of 1992, prices for the Shmoo skyrocketed. It is, after all, one of the few examples of cross-over promotion between fishing lures and comics (but not the only--we'll profile another similar lure with a comic tie-in in the near future). It was introduced in 1950 and had disappeard by 1952 from the H-I catalogs.
My thanks to Chris Labuz for pushing me to write this piece, and for providing information on the endearing and classic Shmoo. Thanks also to Gary Paschal for sending the neat Shmoo one-sheet.
-- Dr. Todd