Wednesday, September 10, 2008

The Shmoo Part I

The Shmoo Part I:

Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About the Schmoo But Were Afraid to Ask

by Dr. Todd E.A. Larson
© 2008


On August 31, 1948, cartoonist Al Capp added a strange new character to his popular nationally syndicated cartoon L'il Abner, itself already nearly fifteen years old and enormously popular. An amorphous blob sometimes called a "bowling pin with legs," the Shmoo as it was called immediately became a national sensation.

One of the oddest characters in the history of an odd business, the Shmoo was basically a being created to serve man in all his needs. If a character was hungry, the Shmoo gladly killed itself so that the human master could eat. As a political editorial pointed out a year later (referenced later in the article):

[The Shmoo] is a remarkably amiable creation, the non-existent shmoo delights to serve humanity's wants. Versatile enough to give milk, eggs and butter, all packaged, when fried the shmoo tastes like chicken, when broiled it tastes like steak, when roasted it tastes like pork, and when baked it tastes like catfish.

A very early Shmoo cartoon by Al Capp, dated 10 September 1948. Note the baby Shmoo dies in ecstasy as soon as the character gets hungry.

The basic story of the Shmoo dominated the comic strip for several months; obviously, the benefits to mankind were unbelievable, but at what cost? This is the issue Capp explored in his comic. L'il Abner discovers the Valley of the Shmoon by accident, but when word of his discovery leaks out, it causes a massive economic panic as humans can use the Schmoo for almost any available need--from coat buttons to building materials. The Shmoo morphs into basically whatever humans need.

In a strange and deeply allegorical story line, the U.S. Government discovers L'il Abner's Shmoos and systematically sets out to exterminate them, literally sending out teams of Shmoo death squads to eliminate them as L'il Abner watches in helpless shock. The story line ends when it is discovered L'il Abner has saved a boy and a girl Shmoo (although why one of each sex is needed is unclear, as they are said to reproduce asexually) and they are last seen in company with their children returning to the hidden Valley of the Shmoon.

All of this was MASSIVELY popular, both as a commentary on the state of society, as well as a classic Utopian tale and an allegory of greed and corruption tarnishing all that is good and innocent in the world. As cartoonist Dennis Kitchen wrote in 2003:

After it came out both the left and the right attacked the shmoo. Communists thought he was making fun of socialism and Marxism. The right wing thought he was making fun of capitalism and the American way. Capp caught flak from both sides. For him it was an apolitical morality tale about human nature... I think [the shmoo] was one of those bursts of genius.

The Shmoo indeed spawned a media sensation. It was so popular that literally overnight merchandise bearing its picture and name came to dominate five-and-dime and department stores; everything from Shmoo ear muffs to Shmoo drinking glasses soon hit the market.

The Shmoo was so popular it even replaced Walt Disney's Mickey Mouse as the face of the children's savings bond for the U.S. Treasury in 1949. According to one article at the time, the Shmoo showed "thrift, loyalty, trust, duty, truth, and comment cents [that] add up to aid to his nation."

College students--who had flocked to Al Capp's cartoon as far back as the mid-1930s and who made his invented idea of a "Sadie Hawkins Dance" universally adopted--flocked to the Shmoo as well. One school--Bridgeport University--even launched the "American Society for the Advancement of the Shmoo" in early 1949.

But it wasn't just college kids who were enamored with Shmoomania. The Shmoo even made it into political parlance; in an editorial in The Winona Republican Herald, Gordon R. Closway used the Shmoo to describe what he considered the current state of American politics:

People who follow the comic strips, and it seems that most of us do, know the "shmoo." This remarkably beneficent and friendly little animal appears with Li'l Abner in the strip drawn by Al Capp.

A remarkably amiable creation, the non-existent shmoo delights to serve humanity's wants....Mr. Capp could have invented the idea of the shmoo from a study of political history. Indeed, he would not have needed to have looked into history, but only to have read the news of the times.

The Welfare State—in which government assumes responsibility for these various aspects of individual welfare—might well be called the Shmoo State.

The term would be apt if for no other reason than because "there ain't no such ani- mal." The shmoo exists on paper. The government that takes care of everything for everybody exists only in fancy, or only temporarily, simply because the thing cannot be done. There always comes a wreck.

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.

(Tomorrow: the Shmoo Plug Bait in all its glory).

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