Al Capp was already world-famous and a millionaire in
1948 when he introduced an armless pear-shaped character called
the Shmoo into his daily "Li'l Abner" strip.
The unusual creature loved humans. A Shmoo laid eggs and bottles
of Grade A milk in an instant, and would gladly die and change
itself into a sizzling steak if its owner merely looked
at it hungrily. Its skin was fine leather, its eyes made perfect
buttons and even its whiskers made excellent toothpicks. Shmoos
multiplied much faster than rabbits, so owning a pair of Shmoos
meant that any family was self-sufficient. Of course the Shmoos
proved too good for humanity's sake and therein was the
basis for Capp's ultimate (and tragic) satire. But a remarkable
phenomenon occurred during the telling of his tale.
Virtually overnight, -as a LIFE
magazine headline put it- the "U.S. Becomes Shmoo-struck!"
The character's remarkable success catapulted Capp to an all-new
level of wealth and fame. It is difficult, fifty years later,
to convey to new generations the profound impact the lovable
Shmoo had on American culture. The following facts may help .
Close to one hundred licensed
Shmoo products from seventy-five different manufacturers
were produced in less than a year, some of which sold five
million units each. (Sources: Newsweek 9-5-49 and
Editor & Publisher 7-16-49)
The Shmoo was an unprecedented media and merchandise phenomenon (1948-52). America went Shmoo-crazy. There had
never previously been anything like it. Comparisons to contemporary
cultural phenomena are inevitable. But modern crazes are almost
always due to massive marketing campaigns by large media corporations,
and are generally aimed at the youth market. The Shmoo phenomenon
arose immediately, spontaneously and solely from cartoonist Al
Capp's daily comic strip (something that simply wouldn't happen
today) and it appealed widely to Americans of all ages.
Forty million people read
the original 1948 Shmoo story (combined circulation of the 500+
daily newspapers carrying "Li'l Abner"). And Capp's
already considerable readership roughly doubled
following the overwhelming success of the Shmoo.
Unprecedented serious attention.
When Simon & Shuster published The Life & Times of
The Shmoo in 1948, it was reviewed coast to coast alongside
Dwight Eisenhower's Crusade in Europe (the other big book
at that moment in time). The S&S Shmoo collection
was the first cartoon book to achieve serious literary attention.
Simon & Shuster sold
700,000 copies of its Life & Times of the Shmoo
in the first year of publication alone, an undisputed best seller.
Berlin Airlift. Shmoos were
air-dropped to hungry Berliners by America's 17th
Military Airport Squadron during the Soviet Union's tense blockade
of West Berlin in 1948. "When the candy-chocked Shmoos were
dropped a near-riot resulted." Newsweek 9-5-49
Time cover. The Shmoos and
Capp made the cover of Time magazine (11-6-50).
They also garnered nearly a full page (under "Economics")
in the 8-13-48 International section of Time and Time's
"The Press" section on 5-23-49. Similar major articles
ran in Newsweek, Life, New Republic and countless
other publications and newspapers.
Shmoos invade the Presidential
election. During the 1948 Presidential campaign, Republican
challenger Thomas E. Dewey accused incumbent Harry
S. Truman of "promising everything including the Shmoo!"
(Reported in Newsweek 9-5-48).
A Shmoo Savings Bond was
issued by the U.S. Treasury Department in 1949! The valid document
was colorfully illustrated with Capp's character, and promoted
by the U.S. Government with a $16 million dollar multimedia advertising
budget. Al Capp accompanied President Truman at the bond's unveiling
During its first year Shmoo merchandise
generated over $25,000,000 in sales (in 1948
The Shmoo continues to garner attention
and prove collectible more than a half century after its debut.
In the past two years alone a book from Overlook Press has been
published in hard and softcover, Dark Horse Comics has produced
a new Shmoo statue, button and collectible tin. Articles on the
Shmoo have appeared in Pages (10-02), Toy Stories 2003 Annual,
Salon.com, newsarama.com and elsewhere. Russian "nesting"
Shmoos, a soft vinyl Shmoo, and a desktop CD featuring all-new
Shmoo animation are in the works for the coming year.
-Denis Kitchen, © 2004