Sunday, May 20, 2018

The day Chicagoans stopped smiling during the 1921 Christmas Season.

A brief background about the competition between the Chicago Herald-Examiner and the Chicago Tribune newspapers:
The Chicago Herald-Examiner was William Randolph Hearst's Chicago newspaper. Its reporters were among the most aggressive and creative in the city. The paper was founded as the "Chicago Morning American" in 1902 and was renamed the "Chicago Examiner" in 1907. After a merger caused in part by circulation wars with the Tribune Company, the paper was combined with the Chicago Record-Herald and became the "Chicago Herald-Examiner." The paper was never highly profitable, but it vied with the Tribune as a leader in the city’s morning circulation. The rivalry with the Tribune became increasingly unsuccessful in the 1930s. After additional mergers, the paper was sold to the Tribune Company in 1956.

After WWI, the Chicago Herald-Examiner was Chicago's only other major daily morning newspaper, second only to McCormick-Patterson's Chicago Tribune. The Tribune Company faced formidable competition from Hearst. In the early 1920s, the Tribune Company owned only three U.S. newspapers. Hearst, on the other hand, spanned the country with an empire consisting of twenty daily papers, eleven Sunday papers, and a Sunday supplement. 

The circulation wars between the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Herald-Examiner grew heated and sometimes even violent as gangs hired by each of the circulation departments ambushed their rival's trucks and pressured newsagents into displaying only their own company's newspaper.

There were personal and political dimensions to this rivalry as well. The Chicago Herald-Examiner supported the democrats, the Chicago Tribune had a long history of supporting the Republican Party. Moreover, Hearst, who aspired unsuccessfully to be the mayor of New York City, governor of New York, and the president of the United States had contributed through attacks in his paper, to the demise of Robert McCormick's own political career.

Increasingly outlandish publicity stunts bounced circulation up and down and back and forth between the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Herald-Examiner. One of the most expensive promotions occurred during the 1921 Christmas season.

So, with the background covered, here is the story:
On December 4, 1921, the United States government ordered Chicago area citizens to stop smiling. It said so on the front page of the morning paper.
The saga began in late October of 1921 when the Chicago Herald-Examiner published an article about eccentric millionaire Harry Phillips. He was passing out money to complete strangers, just to see them smile.

The Chicago Herald-Examiner was the Hearst-owned morning daily. The paper was trying to overtake the Chicago Tribune, and the Phillips story was just the sort of stunt that Hearst often used.

Then the Chicago Herald-Examiner reported that Phillips had left town. But never fear—Hearst’s paper would carry on the philanthropy. Each weekday copy of the Chicago Herald-Examiner would now contain a Smile Coupon with a different serial number. On Sunday there would be a raffle, with a $1,000 grand prize. That would keep Chicago smiling!
The drawing took place on November 13th. The $1,000 winner was a Sears clerk—and sure enough, she smiled. So the Chicago Herald-Examiner announced it was putting $25,000 ($355,750 today) into a pot, to be paid out in $1,000 daily raffles.

At first, the Chicago Tribune took no notice of its rival’s stunt. But during the first weeks of the Smile campaign, the Hearst paper’s circulation jumped 25% to 500,000, about the same as the Chicago Tribune. And on Thanksgiving Day, the Chicago Herald-Examiner increased its pot to $100,000, with $3,000 in daily prizes.
So now the Chicago Tribune launched its own giveaway. With Christmas approaching, the paper would start printing Cheer Checks. And the Chicago Tribune‘s program would be bigger and better. The World’s Greatest Newspaper would be distributing $200,000 ($711,500 today) — $5,000 ($71,150 today) each day.

Now the whole city was caught up in the frenzy. News dealers reported people buying armloads of papers, ripping out the coupons, and tossing the rest into the street. Fights broke out among customers trying to purchase papers. The daily prizes went to $6,000, then $7,000. The special Sunday drawing reached $20,000 ($284,600 today).
By December 4th, the circulation of each paper was over 1,000,000. On that day, both the Chicago Herald-Examiner and the Chicago Tribune received telegrams from the U.S. Postmaster General accusing them of holding lotteries and shut the whole thing down.

From then on, people would have to find their own reasons to smile.

Compiled by Neil Gale, Ph.D. 


  1. I never knew about this. Thanks for providing the most interesting article I’ve read all weekend. This did make me smile.

  2. Reminds me of an OLD TV series were people were given a million dollars each week.


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