Santa Rosa probably looked like it was evacuated that spring. From houses with drawn curtains could be heard the ringing of unanswered telephones, I imagine, and screen doors were likely jammed with calling cards. Or maybe it looked like the town was under quarantine; those who couldn’t avoid going downtown to shop or work no doubt hurried as fast as possible, avoiding eye contact at all costs. Was there an outbreak of plague? A great natural disaster? A bank collapse? Nope; it was the Press Democrat’s Kline Kar Kontest of 1911.
Oh, it started off innocently enough, all sunshine and roses. It was just the “Press Democrat Popular Ladies’ Voting Contest” to build up newspaper circulation. Someone would win a nice prize. What could possibly be wrong with that?
Everything about the contest was unusual, starting with the prize. The lucky winner would take home a “Kline Kar” which was no cheap jalopy; it was a handmade, high-end roadster that was arguably the finest automobile sold in America at the time. Why, it was such a terrific car that young Hilliard Comstock purchased one and drove it back to Santa Rosa from Sausalito in high gear without destroying the engine (he apparently did not know how to use a gearshift) – an otherwise minor news story the PD featured on the front page because the contest had just launched.
Also quite unusual was that the contest was only open to “any woman (married or single) residing in Sonoma County.” In those days there were very few women drivers, much less women car owners; the only exception ever mentioned in the PD was the amazing Dorothy Farmer (think Farmer’s Lane) who bought a Packard in Los Angeles three years earlier and drove it all the way home on the rutty wagon trails that passed for roads. But this was also 1911, which was the year of the campaign for women’s suffrage in California and making the contest women-only could have been a nod towards bringing a bit more equitable balance to the roadways. Cynics might also wonder if eliminating men from the contest was a sexist gambit expecting the guys would help the gals “cheat.”
And make no mistake, it was certain to be a hard-fought contest. Newspapers were far more expensive than today, compared to the median household income in Santa Rosa. A subscription cost 50¢ a month, no discount for longer signups – that’s over twice the present relative cost to have the Press Democrat land on your doorstep every morning. Thus if Miss Newton convinced Uncle Charlie, a typical wage-earner, to subscribe to the PD for five years, he would be sending in nearly three weeks pay. Or once again, in modern terms: She was asking someone to write the Press Democrat a check for over $3,300 – quite the pricey commitment.
The contest was also set up to disguise the actual number of subscriptions and renewals. Signing up a new subscriber for three months gained you 500 votes; a five year signup was good for 25,000. Subscription renewals were good for half as many. There were bonus votes for enrolling in the contest early and there were promotions that awarded extra votes for longer subscriptions.
The sixty day contest began March 22 and the paper urged women to move fast: “Enlist the aid of your friends and neighbors in securing subscriptions and coupons for you,” read the instructions in the first ad, shown at right. “Keep ‘Central’ busy; use your telephone. Let everyone know that you are a candidate before they promise their help to someone else.”
Two weeks later, the newspaper turned up the heat; for the next seven days, subscriptions for a year or longer would be triple value – a five year commitment was now worth 75,000 votes. “No Greater Offer, Nor as Good an Offer as This Will be Given Again, Nor Will This Offer be Repeated,” the PD headline clamored. It was also when we were introduced to Mr. Contest Editor.
Over the next six weeks he cheered, encouraged, cajoled and bullied contestants into working harder. He was never named; we can’t even be sure he was a “he” although he sometimes referred to himself with male pronouns. From his snappy style it is apparent he was not a regular Press Democrat staffer. He was probably youngish, aspired to write the Great American Novel (or certain he already had) and believed he was 110 percent smarter than thou. I can picture him with his feet up on a desk, a straw boater tipped back on his head and chewing a stick of Juicy Fruit as he sarcastically read his latest contest advice to chortling newsboys.
His early columns sounded earnest and friendly: “The contest editor does not say what will be doing in votes after April 12, but this increase of votes will be changed and it will be surprisingly LOWER than it is now. Vote values will decrease from NOW on, they will never be higher; this the Press Democrat promises you…There are more than six weeks left until the close, and you could go over this whole county a dozen times before then.”
Nearly every day the Press Democrat printed portraits of the leaders along with their totals in the “Roll of Honor.” Mrs. Crone is out front on Wednesday; the next day it’s Miss Liggett of Third Street. The daily article about the contest sometimes had a sentence or two about each of them. Mrs. E. Crone: “If grit counts for anything, look out.” Miss Nellie Hansen of Sebastopol “bids fair to give her friendly opponents a merry chase.” Miss Doris Sullivan of Graton “is determined to represent that little town good and strong.” Mr. Contest Editor was proud of them all.
But after fifteen days, only four contestants had reached the 75,000 vote mark. It looked like there were no generous Uncle Charlies writing big checks to favorite nieces.
With the contest almost halfway around the track, it’s reasonable that Press Democrat editor Ernest Finley probably worried that it was starting to look like a flop, and the paper could even lose money on the promotion. And that was when the tone turned less cheery. The first hint of exasperation appeared: “It takes absolutely no experience to get subscriptions to the Press Democrat. It’s a staple article…so many people want the paper that they cannot be reached by an agent, and subscriptions by the hundreds are waiting all over the county for candidates to simply come and get them for the asking.” Goodbye peppy cheerleader, hello, angry sales manager. Let’s show some hustle out there, people!
The paper also launched new promotions. Despite the promise vote values will “never be higher” than the first promo, a limited offer was announced: For a few days, new bonuses would be awarded for subscriptions that could be bundled together into multiples of five years and the offer was retroactive to the previous Thursday (don’t even try to figure this out). Again Mr. Contest Editor promised: “Subscriptions will never be worth as many votes again.” Except three days after that promotion ended, there was another “big offer” increasing the base vote values for all subscriptions.
Obviously, there was some grumbling about these one-time-only deals that weren’t. Mister Contest Editor wanted it known this hurt his feelings:
|You know that the Contest Editor has kept his promise. You know that the Contest Editor will continue to keep his promises, and you know that the Press Democrat has never broken faith with any of its candidates both in the past and present. Heed the word and promises of the Contest Editor. He is your only counselor. If the Press Democrat had ever broken faith with any of its candidates it never would have inaugurated this contest.|
Aside from developing headaches and whiplash trying to follow the latest voting offers, the thirty women who were the most serious contenders must have been experiencing something like battle fatigue. Winning a deLuxe auto sounded like fun and the contest was fun at the start but after several weeks you’ve signed up everyone you know and everyone your friends know and now you dread getting up in the morning to spend another awful day of bothering people who don’t want to be bothered and already had been bothered by several of your competitors. It would also be natural if they felt despair; after two months of work, 29 of them would come away with…nothing. There was no second or third prize, no sales commission, no tote bag. Not even a complementary newspaper subscription.
The later columns by the Contest Editor address the women in the competition directly, and are more than a little creepy as he resorted to using shame as a motivation.
You are letting yourself down:
|Good merry contestants, here’s another chance. If in the past few days you have been dissatisfied with the efforts you have been making; if you think you have not done right by yourself and the ones who have stood by you for the past five weeks, here is an opportunity to make restitution and repent, an opportunity within a few days time to eclipse the vote of your closest rival, an opportunity to rid yourself of the anxiety of having enough votes to be assured of success. It is given as an opportunity to allow those a fair chance who were visited with illness last week. Several of the candidates, or their families, were under the weather.|
Your friends are letting you down:
|Now, candidates all–are you going to keep up this fierce struggle for all times until the end. Why don’t some one of you be the exceptional one. Do as the Contest Editor has been advising you to do for weeks. Get your friends in tow. Hand each and every one of them a receipt book and pledge them by their friendship to you to see that they all get a few subscriptions each. You have been trying it single handed for eight weeks. There is something the matter.|
You are letting the Contest Editor down:
|If there is any good reason why you can’t stay at the top, the Contest Editor would like to hear it. the Contest Editor would like to have a personal talk every day with every candidate in the race. That’s why he is writing to you every day through the Press Democrat. There are perhaps many candidates who will read these paragraphs, and that is all. Had the Contest Editor ever advised you in error you would have a good excuse not to consider every word that is written every day.|
The Contest Editor is disappointed and disgusted by you:
|Ask yourself this question: Have you heeded the advice of the Contest Editor from the beginning of this contest? In other words, have you kept busy, and will you keep busier than ever during the last three days of this contest? Of course, if you are satisfied with what you have and feel that you have all the votes you need, there is no reason in the world why you should exert yourself another moment.|
But finally it was over, and the winner was to be announced at 10PM on Saturday evening, May 20. The front page story the next morning – decidedly not written by Mr. Contest Editor – described what happened:
|…The mass of people that the contest editor predicted would witness the closing of the contest commenced to gather at 9:30 last evening and from that time on until 10 o’clock a steady stream of people worked their way into the Press Democrat office.
The loyal candidates with their representatives were all present, and the great throng became a guessing machine as to who would win. Patiently they waited until the town clock tolled 10 o’clock. The doors were promptly locked and all the candidates that were inside were given an opportunity to cast their last ballots…
…The candidates grouped themselves together while the count of votes were going on, chatted good naturedly and joked regarding their chances. They went into the race knowing that but one of them could win and were ready to abide by the decision of the ballots…
…The judges then pronounced the count correct and the throng held themselves spellbound for the name of the winner.
Mayor Edwards then called off the totals and pronounced Mrs. Ed Crone of Santa Rosa the winner of the big five-passenger Kline Touring Kar.
A cheer went up from the crowd and Mrs. Crone and all that could pile in to it went out of the Press Democrat doors with a jubilant “Honk-Honk.”
Boy, what a surprise! In the last published “Roll of Honor,” Mrs. Crone was back in fifth place, with 739,260 votes – and now she was the big winner with 3,143,660. Wait – huh? She had concealed millions of votes until the last minute? Apparently so, and likewise four other finalists had kept their cards close, ending with million-plus totals.
If Gentle Reader thinks there’s something fishy about those astronomical numbers, you have company. My first question is how these mountains of subscriptions were credited; did the judges apply whatever screwy vote multiplier happened to be in effect at the time of the subscription order? Could the judges have physically counted that many new paper ballots on a late Saturday night? And what was to prevent the contestants from backdating all her “reserve subscriptions” to the earliest days of the contest, when votes had the highest values? If I were someone like Lillian Norris – whose final count was only a realistic 13,000 votes above her last Roll of Honor tally – I’d have called foul.
Still, there was nothing suspicious about identity of the winner: Mary J. Crone was the 36 year-old wife of Edwin Crone, the manager of Santa Rosa’s three nickelodeon and vaudeville theaters. It’s doubtful anyone else in Sonoma County came into contact with so many people on a regular basis. (Your OBL Believe-it-or-not angle: Her brother-in-law, Raymond, later worked in Hollywood as the production manager for Orson Welles, Fred Astaire and others. Ed and Mary stayed around and ended up as chicken farmers south of town).
Although the event is now completely lost in history’s dust, the Kline Kar Kontest left a sizable impact crater. In its front page article on the results, the PD crowed, “without the slightest doubt the circulation of the Press Democrat is now the largest in any city North of the Bay Counties, and has a great deal more than double the circulation of any paper in Sonoma County.” And the greater the circulation, the more they could charge for ads, so the promotion went far to entrench the PD as the voice of “Imperial Sonoma.”
Thanks in great measure to the goadings of Mr. Contest Editor, the acrimonious contest no doubt left scars in the community, destroying friendships and straining family ties; I imagine it became one of those regrettable events one hopes relatives won’t bring up at reunions. But if you climbed into a time machine and went back to the 1920s or 1930s and asked Santa Rosans what they remembered about 1911, chances are they wouldn’t remember the suffrage vote (memory of it would have been eclipsed by passage of the 19th amendment) or Fred Wiseman’s flight from Petaluma to Santa Rosa (it wasn’t recognized as the historic first airmail delivery until much later). But they likely remembered it was the spring of the damn car contest, when the doorbell and telephone rang so often it left everyone a bit twitchy.