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Great Depression and World War II, 1929-1945
Art and Entertainment in the 1930s and 1940s
Perennial Contestant

When interviewed by the Federal Writers Project in 1939, Bill Martin was an accountant with a passion for an unusual form of entertainment - contests. The interview is from American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940 . Read the excerpts from Bill's interview below. What kinds of contests did he enter? What were his reasons for entering contests? Why might contests be popular during a depression?

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. . . Bill is the accountant for a large lumber company, but he lives, breathes, eats, sleeps, and dreams contests: soap contests, cigarette contests, soft drink contests, all contests. He is forever seeking the right word, the right combination of words, the words that will win the contest. And he is a winner, too! A cigar company has just given him an automobile for sending in some attractive "catch-words." He is always collecting box tops, labels, wrappers, miscellaneous things which must accompany contest entries. He keeps one ear constantly cocked to the radio , for a new contest may be announced any minute. . . .

"What got you started on contests, Bill?"

"I don't have the slightest idea, now. It was about 20 years ago, I believe, but I've been in so many I don't even remember what that first one was. I didn't win anything, though, I remember that. I guess that is what started me. I was disappointed at not winning, and when another contest came along, I suppose I said to myself, 'Well, let's see if you can win this one.' I didn't, though. I failed very consistently. I worked like the devil on some of them, too.

"I remember one in particular. It was sponsored by a newspaper. They had a large picture of an elephant, made up of hundreds of figures, large and small, and the idea was to determine 'the weight of the elephant' by adding up all of the figures in his picture. I think the first prize was $5,000, but in order to qualify for it, the contestant had to send in a certain number of subscriptions. A smaller number would only qualify you for a smaller prize, and so on down the line. As I remember it, if you sent in only one subscription, the most you could win was $500, or perhaps it was $100, I'm not sure. Anyhow, I naturally aimed at the top prize, and it kept me busy getting new subscribers. The picture puzzle was easy - too easy. I'll bet 1,000 people solved it. Those who did were sent a second puzzle, harder than the first, and quite a few were eliminated. The others had to work a still-harder puzzle, and it seemed like the damn thing was going on forever, getting harder each time. I lost out on the last puzzle, and didn't get a thing for several month's work. Well, I was more determined than ever to win a big contest, but I continued to lose. I got 'honorable mention' several times, but, no cash!

"I've written and sent in slogans for everything that's advertised, it seems like, and I've solved thousands of picture puzzles, and unscrambled millions of words. Now you have to give reasons for using something, and I've learned all the superlatives in the book. . . .

"Well, the first time I ever won anything in my life was just a few weeks ago, in a contest sponsored by a building and loan association. They wanted a slogan, and I gave them a good one: 'Save to build, and build to save.' Six other people sent in the same thing, though, and we had to have a run-off contest. Each of us had to write an essay, but the judges thought mine was the best, so I won the $100. Maybe you think I wasn't proud! After 20 years I turned in a winner! . . ."

"Does that end your career ad a contestant? You realized your ambition: you became a winner."

"No, indeed! I'm not quitting now. I'm just beginning. I lost for so long, now I'm going to win for a while!"
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Read the entire interview with Bill Martin from American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940. Use your browser's Back Button to return to this point.