By Celia Caust-Ellenbogen
Have you seen the movie “The Prize-Winner of Defiance Ohio” ? It’s a really fantastic film, based on a memoir by Terry “Tuff” Ryan about how her mother helped support a family of 12 by winning jingle-writing contests. (Check out the trailer here.) I couldn’t stop thinking about it the whole time I was surveying the archival holdings of the Worcester Historical Society, because of the “Christine Shearer and Irma Schultz Scrapbooks” collection. Christine Shearer of Worcester, PA was quite as avid a contest-winner as Evelyn Ryan of Defiance, Ohio. And Christine Shearer made scrapbooks about it!
Christine Shearer, aka Mrs. Herbert B. Shearer, was born in 1884 and died in 1968. She was active in the local Ladies’ Aid Society, even serving as its president. She began entering jingle-writing contests in the 1930s, and as she wrote in a newspaper article in May of 1949, “since then I have been unable to resist the statement which says, ‘Finish this sentence in twenty-five words or less,’ and if I do so in rhyme I quite often win a prize.” Over the course of about 25 years, she entered and won an astonishing number of these jingle-writing contests. Her successes–and those of her friend Irma Schwartz–are chronicled in a series of three scrapbooks at the Worcester Historical Society.
Embedded in these scrapbooks are several fascinating narratives about the 1930’s-1950’s: consumer product inventions, changing marketing trends, the development of an advertising industry, and most interesting to me, the way women’s wide participation in these contests counteracts contemporary advertisers’ notions of women as passive consumers. As the cartoon above illustrates, Evelyn Ryan and Christine Shearer were not isolated phenomena–there was, at the time, a fully articulated stereotype of the “Contest Fiend,” of which Ryan and Shearer are examples.
I heartily encourage you to go to the Worcester Historical Society, where you can check out this collection as well as their other archival holdings, and a really fantastic museum on farming history. I love it so much, I even wrote a jingle about it!
To learn Worcester history,
There’s nowhere that I’d rather be!
A museum and archives, they’ve got it all.
I promise that you’ll have a ball!
That’s exactly 25 words. I’m waiting for my $1.00 prize to come in the mail.