The Big Payoff – The Great American Contest

Vintage ad for Old Dutch Cleanser contest woman holding money

The American Dream of striking it rich by taking a chance on chance has never been more evident than in the afterglow of Powerball fever.

That classic recipe for getting rich quick is one-handed down for generations, a potent mixture of good ol’ American optimism, a sprinkling of superstition, a dash or two of ignorance, seasoned liberally with magical thinking.

So You Want to Be a Millionaire?

vintage comics crow dreaming of money

As an ailing middle class watch’s the promise of the American Dream slip through their fingers, is  it any wonder the appeal of the big payoff promised by multi million dollar lotteries?

This game of chance feels like a chance of a lifetime

But the fun and games part obscures the more nefarious side of these ventures.

Lotteries exploit the desperation of the powerless who feel themselves at the mercy of forces they neither control nor understand.  How many number of genuinely poor people spend an astonishing percentage  of their scarce discretionary income in the lottery?

For millions of Americans stuck in various kinds of low-wage, no-benefit, dead-end employment, the infinitesimal chance of winning the lottery provides the only hope they have of changing their economic circumstances in a meaningful way.

Chance of A Lifetime

Vintage ad contest win money 1940s

Win $100 a month every month of your life ( or $20,000 cash lump sum. Don’t miss your big opportunity to win financial security…independence…freedom from money worries for the rest of your life. Vintage ad Spic ‘n Span Cleaner 1947

The promise of a new and better life has always been irresistible.

Who could resist a shortcut to the American Dream?

Before the state sponsored lotteries, corporate advertisers regularly sponsored contests offering spectacular prizes worth thousands of dollars.

But these sponsored contests didn’t rely on mere chance.

…In 25 Words or less

contest 39 crisco write slogan SWScan04188 - Copy

Unlike the no fuss, no muss, luck of the random draw lotteries, corporate sponsored  contests required  actual skill.

Participants, generally housewives, needed to rely on their wits, their writing skills, and originality. Whether the contest required the participant to finish a rhyming jingle, complete the last line of a limerick or offer glowing testimony on the sponsors product chance and luck appeared to take a backseat to true creativity. Evaluated by a team of “discerning” judges  the entries were chosen on sheer cleverness.

The Payoff 

In 25 words or less, a quick-witted homemaker waxing poetically about the virtues of the latest wash-day miracle  stood to move her family to easy street. Winners could be showered with a never-ending supply of luxury goods from appliances, swimming pools, mink coats, and cars to mobile home, boats and even oil wells.

Or a lifetime free of money worries.

American abundance illustration Wheaties Sweepstakes 1958

Wheaties Sweepstakes 1958


Contest 1948 Bendix

Bendix Washer Contest 1948 “Win a 12 day cruise to Hawaii for 2. First prize every week for 6 weeks during this thrilling contest. A big, beautiful 4 door sedan Hudson Sedan every week for 6 weeks. And that’s not all! TV sets , radios , famous name refrigerators big roomy with frozen food compartments, 10 4th prized electric ranges, 10 Simmons electronic blankets, 10 Cory automatic coffee brewers makes perfect coffee automatically, 25 toastmaster automatic pop up toasters, 10 General Mills Tru heat irons, and 15 Parker Vs Fountain pen and automatic pencil sets.



contest 59 ivory snow 59 SWScan05330

Ivory Snow Contest 1959


Vintage ad Duz Contest 1948

Vintage ad for New Duz Contest 1948

And unlike radio or TV game shows, anybody could play without ever leaving the comfort of your home.

A handwritten entry full of pep, perseverance and proof of purchase, along with a U.S. stamp to mail it were all that were required for the chance of a lifetime of abundance and security.

Hope in a Soap Box

economics worry money

During hard times when many had fallen off that track, promotional contests could be a life line.

Corporate sponsored contest began in earnest during the dark days of the Depression. Popularized by radio shows, these contests  offered  hope and practical, cash relief to a struggling population who needed money just to make ends meet.

Contests offered the hard-luck consumer the chance get back on track to  achieving the American Dream


Contest sponsored by Camay Soap and Oxydol Washing Soap illustration of family

Contest sponsored by Camay Soap and Oxydol Washing Soap

Free $30 in cash a week every week of your life! ( or $25,000 in one lump sum.)

The largest steady income ever offered in a contest of this type – because it’s sponsored by not one but 2 famous products. They have put in all their prize moneys to make this a truly sensational contest! Think of what you can win.

An assured income of $30 every week as long as you live – paid to you by the great Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance of Milwaukee.


A Hard  Knock Life …Until Opportunity Knocks


Vintage illustration of couple arguing But I thought we'd paid that

Unpaid bills kept folks awake nights and many a housewife’s days were filled with worry “Where, where am I going to get the money?”

Like many middle class housewives in the 1930’s  Faith Lowe felt she was falling.

Forced to economize, the Flatbush housewife  scrimped and saved.

“On $18 a week,” she lamented , “you have to shave corners if you’re going to make ends meet.”

She patched her families clothes and darned their socks.  Careful to conserve precious cooking gas by warming up several leftovers in a three-part Depression pot, she became a wiz at preparing budget conscious meals. Smart cookie, she stuck to her budget by steaming unused stamps off un-mailed letters and bought 25 watt bulbs to save electricity.

vintage illustration man writing at table

Despite all this, Faith  found it difficult to stretch her more often than not out of work and out of luck husband’s salary to cover all their expenses.

Just as most struggling  middle class families did,  Faith tried to shield the truth from her children but her 8-year-old daughter Helen absorbed it all.

She watched as her mother Faith suffered in silence, not unlike the long, self suffering heroines on the radio soap operas she so customarily enjoyed.

Happy Drains Are Here Again

Vintage illustration 1930s women doing laundry

Vintage illustration Rinso Soap 1934

It was just an ordinary Tuesday afternoon, but one that would be transformative in Faiths life.

Mired in melancholy, she straightened up with an extra groan and turned to the arduous task of washing the family laundry accompanied by her familiar air-wave companions with whom she vicariously navigated the emotional waters of joy and despair.

As she scrubbed the family clothes on the well-worn washboard,  her daughter Helen sat at the oil cloth-covered kitchen table and did her homework.

Brighter Days Ahead

Oxydol Contest 1937 ad

Oxydol Contest 1937 ad

Hands down, Faiths  favorite program was “Oxydol’s Own Ma Perkins,” lovingly known as America’s Mom, the sage widow  who had her share of tears and offered homespun philosophy to troubled souls in need of advice.

Ma Perkins,”  the announcer spoke over the familiar  organ music, “a woman like all housewives, whose problems are the same as those of thousands of other women of the world today. A woman who has spent her life taking care of her home washing and cleaning and cooking and taking care of the family.”

The baritone voiced announcer continued excitedly : “I want to tell you something that will be of vital interest to housewives  a remarkable new laundry soap making other products  out of date. Oxydol.

And now ladies,  here’s the most amazing contest of all time…because you have a  new chance each day for 30 days to win $1,000 cash!”

Faith straightened up from the steaming washtub and listened.  Here was a golden opportunity knocking right at her door!

Ad contest 1937cartoon figures Oxydall

The contest offer was as sparkling and glowing as the promise made by the laundry soap tempting her with a  life filled with less drudgery.

“Here’s all you do,” the announcer explained.  “Just complete this sentence ‘I like Oxdol for washing clothes because…’ Just finish the sentence in 25 words or less. It may win you a crisp, new $1,000 bill. Just enclose it with  is a box top from a package of Oxydol.

“And the requirements for the contest are so simple so easy that even a child can win!”

Or even a woman!

Knowing Faith was as clever as she was crafty when it came to writing, Helen encouraged her mother to enter. Imagine, they could be $1000 richer in just a few days.

“Don’t wait! Enter now, enter each day!” the  announcer implored . “Remember a brand new $1,000 bill given away each day for 30 days ! You can enter as often as you like and the very one you think isn’t good enough may be a prize winner

“Start now!”

Contests 1930s Oxydol

Oxydol Contests 1930s. “Here’s a golden opportunity knocking right at your door! Seven crisp new $100 bills given every day for 6 weeks. And $1,000 extra in cash every week ! Plus a $5,000 “Pot of Gold” as a giant Grand Prize at the carnivals close.”

Thumbing through the current issue of Good Housekeeping, Helen found the Oxydol contest advertisement, that along with the contest rules, offered helpful hints to the housewife

No flowery words”  Helen read aloud from the ad. “Fancy phrases do not count extra. Just  give your own honest opinion of Oxydol as you’d say it to a friend.”

“Remember,” the copy continued, “the judges will be impressed more by sincere phrases concerning what you think of Oxydol than by big words.”

Suddenly, watching her mother rubbing her red rough hands, it came to Helen  in a jiff.

A plain simple statement  as homespun as Ma Perkins herself. “I like Oxydol because it gets my clothes so nice and white and washing colored things bright and doesn’t make my hands red or rough.”

Happy Days Are Here Again

Vintage ad P&G Soap 1934 Husband Wife wshing dishes

Vintage ad P&G Soap 1934

The following week  when the winners were announced on the show, mother and daughter were  over the moon. Imagine ! Faith was  third prize winner of a crisp $100 bill.

Ma Perkins had made sure there were brighter days ahead for the Lowe family.

But Wait There’s More…

contest 38 Crisco grand prize

Crisco Contest winners 1938


vintage cartoon 1930s housewives

Gold Medal Flour Contest name a cake 1938


contest 39 crisco SWScan04188 - Copy

Crisco Slogan contest. $5000 in cash is top prize in each contest all in one lump! What a thrill! And a 1000 Sunbeam Mixmasters the pride of any kitchen each a $23.75 value.

It didn’t take long before  Faith and Helen were  hooked on entering contests of which there was no shortage.

Their days were a jumble of jingles, limericks and clever slogans, and these snappy skills honed at an early age would come in mighty handy when Helen ran a household of her own.

Fast Tracking the American Dream

Vintage illustration feather your nest

The end of WWII ushered in the  golden age of post war abundance leaving Americans with no restrictions on how much happiness we could buy. It also heralded  the golden age of advertising contests, offering a fast track to the consumer drenched American Dream.


contest 48 duz SWScan05128

Now  a suburban housewife with a family of her own,  Helen put her jingle writing skills to the test once again. Straddling  two  busy lives as a successful homemaker and useful civic leader when she was done with Goodwill she’d sit at her kitchen counter putting   pen to paper, entering as many contests as she could  to better her odds of  accelerating that American Dream.


Contest 1950s win Home

Studebaker Car Contest Win a Brand new home 1950s ‘

And that dream home was now to be filled with all sorts of new and sparkling consumer goods from televisions, percolators, and power tools, to stereos, station wagons, and freezers.

No longer mere cash incentives, contests  now offered consumer a cornucopia of consumer goodies.

Easy Living in the Cold War

Contest 1954 Birds Eye Easy Living

Easy Living Contest Birds Eye- Philco 1954 Vintage ad

Win Philco Home Freezers!

Just  tell in 25 words or less whats right about this picture, as far as you are concerned

Easy living tips to help you win! The key to this picture is  convenience and economy. Cooking in advance. Buying in quantity . Foods always on hand are just a few of the things right with this picture. There are many more. How many do you see?

Imagine- A Custom  Car

vintage ad contest 49 old dutch cleanser

“Imagine winning a custom Ford for a few minutes of your time. “Vintage ad Old Dutch Cleanser 1949

Imagine – Charge It Up

Contest win a charge account 1948

Swifts Cleanser 1948 ad. “Win a $5,000 paid up Charge account at your favorite department store. Just finish this jingle in one line to rhyme with the word free ‘Swifts Cleans faster/Its safe and grit free’

Imagine if you’re the winner in the great Swifts Cleanser contest –you can buy anything you like at your favorite department store.

Get a mink coat, beautiful furniture, outfit the family, redecorate your home.

Swift and Company  pays the bills. Think of walking into Marshal fields in Chicago or Hudsons in Detroit with $5,000 to spend.

Also 50 second prizes Bendix automatic washers,300 Westinghouse Electric roasters, and 300 GE automatic coffee makers.

Imagine- Have Money Flowing For Years

Contest 1955 Dial Oil well

Just finish the 2 line jingle starting with “I’m glad I use Dial” 1955 ad Dial Win an Oil Well Contest

Have money flowing in for years! Imagine becoming rich overnight! 6 weekly contests. 1,236 cash prizes and an Oil well as grand prize all for winning jingles on Dial soap. Enter often

Grand Prize Full operating income of a producing oil well ( subject to usual farmers royalty) Independent petroleum engineer estimates winners first years income at $12,000 gradually less yearly income for as long as 10 to 20 years. Total may eventually run as high as $35,00.


Contest Morrell sweepstakes

Perfect for the suburban commuter “His and Her Planes” Vintage ad Contest Morrell Meats,

Win Some… Lose Some


Win Your weight in Gold" Dial Soap Contest 1958

“Win Your weight in Gold” Dial Soap Contest 1958

Win cash equivalent of your weight.

Check the chart and see how much you’re worth in solid gold. That’s the amount you win in cold cash in gold no mater how much you weigh.

contest 58 Libby slim down ad

Libby’s slim down sweepstakes 1958 vintage ad

Win a lovelier figure! Prizes include all  expense trip to Paris for 2 and Paris originals and 151 complete course in famous slenderella salons.

Just finish this statement  I would like to win a slenderella course because…..

There was little Helen wouldn’t do to win. She might pack on the pounds to win her weight in gold  one week, and starve herself the next to win the Libby’s slim down sweepstake.

You Owe It To Yourself  A Fresh Start

economy saving SWScan05900

Like most post war vets and their wives Helen and her husband Tom grabbed for the good life with gusto.

They wanted everything at once – the house, car, children and automatic  washing machine.  It was a new colorful world of unparalleled ease , the most wished for never before things, things that would make you proud of your choices and the envy of others.

But like lots of Americans who went on a buying binge, Helen brought things on credit.

For many the path to the American Dream was paved on the installment plan.

Out of Debt

Buying  all that it took to participate the American dream put Americans deep in debt. The new post war breadwinner now joined that new breed of post war consumer – owing more than you had.

Being in debt was  the new American Way.

Advertising contests  now spoke directly to the new American dream – paying off your debts and giving you a fresh start.

Contest 58 Frenchs mustard debt paid 58 SWScan05357

French’s Mustard Fresh Start  1958


Win French’s Fresh Start first , prize your debts paid plus $10,000 nest egg. Plus current bills for fuel food utilities and clothing up to a maximum of $30,000

Out of debt, cash in the bank.

Make all your dreams come true! Win French’s Fresh start Contest and free yourself from money worries! These are only some of the debts covered: home mortgage, property taxes! Time payments for automobiles, and appliances, and furniture. Medical and dental bills! In 25 words or less tell which one you like the best and give reasons for it.


contests sweetheart soap pay debts

Sweet heart Soap 1958 ad.  The Most exciting contest of all time. First prize every cent you owe will be paid in full up to $25,000 on all your personal debts of record that are unpaid as of Sept. 1958. You can apply against mortgage loans, lease, car payments, home improvements, installment payments furniture, appliances, medical bills and taxes.

Sweetheart Soap will pay all your debts

We’ll pay your mortgage, your car loan, your installment payments in full!

Imagine the relief, the peace of mind the wonderful feeling of not owing a single cent to anyone! Think of being able to use your paycheck for the things you want instead  of having to split it up a dozen ways to pay overdue bills!

Imagine being able to put money in the bank, insure the children’s education buy new furniture, improve your home, take that long postponed vacation! A chance like this may never come again.

Easy to enter just complete this sentence in 25 words or less “I want Sweet Heart Soap to Pay my debts because…”

Getting out of debt…the new American Dream!

© Sally Edelstein and Envisioning The American Dream, 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Sally Edelstein and Envisioning The American Dream with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.



  1. I did win $1,750 once in a TX lottery and stopped playing after that. I bought a great London Fog topcoat and a new fax machine! Ha, weren’t the ’80s just great?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Susan

    Another wonderful post! I notice that the Oxydol contest (and perhaps other contests’ fine print) required a purchase — “Just enclose (your entry) with a box top from Oxydol.” That’s no longer legal (“No purchase required….”)
    But there is now — in my opinion — discrimination against those who can’t afford to play or do business online. For example, a ticket for the current grocery & drugstore “Monopoly” game often gives the player four game stamps and a 12 digit “online game code.” If you have online access, you can enter it for free and try to win additional prizes. If you don’t have online access, you can enter it by mail, “one entry per envelope.” So far I’ve entered over 100 game codes, via my computer. If I couldn’t afford internet access, I certainly couldn’t afford the $49 in stamps and envelopes…. (And yes, one could take a stack of Monopoly tickets to the public library and use its computer access, if one lives in a place that provides that service….)
    Poor people are also expected to use public computers to file their taxes and apply for health coverage — exposing their confidential information to connections that we are warned are insecure. The widespread assumption that “everyone” is now online is made by people who don’t have to choose between paying their heating bill or their water bill. Will Rogers once quoted an American president who said, “Everyone I know is doing well.” Exactly…. Everyone a rich man knew.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I don’t think “The American Way” post-1945 to present day could have been graphically summed up any better Sally. This also adequately shows the power of American marketing: “more money” equals more happiness. “More stuff” equals more happiness. “The right stuff” equals the right body! “More debt” equals more dreams coming true! More, more, more, ad nauseam!

    Ahh, the epitomy of insatiable capitalism, free-enterprise, rent-seeking, impulse-buying, all at the expense of intrinsic values. Plain and simple, there are many other things in life for a person that money and possessions will never fulfill. In the words of Albert Einstein…

    Strive not to be a success, but rather to be of value.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Using these contests as a metaphor for our consumer culture, it was startling to see just how perfectly they fit the trajectory of post war America’s escalation of consumerism, and the ultimate cost of trying to achieve that – being up to your neck in debt.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Exactly Sally. I’ve noticed family and friends who, though doing extremely well earning rich wages or creating a business or corporation and benefitting from its profits, fall into the trap of needing more money to PROTECT their attained wealth, and needing more TIME to secure/protect those acquired assets (or debts), ad infinitum. When does it stop? When should it stop? Furthermore, is it ethically good or wise to hand over excessive amounts of wealth and possessions to descendants — who did little or nothing to create it — giving in a sense a Free Meal Pass (for life?) along the lines of Donald (t)Rump? Hmmmmmm.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Better read the fine print. It says, “Do not pass go. Go directly to jail. If you don’t pay the taxes on your winnings.”

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Henry

    You’re tapping into my American Dream…having an oil well in my front yard.


  6. Don’t people know by now that the ‘House’ always wins? That’s with casino’s, lotteries and elections! Yep, there’s always hope.

    [I have lots of sarcasm.] 😉


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