Local newspaper movie contests and the creation of the first movie fans

Jessica Leonora Whitehead

York University, Toronto, Ontario, Canada

[0.1] Abstract—This article explores the advent of local newspaper movie contests in the 1910s and how these contests helped to create active movie fans. Such contests increased the popularity of the new medium of film by engaging local audiences in the process of filmmaking, including fans as scriptwriters and even stars. They helped to transform film into a dominant cultural practice by creating local spaces for film patrons to become part of the national pastime of going to the show. They did so by appealing directly to female spectators, who both legitimized going to the movies and created dynamic film fan communities.

[0.2] Keywords—Digital archives; Female fandom; Historical fandom; Silent film fandom

Whitehead, Jessica Leonora. 2016. "Local Newspaper Movie Contests and the Creation of the First Movie Fans." Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 22.

1. Introduction

[1.1] On May 12, 1915, a headline in the Lima Daily News read, "Who Will Be Ruth?: Question Put to Women Readers" (figure 1). This same headline was repeated in several newspapers and towns across the United States from 1915 to 1918, announcing a traveling film contest developed by itinerant film exhibitor and producer Basil McHenry. The contest was created to cast a film called The Man Haters, which was filmed in over twenty locations using local casts. In each city where the contest was held, McHenry partnered with one local newspaper and one local theater to help promote and finance the contest and eventual film. The "Man Haters" contest was not unique; rather, it was only one of several contests that were announced in American newspapers in the early 20th century and intended to promote local engagement with film. Newspapers, theater owners, and film producers helped to create an active audience with these contests, which, in turn, helped to create the first film fans. Movie contests encouraged participation in the act of going to the show and even in producing amateur films in the prestudio era.

Transcription: "Who Will Be Ruth?: Question Put to Women Readers. Lima Daily News To Determine Heroine of Photo-Play in Which Every Scene in the Picture Will Have Places in Lima For Its Background"

Figure 1. Screenshot of Lima Daily News, May 12, 1915, with headline "Who Will Be Ruth? Question Put to Women Readers" indicating the start of the "Man Haters" contest. [View larger image.]

[1.2] In the 1910s, newspapers across America began to create film-related contests that often targeted the female audience. The gendered dynamic of early movie fandom gave women agency before they had attained a national right to vote. Early movie contests solicited women's participation by having them both create and star in local films. By the 1920s, film contests had become a staple of American fan magazines such as Motion Picture Magazine, which famously discovered silent film star Clara Bow with the "Fame and Fortune Contest" of 1921; however, before these larger nationalized contests there were local versions that promised to make small-town girls stars. Contests ran in large cities such as Pittsburgh and smaller cities such as Lima, Ohio, with the similar intention of involving fans in the moviemaking industry.

[1.3] The first movie contests coincided with the transformation of film from a cheap amusement to America's first mass medium during the second decade of the 20th century. The earliest contest I found began in 1911, and the latest ended in 1918. The years between 1908 and 1917, which overlap this period, are often referred to in historical film studies as the transitional era. This era saw radical changes in the technology of filmmaking, audience demographics, the types of films made, and the development of an organized industry. The cultural changes that came with the transitional era were particularly significant, and this is the historical period when going to the movies became a leisure practice ingrained in American culture.

[1.4] It was also during the transitional era that women were most openly and aggressively targeted by the burgeoning film industry. During this period, young female movie fans became the staple of many exhibitors' businesses, and advertising campaigns and promotions were designed to attract them (Stamp 2000, 2). Female fans were not just important to increasing revenue but also to normalizing moviegoing as a middle-class leisure pastime. Early film exhibition was associated with male immigrant audiences, but white middle-class women were important in changing the image of the film industry. While women clearly had an impact on the medium of film, there is a clear contradiction in how the film industry dealt with the female viewer (note 1). Shelly Stamp (2000), Marsha Orgeron (2003, 2009), Denise McKenna (2011), and Heidi Kenaga (2006) all explore how the film industry simultaneously solicited middle-class female audiences and pathologized obsessive female fans. Stamp (2000) argues that the characterizations of female filmgoers show a deep ambivalence, because while showmen promoted portraits of refined female patrons, the trade press and newspapers often characterized women as "movie-struck girls" (8). The caricature of the movie-struck girl portrayed women as narcissistic and unable to control their desires. Movie contests reflected the complicated relationship of the movie industry to female filmgoers by initially encouraging female agency but then ultimately limiting female involvement in film and promoting traditional gender norms.

[1.5] This study is based on an analysis of local newspapers across America and the types of film-related promotions found in these papers. Digitized historical records like trade journals and local newspapers are the new frontier for film studies. The Media History Digital Library's vast array of digitized trade press and fan magazines has opened up new ways for scholars to look at the American film industry, as has recently been discussed by film scholars Richard Abel (2013) and Eric Hoyt (2014) (note 2). For this project, instead of relying on nationally distributed magazines, I have focused on how film was promoted in local newspapers during the transitional era. There are several databases that house local papers, and in this research, I consulted, Historical Abstracts, and the Google News Archive. I searched each for the keywords "motion picture," "film," and "contest," discovering numerous contests related to film across the United States. Within these results two key types of contests appeared. The first type asked for trivia and rankings of movie stars, and the second solicited participation in the process of making films.

[1.6] This article focuses on three of these contests, chosen because of the wealth of material available to analyze, as many of the other contests had only partial records in the digital archives. They are the Lyman H. Howe contests, which ran in 1911 in different markets across the country; the "Made in Milwaukee Picture Play" contest, which ran in the Milwaukee Journal in 1915; and the "Man Haters" contest, which ran from 1915 to 1918 in 20 cities and towns across the United States.

[1.7] The proliferation of local movie contests in the 1910s reflects how film became part of the fabric of communities throughout America largely by creating a loyal and engaged fan base (Keil and Singer 2009; Singer 2001; Seeley 1996). This fan base consisted largely of women, and movie contests specifically targeted women's public ambitions and personal desires by involving them in the filmmaking process. At the same time, women's participation in contests served the film industry's commercial interests. Through contests, movie fans could demonstrate their knowledge, produce content, and even star in films. Although contests gave women a voice, they also reflected societal anxieties about the "new woman," and ultimately these contests limited fan involvement by rewriting fan-submitted scripts and diffusing images of female power in the films that were made.

2. The transitional era and the making of the movie fan

[2.1] When motion picture ads first appeared in newspapers (both local and national), they were often contained within the pages devoted to theatrical releases and vaudeville. During the transitional era, the papers shifted their coverage of motion pictures, moving away from covering them as one among many amusements and toward dedicating sections specifically to film. These sections not only contained advertisements but also offered stories promoting the new pastime of going to the movies.

[2.2] These new sections that were dedicated to motion pictures significantly helped to popularize them. As film historian Paul Moore (2008) points out, "Journalism and promotion did not merely reflect and comment on the place of film in society. Newspapers fundamentally were agents themselves in reshaping the meaning and practice of going to the movies" (14). One key element that shaped the practice of going to the movies was the creation of an active audience, that is, of film fans. One of the mechanisms utilized to do this was promotions that advertised to and engaged early audiences.

[2.3] The use of contests to create active fandoms did not start with the promotion of motion pictures and, in fact, can be traced to earlier forms of literary fandom. As fan historian David Cavicchi (2014, 53) notes, fandom has "a longer historical trajectory that included the nineteenth and even eighteenth centuries" (note 3). Consequently, film fandom must be placed within the larger social and historical trends of the time. Film fandom, and the contests created to foster it, can be placed within the larger histories of cross-media promotions. The first cross-media promotions were for literary works in the 1700s (Law 2000, 3). Publications such as Lady's Magazine would often promote stories by involving their readers in contests. Like these earlier promotional contests, early film contests were a way of engaging an audience.

[2.4] The earliest movie contests were a reflection of how newspapers promoted to their readers the leisure practice of going to the movies. The traveling showman Lyman H. Howe created the earliest contests that can be found in the digital newspaper archives. Howe started his traveling exhibitions in 1883 and added motion pictures to his exhibit in 1896, which was the first year cinema was commercially available in North America (Musser and Nelson 1991). A prolific exhibitor, Howe developed his own projector, the animotoscope, and his shows were seen throughout the United States and Canada until 1920. Howe originally had little competition, but by 1910 there were several traveling shows and purpose-built theaters across the United States and Canada making his shows less of a novelty. Consequently, Howe had to seek new ways to promote them (Musser and Nelson 1991, 219). In order to solicit newspaper coverage, he created contest tie-ins for his traveling exhibitions. The Lyman H. Howe contests not only helped advertise his shows, they also engaged local fans with their themes.

[2.5] The first Lyman H. Howe contest was an essay-writing contest in the Pittsburg (PA) Press in 1911 (note 4). The contest was announced on May 26, in a box on the newspaper's front page, and it ran in conjunction with the Lyman H. Howe Festival, which showcased fifteen short moving pictures (figure 2). Readers were asked to write a fifty-word essay on which of the showcase's films would interest them. The first-place winner received $50, the second-place winner $25, and the third-place winner $10; tickets to the festival were given to all three; and another 500 tickets were mailed out to participants. The contest was covered every day in the Pittsburg Press until the results were announced on June 11. In announcing them, the paper noted that interest in the contest had been "overwhelming" and that it had been unprepared for the high level of participation.

Transcription: "Enter The Press' Great Moving Picture Contest. WHAT KIND OF MOVING PICTURES DO YOU LIKE? THE PRESS wants to know and will pay handsomely for the best replies to the question. FIFITY DOLLARS IN GOLD and hundreds of tickets to the classy picture show of the world will be paid to the PRESS readers who best answer the query in a statement of not more than fifty words. The LYMAN H. HOWE TRAVEL FESTIVAL at the Nixon theatre next week has all types of moving picture reproductions in its program. These subjects will be described in the Sunday PRESS as a guide to those who will try for THE PRESS prizes. Watch for full details of the contest in the Sunday PRESS."

Figure 2. Screenshot of the of the Pittsburg (PA) Press, May 26, 1911, with the headline "Enter the Press' Moving Picture Contest," indicating the rules of the Lyman H. Howe Travel Festival contest. [View larger image.]

[2.6] Howe continued to run contests in the 1910s throughout the country in conjunction with his traveling exhibitions. A key feature of these contests was how they associated the exhibitions with high culture, asking questions about art and history. As has been noted by film historians Ben Singer (2001), Shelly Stamp (2001), and Charles Musser and Carol Nelson (1991), a feature of the transitional era was the film industry's efforts to make motion pictures a high-class amusement. Starting in 1913, Howe developed contests that made fans of his exhibitions feel cultured. The first of these was announced in the Fort-Worth Telegram, offering free exhibition tickets to those who could identify the thirty-three portraits printed in the paper. The portraits' subjects included European royalty (the czarina of Russia), politicians (Woodrow Wilson), and newsmakers (J. Pierpont Morgan). In announcing the results, the Telegram noted that women were more likely to participate in the contest and had higher success rates in their answers.

[2.7] After the Fort-Worth Telegram contest, Howe started a similar trivia contest called the "Famous Building" contest, which ran in local newspapers in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Illinois, Kansas, Ohio, Wisconsin, and Nebraska in 1913 and 1914. In this contest, readers were asked to identify pictures of the Seven Wonders of the World; those who succeeded would win tickets to the Lyman H. Howe exhibition. Like later local contests, the "Famous Building" contest claimed to be unique; however, the same contest was held in several markets and all the newspapers published similar articles (figure 3). The language of the contests was also similar, indicating that all of the newspapers were designing the contests from a press release sent by Lyman H. Howe. Each newspaper remarked on the popularity of the contest and the intelligence of its readers. Many of the newspapers also remarked that women participated more than men. Most local film contests that I found targeted female audience members, and the Lyman H. Howe contest was the first of many to create a space for female fans to participate actively in the new medium of film.

Transcription from <em>Lima Daily News</em>: HERE ARE THE NAMES OF THE WINNERS IN THE NEWS' "FAMOUS BUILDING CONTEST". The flood of replies and lists received in the "Famous Building Contest" on the unique composite illustration published in our issue on Wednesday proved several things conclusively. First of all the novelty of the test interested a much larger number of people that usually participate in contests of any kind. That the contest interested all classes was demonstrated by the variety of stationary used by contestants. The answers received clearly show that this contest stimulated much careful thought on the part of those who submitted lists…   

Transcription from <em>Wilkes Barr Times</em>: HERE ARE THE NAMES OF WINNERS IN THE LYMAN HOWE CONTEST. The flood of replies and lists received in the "Famous Building Contest" on the unique composite illustration published in our issue on Tuesday, proved several things conclusively. First of all of the novelty of the test interested a much larger number of people than usually participate in contests of any kind. That the contest interested all classes was demonstrated by the variety of used by contestant. The answers received clearly show that this contest stimulated much careful thought on the part of those who submitted lists…

Figure 3. Screenshots of the Lima Daily News (left) and Wilkes Barr Times (right) announcing the winners in the Lyman H. Howe "Famous Building" contest. Note that both the headline and opening paragraphs are almost identical. [View larger image.]

3. The serialization of movie contests

[3.1] The genre that became most identified with the female audience during the transitional period was the serial. As mentioned above, cross-media promotions had been used in the magazine and newspaper industries to promote literary works in ways similar to how film was later promoted in newspapers. The development of serial stories in the 18th century allowed both the popular press and literary publishers to split the cost of production. Popular newspapers and magazines needed to attract female readership in order to increase sales, and they did this by publishing serials that often focused on stories of confident young heroines. Two of the most popular magazines published to attract the female reader, Town and Country Magazine and Lady's Magazine, regularly ran serials in the 1700s and 1800s, and often promoted them by creating avenues for audience participation. Lady's Magazine ran several promotions inviting female readers to submit their own serial stories (J. Pearson 1996). From the 1730s onward, newspapers also started publishing serial stories, reflecting the changing practices of the reading public. The same strategies that were used to promote serialized fiction were later adopted by the film industry, as the serial genre was part of the early film industry's attempt at increasing female viewership.

[3.2] The serial genre became closely associated with the use of contests, which directly engaged the female audience. As the serial genre is intertextual, it demands the active participation of the audience, and a key mechanism in cultivating this participation was again the use of contests. In fact, it can be argued that contests became the norm in the promotion of film serials; the two most popular serials, What Happened to Mary? and The Perils of Pauline, both used contest tie-ins to solicit fans (note 5). The first motion picture serial was What Happened to Mary?, which was created from a partnership between The Ladies' World magazine and the Edison film company, and a contest was a key element of its promotion. Each month, the magazine posed the question "What will happen to Mary next?" and offered a hundred-dollar prize to the reader who most successfully answered it (Enstad 1995, 73). By the fifth month of the contest, the magazine had received almost ten thousand responses, and a couple of winning essays became the plots for future installments of the serial. The What Happened to Mary? serial was wildly popular and was credited with expanding readership of The Ladies' World by 100,000 subscriptions, making the total readership of the magazine one million, and it was also reported that two million people saw each monthly installment of the film (Enstad 1995, 67).

[3.3] After the success of the "What Happened to Mary?" contest, similar contests began running in newspapers across America. In 1914, the biggest one—linked to the serial The Perils of Pauline—began with a partnership between Pathé American and Hearst Newspapers. This serial utilized trivia contests similar to those of Lyman H. Howe. They asked audiences to solve mysteries placed in each episode, for a prize of one thousand dollars (Abel 2006, 208). With its aggressive marketing campaign, The Perils of Pauline became one of the most popular films ever and broke all records for bookings and patron-pulling power.

[3.4] With the popularity of national contests like "What Happened to Mary?" and "The Perils of Pauline," local newspapers also began to engage female fans with local contests. In April 1915, the Milwaukee Journal ran a contest asking readers to write a motion picture script (figure 4). The contest, called the "Made in Milwaukee Picture Play," was run through a partnership between the Milwaukee Journal and the Strand Theater of Milwaukee. The newspaper and the theater contracted the E. E. Fulton Co. of Chicago to shoot the chosen script in May 1915.

Transcription: While you sat in a theatre, seeing a photoplay enacted before your very eyes, did you not often think that some incident that occurred in your life would make an interesting picture if photographed? Don't you believe that you are capable of writing out the story that you thought of in about 750 words? The Journal is endeavoring to interest those who will attempt to write a photoplay scenario in competition for a gold watch, worth fifty dollars. The story must relate to happenings in Milwaukee and the entire scene must be laid in the city. If your scenario is selected, a suitable cast of Milwaukee actors and actresses will be chosen and their actions will be photographed. This thousand foot reel of pictures will be displayed at the Strand theatre so that Milwaukee public, that is interested in this contest, will have an opportunity to see the work of the prize winner. The finished film must be in readiness for public display be May 16th, and therefore there is little time to lose on the part of those who wish to enter the contest. Can You Write a Photoplay? Particulars in Sunday's Journal On Movie Page (One of the Peach Pages.)

Figure 4. Screenshot of the Milwaukee Journal, April 10, 1915, with the headline "Can You Write A Photo Play?" indicating the rules for the "Made in Milwaukee Picture Play." [View larger image.]

[3.5] A key goal of the contest was to promote Milwaukee as an ideal location to shoot films and the possibility that Milwaukeeans could work in the motion picture industry. In fact, the Milwaukee Journal claimed the contest would help people find employment in the industry. It urged readers to get involved because, while they might have watched movies before, the contest would "prove the first opportunity they have to familiarize themselves with the steps taken in motion picture making," and thus it was marketed to "those seeking to get a foothold as writers of photoplays" (figure 5). Submitted stories had to be simple, had to be set in "out-doors Milwaukee" in the present day, and could not exceed 750 words. The winner would have his or her story made into a film and would also receive a fifty-dollar gold watch.

Transcription: FINISHED SCENARIO SHOWS "MOVIE" FANS BIG STEP IN FILM MAKING AND PROVIDE AMBITIOUS POTOPLAYWRIGHTS WITH MODEL. The Journal's effort in undertaking the making and presentation of the "Made in Milwaukee" photoplay is to convince Milwaukeeans that the city has the facilities for the making of motion pictures, and to demonstrate the various processes connected with it. One of the most important parts of this process would be missing if the complete scenario, upon which the production is based, were left out. For that reason it is presented herewith. The educational value of the work would be seriously impaired if this were not published. Those of an analytical turn of mind will compare it with the finished film production when it is projected on the Strand theatre screen next week. To those seeking to get a foothold as writers of photoplays, it will 'prove invaluable, as one of the difficulties in the preparation of scripts for the "movies" is the finding of a model scenario to serve as a guide. As it is presented herewith, it is a comedy in fifty scenes, ready for the film actors. It is based on the story, Jozie's Jitney Duke—the title is unchanged—of 750 words, written by Mrs. B. F. Peterson, Bay View. This story won the $50 gold watch offered by The Journal in its photoplay story contest, over a long field of competitors. The story appears, revised so as to adapt it to the requirements of motion picture presentation, it the subdivision headed "synopsis." The first division comprises the cast of characters. After the synopsis follow the scene plot, all being exteriors— as was one of the conditions of the contest, by inserts and leaders, and finally by the scenario in detail as follows:

Figure 5. Screenshot of the Milwaukee Journal, May 9, 1915, with the headline "Finished Scenario Shows 'Movie' Fans Big Step in Film Making and Provide Ambitious Photoplaywrights with Model," indicating the reasons the paper organized the "Made in Milwaukee Picture Play." [View larger image.]

[3.6] The paper heavily promoted the contest, and even ended it a day early because of the large number of entries (figure 6). The winner was announced on Sunday, April 25, 1915. "Jozie's Jitney Duke," a story by Mrs. B. F. Peterson, was about a working-class heroine named Jozie who was fooled by an unscrupulous duke. Mrs. Peterson lived in Bay View, a suburb of Milwaukee, but was originally from Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin. The Milwaukee Journal published an interview with her, in which she reported that she had submitted several other photoplay scripts to film companies but this was the first one accepted. It was reported that the contest boosted her ambitions of becoming a photoplay writer, and she declared that she would continue with her "literary pursuits" after her success in the contest.

Transcription: Journal Photoplay Story Contest Ends Friday. Film Stories So Numerous Judges Need an Extra Day…

Figure 6. Screenshot of Milwaukee Journal, April 21, 1915, with headline "Journal Photoplay Story Contest Ends Friday: Film Stories so Numerous Judges Need an Extra Day," indicating the popularity of the contest. [View larger image.]

[3.7] It is clear that women played a central role in all aspects of the film made as a result of the "Made in Milwaukee Picture Play" contest, writing, directing, and starring in it. A female reporter for the newspaper, Mary Robinson, wrote columns throughout the shooting of the film with humorous anecdotes of the filming, including one devoted to the film's star poodle. Robinson wrote regularly for the "PicturePlay and Players" section of the Journal from 1914 to 1917, but no other information on her can be found in the historical records. She and Mrs. Peterson are examples of how women were involved in, but peripheral to, the early film industry. In Go West, Young Women! The Rise of Early Hollywood, Hilary A. Hallett (2013) sheds light on the involvement of women in the early movie industry and explores how many women migrated to Southern California from cities and towns across America to work in it. Women not only worked as actresses but were also writers, and female journalists played an important role in reporting about early film. The "Made in Milwaukee Picture Play" contest clearly demonstrates that women were interested in getting involved in the moviemaking process outside of California. In cities and towns across the United States, women were involved in film by reporting on it in local newspapers, and through the advent of movie contests, they could become part of the movie-making process without leaving their hometowns.

[3.8] Although the contest attempted to appeal to women, and they were involved in the film, female work on the film was also marginalized. Mrs. Peterson may have had continued ambitions to write for photoplays, but her script was completely rewritten by the E. E. Fulton Company and she largely disappeared from the coverage of the film. The coverage of the film shoot also reflects how female fandom was often dismissed. Mary Robinson, in her reports on the casting of the film, detailed the fierce competition for roles and the large number of women who tried to get parts. According to Robinson, many of them lied about their age and marital status, or the fact that they had children at home, in order to be considered. Robinson depicted the female fans as frenzied in their attempts to become part of the film, reflecting the discourse surrounding the "movie-struck girl" at the local level.

[3.9] Robinson reported that she applied for a role in the film herself, and was disappointed. Despite the claim in the newspaper that all of the actors would be Milwaukee natives, it appears that the Chicago-based casting agency brought in outside actors. Not much was reported in the newspaper about the actors, but the man who played the duke, Clarence Cheasick, was from Stevens Point, Wisconsin (Stevens Point Gazette, May 19, 1915). The only actor who was regularly mentioned was Harry Cohen, who played the newsboy, and it appears he was a professional actor, as he received substantial coverage, being identified as a "David Warfield type" (note 6) or a "Yiddish comedian," even though the newsboy was not a named character. Indeed, the director, Robert Henri, added a scene "to demonstrate his abilities as a Jewish comedian," and in her final review of the film Robinson declared, "To Harry Cohen, Yiddish comedian, belongs the honours in Jozie's Jitney Duke." Harry Cohen continued his career as a "Yiddish" comedian, performing a Yiddish musical comedy in Pennsylvania in 1919 (Harrisburg (PA) Evening News, December 18, 1919).

[3.10] Although the serial craze of the 1910s often involved stories with strong female characters, Jozie's Jitney Duke did not have a strong female lead and the actress who played Jozie was not covered to the degree that Harry Cohen was. A copy of the film does not appear to be in existence, but a summary of the plot was published in the Milwaukee Journal on May 9, 1915. It was a simplistic romantic narrative about a young girl, Jozie, who rejects her reliable boyfriend for the chance of marrying a duke. Jozie's innocence is almost destroyed, as the duke is already married. She realizes at the end of the story that she should suspend her ambitious nature and marry her boring but reliable boyfriend. Although the original script was a love story, a comedic scene was added, as indicated above, to highlight Harry Cohen's talents.

[3.11] The "Made in Milwaukee Picture Play" contest demonstrates the complex relationship that developed among film producers, newspapers, theaters, and early fans. The contest was a partnership between the local newspaper and a theater, which hired an outside company, the E. E. Fulton Company, to produce, cast, and ultimately rewrite the chosen screenplay. While the Milwaukee Journal wanted to demonstrate that Milwaukee and Milwaukeeans could make films, they chose to make the film with a company from Chicago and at least one actor from outside Milwaukee. The message first presented to female fans was that they could become part of the moviemaking process, and it is notable that a woman wrote the winning screenplay and a female journalist covered the making of the film. While women were clearly targeted by the "Made in Milwaukee Picture Play" contest, they were also clearly marginalized, as the abundant coverage of Harry Cohen attests. Local contests like this one were increasingly popularized in local newspapers across America, and soon fans would be not just writers but also stars (note 7).

4. Who will be Ruth?

[4.1] Movie star contests were a key element of advertising to female spectators, as they allowed female movie fans to become part of the moviemaking process. Movie star contests were also often featured in fan magazines, and as mentioned above, silent film star Clara Bow was a product of this type of contest (Orgeron 2003). Before the national movie star magazine contests, local newspapers ran these contests during the transitional era. The longest-running local contest that I found in the digital archives is the "Man Haters" contest, which ran from 1915 to 1918. The "Man Haters" contest, like the "Made in Milwaukee Picture Play" one, involved the shooting of a film, but instead of competing to write the script, local movie fans competed to star in the film. The contest promised participants that they could become a "real movie actress" in a film that reflected the changing role of women in society.

[4.2] Itinerant filmmaker and exhibitor Basil McHenry created an exciting contest that appealed to communities around the United States. Readers were asked to register their votes for potential actresses by sending in coupons that were printed in the newspaper. The April 21, 1916, edition of the vaudeville newspaper The Opera House Reporter stated that the success of McHenry's movie contest was very promising in smaller towns, and explained that he intended to enlarge the contest in order to increase the popularity of local pictures. McHenry continued to expand his operations, running more than twenty contests between 1915 and 1918 (figure 7). Although the contests were generally located in the Midwest, McHenry also traveled south to West Virginia and Kentucky and east to New York. It is very likely that cities were chosen on the basis of train routes, as the Midwest was a hub for train lines. Most contests were held in smaller cities and towns, although there was one in Nashville and another in Youngstown, Ohio. The Opera House Reporter explained that the principal cast were chosen through a newspaper contest ten days before the cameraman and director arrived to shoot the film.

Figure 7. List of cities that ran "Man Haters" contests. [View larger image.]

[4.3] Each contest resulted in a version of the same movie, The Man Haters (McHenry 1915), shot in each city where the contest ran. The plot of the film concerned a group of man-hating women and their leader, Ruth, who eventually falls for a handsome young man named Henry. This plot reflected many of the discourses surrounding the "new woman" that became prevalent in the late 1800s and early 1900s. With women increasingly present in the workforce, a new modern identity for women was reflected in both print and early film (Sharot 2010). The early depictions of the "new woman" in newspapers often associated women's entry into the workforce with independence from men and reflected anxiety about the change in gender roles. One of the terms often used in conjunction with the "new woman" was "man hater," which reflected male anxieties about female political groups rejecting men entirely.

[4.4] Man haters and the phenomenon of man hating appeared often in newspaper stories starting in the late 1800s. The Janesville Gazette warned readers (June 8, 1871) that women were becoming "professional despisers of men." On July 5, 1892, the Olean (NY) Democrat published an editorial on the nationwide man-hating craze. A common theme of these stories was that women were forming man-hating groups and even clubs. The Glenwood (IA) Mills County Tribune reprinted a story from New York about a man-haters club in Williamsburg. The man-hating phenomenon eventually culminated with fears that entire communities of women might reject men, and in 1908 newspapers carried stories on the Belton Woman's Commonwealth. The Commonwealth, a Protestant commune, had been founded in Texas in the late 1860s on the basis of female celibacy and communal living, and it relocated to Maryland and Washington, DC, at the turn of the century. By 1908, the community had dwindled to only nineteen women and children, but despite its small size, newspapers routinely reported on it and their supposed man-hating tendencies.

[4.5] The plot of The Man Haters was directly influenced by the man-hating discourses found in newspapers, and a key theme in many of these stories was women in man-hating groups falling in love. On April 29, 1908, the Pittsburg Press published a story on the Belton Woman's Commonwealth in the "Of Interest to Women" section of the paper (figure 8). The story chronicled Adah Pratt, with a sensational headline claiming that she married the first man she met. The same story of Adah Pratt was reported in several newspapers, and all of the stories sensationalized her marriage. In one account from the Trenton Evening Times, the reporter remarked that Pratt was "stolen away" by her new husband, and her marriage was a major setback for the commune.

Figure 8. Screenshot of the Pittsburg Press, April 29, 1908, with the headline "Of Interest to Women: Taught Marriage is Sinful, She Marries First Man She Meets," which tells the story of Adah Pratt of the Belton Woman's Commonwealth. [View larger image.]

[4.6] Newspaper stories of man-hating women falling in love were codified into Clyde Fitch's play Girls, which was first performed in New York City at Daly's Theater (note 8). A story in the New York Times on April 2, 1908, reported that Daly's ran an April Fools Day promotion to lure man haters into the theater to see the play. The theater also attracted female viewers by holding a man-haters' matinee and sending free tickets to hundreds of women, who packed the theater. The plot of Girls was strikingly similar to the plot of McHenry's The Man Haters: it too revolved around a group of man haters who "succumbed to the sterner sex."

[4.7] Although there were more than twenty "Man Haters" contests, only two copies of the resulting movies survive, and the only publicly available copy is the Muncie, Indiana one, in the Ball State University collection (note 9). The following synopsis and figures draw on this version. The acting is amateurish and stilted, but the film has a clear and entertaining plot and the production is clearly professional. The opening scene of the film reveals the cast members as they bow to the camera. All of the female cast members took part in the contest, with Dora Grim winning the part of Ruth, and the McHenry Film Company chose the male actors. The archivists at Ball State have explored the backgrounds of the cast members and determined that the male actors were all members of prominent Muncie families, while the women were from working-class backgrounds and worked as shop girls and telephone operators (Turner 1996).

[4.8] After the stars are introduced, the film starts with a scene of Ruth sitting on the front steps of a grand house in Muncie, writing a note that says, "The Fallacy of Man—we have all agreed to absolutely ignore men." She is then shown with her female friends in the "anti-man" club, whose members tend to travel together through the town. The male lead, Henry, spots Ruth one day and asks his sister, Alice, who is also a member of the club, to introduce him to her. Ruth rebuffs all of Henry's attentions until he forcibly separates her from her female companions and takes her to a bench, where she falls for him (figure 9). Ruth then sneaks out of her house, climbing down a ladder to meet Henry, and the two are chased by the women of the club. The story culminates in the marriage of the two lovers by the mayor on the steps of the courthouse. The club finds out about the marriage, and the entire group is shown crying (figure 10). The film ends with Ruth telling the group that she still hates men—except for one (figure 11).

Figure 9. Screenshot from The Man Haters film showing Ruth and Henry's first romantic encounter. [View larger image.]

Figure 10. Screenshot from The Man Haters film showing the collective grief of the Man Haters club over the marriage of Ruth and Henry. [View larger image.]

Figure 11. Screenshot from The Man Haters film showing Ruth's final statement in the film. [View larger image.]

[4.9] The scenario of The Man Haters paints a complicated image of the "new woman" of the 1910s and the anxiety surrounding female empowerment. It is the female group or club that inspired fear in newspaper articles, and in the film it is clear that joining a female-only club makes women unresponsive to men. When she is with her fellow group members, Ruth will not respond to Henry, and it is not until she is physically separated from the group that she becomes susceptible to Henry's advances and rejects her core values and friends. The female group is shown as behaving unnaturally and are often used as comic relief in the film (figure 12). The message of The Man Haters is one of conventional romance and fear of female empowerment, but Ruth's last line complicates its narrative. Like the contest through which its female characters were cast, The Man Haters attempts to support female empowerment—in some ways—while ultimately critiquing it, thus providing a dual message to female fans.

Figure 12. Screenshot from The Man Haters, showing The Man Haters Club in hot pursuit of Ruth and Henry. This is one of the many comedic scenes where the club is characterized as ridiculous. [View larger image.]

[4.10] The newspaper accounts from different towns indicate that while the general plot of the movie was the same in its various local versions, there were differences among them. None of the newspapers published the exact plot of their local version, but reporters did describe incidents in shooting, as Robinson did for Jozie's Jitney Duke. A key scene that was often described in these reports, and one that does not appear in the surviving Muncie version, was one in which Ruth is rescued by Henry. In the Youngstown version, she is rescued from a frigid river, but papers in most other cities described a building fire. The Dunkirk (NY) Observer, the Kokomo (IN) Tribune, the Nashville Tennessean, and the Hagerstown (MD) Morning Herald all mention such scenes. The Morning Herald offered two front-page articles on the film's fire scene, saying that both Ruth and Henry were stuck in a burning building and were rescued by actual members of the local fire department. The Nashville Tennessean and the Kokomo Tribune also reported that local firefighters took part in the film. It appears that scripts were modified to showcase local monuments and groups, thereby creating a sense of the local in the national pastime of going to the show.

[4.11] The popularity of the contests varied, but, judging by the population of each city, it appears they were all very popular. In fact, in larger towns, the contests racked up tens of thousands of votes. In Muncie, Ohio, where the total population was 34,000, 22,000 votes were recorded. In Cedar Rapids over 50,000 votes were cast—more than the total population of the city itself, which was 40,676 in 1915. In Youngstown, Ohio, which had a population of 106,000, the paper reported it had to print 60,000 more papers after 96,490 votes were cast for the contest. Each newspaper the contest ran in would regularly reference its popularity. The Muncie Press reported that girls would follow paper carriers around and enlist the help of newsboys to collect as many coupons as possible. The Lima Daily News reported that staffers spent hours counting the ballots. The popularity of the contests is important because they not only created a space for women to contribute to the moviemaking process but also gave them agency in a time before political voting rights were nationwide.

[4.12] Each of the contests directly addressed the female audience, soliciting its members to both enter and vote in the contest. The opening articles of almost all of the contests had the same first lines. In Lima, Cedar Rapids, Mansfield, Logansport, and Youngstown, the contests all opened with the lines "Who will be Ruth? [City name] girls and women ask yourself this question and herewith become acquainted with [newspaper name] motion picture contest" (figure 13). The stories that ran on the second day of the contest also had similar phrasing, stating that the newspaper's "telephones have been answering hundreds of questions" about the contest and giving women tips for successfully competing, such as "line up all your friends to vote for you." The McHenry Film Company may have sent out press releases for the papers to follow, as most of the coupons and rules were the same for each contest: each aspiring actresses had to be over the age of sixteen, a resident of the city, and an amateur who had never appeared in a film (figure 14).

Transcription of Lima Daily News (L): WHO WILL BE RUTH? Question Put to the Women Readers. Lima Daily News To Determine Heroine of Photo-Play in Which Every Scene in the Picture Will Have Places Lima For Its Background. Who will be Ruth? Lima girls and women ask yourself this question and herewith become acquainted with the Lima Daily News great motion picture contest. Here is a chance for every girl and women over 16 years of age, who has ever dreamed of herself a great motion picture actress to make a start right here at home. This is your opportunity to be leading woman in a motion picture to be produced in Lima and to have Lima streets, homes, buildings and locations for the background. 
<br />
Transcription Logansport Journal Tribune (R): WHO WILL BE RUTH? IS THE QUESTION PUT TO WOMEN READERS. THE JURNAL-TRIBUNE WILL CONDUCT CONTEST TO DETERMINE HERONE OF PHOTO PLAY. Every Scene in Picture Will Have Places in Logansport for Its Background. "Who Will Be Ruth" Logansport girls and women ask yourself this question and herewith become acquainted with the Journal-Tribune great Motion Picture Contest. Here is a chance for every girl and woman over sixteen years of age who has never dreamed of herself as a great Motion Picture Actress to make a start right here at home. This is your opportunity to be leading woman in a motion picture to be produced in Logansport and to have Logansport streets, homes, buildings and locations for its background.

Figure 13. Screenshots of the Lima Daily News (left) and Logansport Journal Tribune (right) showing the standard opening articles for the "Man Haters" contest. [View larger image.]

Figure 14. Screenshot of a standard coupon for the "Who Will Be Ruth?" contest from the Cedar Rapids Republican. [View larger image.]

[4.13] There are a couple of outliers that differ from the majority of the contests. In spring 1916 the contest that ran in Nashville was unlike the others in many ways; for example, the opening ad did not use the usual language, asking instead, "Is there a Mary Pickford in Nashville?" (figure 15). In this contest the McHenry Film Company was not mentioned; instead William Conklin was listed as the film's producer, and the paper identified him as a talent scout "working for one of the largest producing companies in America." Another difference was that the prize included a wardrobe from the ready-to-wear store Rich, Schwartz and Joseph. The other outlier was in Mount Carmel, Pennsylvania, where the contest was originally called "Who Will Be Flo?" (figure 16) —although the film and contest were later identified as The Man Haters, and the contest later appeared as "Who Will Be Ruth?" These outliers suggest that McHenry may have sold the script to other producers.

Transcription: Is There A Mary Pickford In Nashville? Art Director William Conklin Believes There Is. He is coming to Nashville to direct and make a photo-play during the week of March 20th…Who Will Be Ruth?

Figure 15. Screenshot of Nashville Tennessean, February 27, 1916, showing an ad for a "Who Will Be Ruth" contest in the city. [View larger image.]

Figure 16. Screenshot from the Mount Carmel (PA) Item, June 6, 1916, of the "Who Will Be Flo?" contest coupon. [View larger image.]

[4.14] Basil McHenry, like Lyman H. Howe, used contests as a way to continue his traveling film entertainment business. McHenry started his career with traveling circuses and continued with minstrel shows and vaudeville before he turned to the new medium of film. With the demise of itinerant exhibitions and the rise of the nickelodeon, he partnered with the newly established local theaters and newspapers to produce locally connected films in towns across America. He seems to have continued the scheme after the "Man Haters" contest; the December 1916 edition of Variety reports that McHenry had shot another local film, called 'Twas Schooldays, in Newark, Ohio. It is not known how many films McHenry produced through such contests, but as more local newspapers and trade papers become digitized more of them will likely be found. His use of female-centered contests seems to have inspired other producers, and more such contests run by others may also be discovered.

5. Conclusions

[5.1] The prevalence of movie contests promoted in local newspapers in the early 20th century created a dynamic movie public that, through their active participation in these contests, became creators of a new popular culture. Movie contests were created as ways of publicizing and popularizing a new and burgeoning medium, and the different contests show the early film industry (in the prestudio era) encouraging different levels of fandom. Film exhibitor Lyman H. Howe was the first to realize the potential of newspaper contests as a mechanism to promote his shows. His contests represent an initial level of fan participation, wherein fans were asked to demonstrate their knowledge. The next level of fan participation appeared in screenplay and movie-star contests, in which fans helped produce content. In both the "Made in Milwaukee Picture Play" and the "Man Haters" contests, local movie fans actively participated in creating a film that the whole town could later watch.

[5.2] While trivia contests tended to focus on the general population, participatory contests almost exclusively targeted female viewers. Women helped to shape moviegoing in the transitional era in many ways, and local contests reflected the ways in which the early film industry tried to attract female fans while also attempting to regulate their power. The "Made in Milwaukee Picture Play" contest asked women to submit photoplay scripts, suggesting that they could become professional scriptwriters. However, the newspaper completely rewrote the winning script, and the woman who won the contest was mentioned only peripherally in accounts of the film, while the male lead received most of the coverage.

[5.3] The early film industry had an ambivalent relationship with female fans, whom it both solicited and pathologized, as is clearly evident in the "Man Haters" contest. The "new woman" was a contentious topic, and there was a fear that members of female clubs would become man haters. The "Man Haters" contests aggressively targeted women in each town. Like the "Made in Milwaukee Picture Play" contest, the "Man Haters" contest promised participants that it could help them become movie stars, but none of the female actors appears to have continued in the profession. The script itself is a conventional romance that promotes heterosexual love over female companionship, reflecting fears of female empowerment. With that being said, the last scene does contain the subversive message that Ruth still hates all men save her lover, which seems to demonstrate some acceptance of "man hating."

[5.4] Digital archives provide rich resources through which to explore how film was received at the local level in small and large towns across America. It was at the local level that film became ingrained as a mass leisure practice, and film contests played an important role in helping to cultivate an active and excited audience. The history of fandom is a difficult topic to explore because of a lack of sources, but through an exploration of local newspapers we can see how newspapers, theaters, and early film producers engaged early movie fans. This early and largely female audience was not simply interested in watching movies but wanted instead to make and star in their own. Active participation of fans in mass culture is not only a contemporary phenomenon; it can be traced historically. I hope that with the advent of new historical research tools, like the digital archives, more aspects of the history of fandom will be located and explored.

6. Notes

1. Gitelman (2003) argues that it was consumers who influenced the uses of the phonograph. With film, female consumers clearly shaped the types of films produced and even exhibition spaces in the post-nickelodeon era.

2. Richard Abel warns that these new research tools contain limited amounts of material and do not allow for the same types of discoveries that can be made in traditional archival research.

3. The history of fandom is a burgeoning area of study within fan studies. See, for instance, the speical issue on the topic in Transformative Works and Cultures entitled "Fan Works and Fan Communities in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," edited by Nancy Reagin and Anne Rubenstein. Also see Pearson (1997, 2007); Saler (2003); Ryan and Thomas (2002); Ryan and Johanningsmeier (2013); Boyce, Finnerty, and Millim (2013); Coppa (2006); and Ryan and Cavicchi (2009).

4. The city now known as Pittsburgh was officially "Pittsburg" from 1890 until 1911, and the Pittsburgh Press was the Pittsburg Press until the 1920s.

5. The concept of serial fandom has been thoroughly studied in film history. See Dahlquist (2013), Canjels (2011), and Wilinsky (2000).

6. David Warfield was a famous stage actor known for his comedy roles.

7. I found several examples of these types of screenplay contests in local newspapers across North America. The "Made in Milwaukee Picture Play" contest was one of the most covered contests available in the digital archives.

8. Girls was adapted into a Famous Players–Lasky film in 1919, staring Marguerite Clark.

9. See the Man Haters film collection of the Ball State University Libraries (

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