On December 4, 1921 the United States government ordered Chicagoans to stop smiling. That's what the front page of the morning newspaper said.
But let's begin at the beginning. In October the Chicago Herald-Examiner published a story about an eccentric millionaire named Harry Phillips. He was visiting town and noticed that people looked sad. So he started passing out money to complete strangers, just to see them smile.
The Herald-Examiner was the Hearst-owned morning daily. The paper was trying to overtake the Tribune, and the Phillips story was just the sort of bogus stunt that Hearst often employed.
Then the H-E reported that Phillips had left town. But never fear – Mr. Hearst’s paper would carry on the philanthropy. Each weekday copy of the H-E would now contain a Smile Coupon with a different serial number. On Sunday there would be a raffle, with a $1,000 grand prize. That would keep Chicago smiling!
The drawing took place on November 13. The $1,000 winner was a Sears clerk – and sure enough, she smiled. With that, the H-E announced it was putting $25,000 into a pot, to be paid out in $1,000 daily raffles.
At first the Tribune took no notice of its rival’s stunt. But during the first weeks of the Smile campaign, the Hearst paper’s circulation jumped 25 to 500,000, about the same as the Trib. And on Thanksgiving Day, the H-E increased its pot to $100,000, with $3,000 in daily prizes.
Now the Trib launched its own giveaway. With the holidays approaching, the paper would start printing Christmas Cheer Checks. And the Trib‘s program would be bigger and better than the Hearst rag's. The World’s Greatest Newspaper would be handing out $200,000 — $5,000 each day!
The whole city was getting caught up in the frenzy. News dealers reported people buying armloads of papers, ripping out the coupons, and tossing the rest into the street. Fights broke out among customers trying to purchase papers. The daily prizes went to $6,000, then $7,000. The special Sunday drawing reached $20,000.
By December 4 the circulation of each paper was over 1,000,000. In the meantime, reports of the strange happenings in the Windy City had reached Washington. The Postmaster General decided things had gone far enough. Telegrams were sent to the H-E and the Trib, asking them to put a stop to their Smile raffles. The explanation of why was left vague.
Both papers used the government message as an excuse to end their competition. From now on, Chicagoans would have to find their own reasons to crack a smile.