Rewind – August 1, 2023:
Boys and Girls! Who Wants an Automobile?
The Browniekar Contest of 1909
by Dave Waite
What young boy or girl wouldn’t want a working automobile of their own?
In 1909, the opportunity came to children across America when over 100 businesses from Oregon to Florida held contests with a scaled-down, but fully operable vehicle called a Browniekar offered as the main prize. Examples from New York State include the Syracuse Herald newspaper, which offered the car as the top prize in a contest entered by using coupons printed in their paper. Of course, huge incentives were given if a year’s newspaper subscription was included with a vote.
Another example was the Duffey-McInnerney Department Store of Rochester, which offered the car as the top prize for those buying merchandise at their store. Closer to home, Bayle’s Boston Store in Glens Falls also held a contest with a Browniekar as the top prize. Like most other retailers running the contest, they gave one vote for every ten cents of merchandise purchased.
The Browniekar was built by the Omar Company based in Newark, New York an Erie Canal village 50 miles west of Syracuse. Omar was an offshoot of the Mora Motor Car Company which had been established in Newark in 1906. Though Samuel H. Mora gave his name to the business, the man behind the development of the Browniekar was Syracuse native and mechanical engineer William H. Birdsall. While for Samuel Mora automobile design and construction was not his strength, his knack for successful marketing certainly was. Mora first came to upstate New York from Cincinnati, Ohio around 1893, taking a job as a clerk at Eastman Kodak, a photographic chemical and film manufacturer in Rochester, New York. Five years later he rose in the company to become sales manager at the company’s paper plant and soon after
helped establish Kodak’s Canadian division.
The move from photography to automobiles grew from Mora’s interest in this new mode of transportation, even opening a storage facility for automobiles in the city of Rochester in 1902. His change to automobile manufacturing was likely accelerated when he was fired by George Eastman in 1906 after he was found to be portraying himself as the future head of the company to customers and fellow employees.
With his background in marketing, the Browniekar contest was likely the brainchild of Samuel Mora. Even the name of this miniature car was influenced by marketing, as it played off the successful Brownie camera that Kodak had first offered to the public in 1900. Though no records are available of how the contest was promoted, it can be assumed that the businesses that offered the Browniekar as a prize received a discount off its $175 retail price.
It was in May of 1909 that the Boston Store contest was first announced in Glens Falls Newspapers. In the weeks that followed more and more information was released about the contest to keep it fresh in the minds of every boy and girl in the city. In the July 10th Glens Falls Times details of this “Young People’s Automobile” were finally revealed. They included many features appropriate to a vehicle more suitable for adults:
The engine is four-cycle, single cylinder, built exceptionally strong and rigid in expectation of standing up and giving good service under unusual conditions.
The carburetor is of the latest type with only two simple adjustments.
Ignition is jump spark, furnished by four dry cells through coil on dash to spark plug in cylinder head.
Water-cooled, flat belt drive.
Spark and throttle lever are carried on steering columns same as on the large cars. Drive control is by clutch pedal which is operated by the foot. Brake pedal is operated right foot.
Maximum speed is ten miles—no gears to get out of order.
After months of advertising with the Browniekar prominently displayed in their front window, the Boston Store began taking ballots in the Browniekar contest on July 12, 1909. The rules were simple, anyone making a cash purchase would be given a duplicate receipt which was to be handed in exchange for a ballot for every 10 cents spent.
Three days after the start of the contest customers had already voted for over 50 different boys and girls. Surprisingly seventeen of the contestants were girls, though as we will see, as the days of voting flew by, boys soon took the lead. By July 28th, the top twelve contestants were down to 10 boys and two girls. This announcement included a word of encouragement for those voting, reminding them that as friends of a contestant, they would “wish to help those who have a chance.”
With less than two days to go the contestants with a chance for the top prize were down to six boys: four-year-old Leslie Bates, fourteen-year-old Leo DeLisle, two-year-old Stewart T. Maynard, eleven-year-old Francis Nichols, Robert Sands Sheehy (age unknown) and 12-year-old Alfonzo B. West.
When the winners were announced, the boy who took the Browniekar home was Leo De Lisle of Glens Falls, with the second and third-place contestants, Leslie Bates, and Robert Sands Sheehy each getting a five-dollar gold piece. For DeLisle, his win came from having 15,460 votes cast in his name, which came from over fifteen hundred dollars in purchases at the Boston Store over the nineteen-day contest.
Fewer than 500 Browniekars were manufactured before the Omar company filed for bankruptcy in 1911. Leaving Newark, Samuel Mora moved to Cleveland, where again with Birdsall, he established the Mora Power Wagon Co. Focusing on the manufacture of light trucks, the business only lasted three years, going out of business in 1914. The Boston Store in Glens Falls continued in business another 20 years after the Browniekar contest, finally closing its doors on January 20, 1932, after 48 years in business. For the contest winner Leo Delisle, he went on to become a popular newsboy in Glens Falls, and though he was seen as one with a promising future, his life was tragically cut short when he died of consumption at the age of seventeen.
The Browniekar advertisement “A Motor Car for your Children” is from cartype.com. The advertisement “Who Wants and Automobile” is from the Glens Falls Post Star, July 8, 1909
Sources for this article are Coachbuilt.com and the newspaper archives at nyhistoricnewspapers.org and fultonsearch.com