To celebrate Lincoln’s hundredth birthday in 1909, the Times put on an essay contest for the children of the Greater New York Area. Other urban papers, including the Philadelphia Ledger and the Cleveland Press, organized Lincoln competitions too, though none could rival the size of the Times event.
Drawing on a city population of 4.5 million, about 3 times that of Philadelphia and 9 times that of Cleveland, the Times attracted almost 10,000 qualifying submissions, many from New Jersey, Connecticut, and other towns in New York. All of the handwritten papers — capped at 500 words — arrived with a teacher’s note certifying that the essay had been written “without outside help.”
“WINNERS OF THE LINCOLN COMPETITION MEDALS, CERTIFICATES, CASH PRIZES,” ran the 7-column headline on page 1 of the “Magazine Section” on February 23, 1909. One thousand children had won silver Tiffany medals featuring the bust of Lincoln, and the top 100 were each to get a $5.00 gold piece.
The Magazine printed the top 10 essays, in facsimile form to show off the neatness and penmanship of the best writers. Three of these, said the Times, came from the pens of 10-year-olds, one from a 12-year-old, and the rest from teenagers and one 20-year-old. For the Times, the 10-year-olds (one of whom turned out to be only 9) proved irresistible. Their innocent directness of expression seemed to mirror the mythic simplicity of Lincoln.
How did the Times manage to attract nearly 10,000 essays? By enlisting the eager support of the New York City school system, which added the Times contest to its already extensive Lincoln centennial program.
Teachers were encouraged to assign the 7-part biography of Lincoln published in the paper in early February. (The biography was the work of Frederick Trevor Hill, author of the recent book Lincoln the Lawyer.) They helped their pupils grasp what the Times meant by an “original” response to Hill’s account. A summary would not suffice; students had to express their own sentiments about Lincoln’s slow climb to distinction.
Many teachers actively discussed the Times pieces with their pupils, focusing on Hill’s main point: “Lincoln was not a heaven born genius — merely a plain man who was honest, sincere, and upright.” He learned growing up that strong “character” would get him through failure and disappointment. Any young person in any era, the Times urged, could adopt Lincoln as a model.
The teachers promoted the contest, but the lure of a dazzling medal fired the children’s ambition. Letters poured into the Times office from young hopefuls and their parents, explaining how badly they wanted to win.
One father thought he would help his 14-year-old daughter’s chances by sending in an additional poem she had written that urged equal time for George Washington:
It’s Lincoln, Lincoln, Lincoln
Just cause he’s a hundred years old,
O’ course he deserves every bit of his praise,
And maybe I am kind o’ bold
To say that there’s some one better,
An’ tho’ I’m only one
I’m goin’ ter stick up for the father
Of this country, George Washington.
The Times cautioned youngsters not to expect special treatment for extra material of this kind. But the 14-year-old did get her medal.
In the aftermath, what did the Times think the competition had achieved? “Thousands of eager, impressible, active young minds” had received a “conception of the great President, which will not easily be effaced,” it wrote. The essays had “made Lincoln a vital reality to them,” to their families, and to countless readers.
In a city with almost 2 million foreign-born residents, the Lincoln contest had made him a subject of daily conversation for at least 100,000 people, said the Times. Immigrants and native-born Americans, often occupying separate worlds, had taken another step towards a shared civic life.
Diminutive Alexandra Kliatshco, a Russian immigrant, and at age 9 the winner of a medal and a $5.00 gold piece, became the paper’s poster-child for equal opportunity in modern America. Alexandra had arrived in America from Russia only 3 years before, knowing no English. She had thrived at P.S. 177 in Manhattan, and she produced an elegant Lincoln piece. Her father, a physician on Henry Street, told the Times that she had excelled at memorizing Russian poetry from the time she was 3 years old.
“I am a little foreign girl, and I have been here only a short time,” her essay began, “but when I read about Lincoln, I thought that I might grow up a great woman as Lincoln was a great man.” And it ended: “We cannot forget the love he bore us and he died leaving the world better than it was. I hope that I can be like Lincoln, unselfish, kind, thoughtful and modest.”
A 1998 profile in the Times noted that her prediction had proven accurate. Alexandra Kliatshco Werner had graduated from Teachers College in 1922 and taught art for 40 years at Jane Addams Vocational School in the Bronx. She loved impressionist paintings, classical music, and Alfred Hitchcock, and had tried her hand at poetry.
According to her daughter, interviewed for this post, she had not held on to her Lincoln medal, preferring to make a gift of it to her father, who died in 1928.
A regular contributor over the decades to the Times “Neediest Cases” fund, Mrs. Werner — the youngest top-ten winner in the centennial Lincoln competition of 1909 — died in 1997 at the age of 97.