Yesterday I learned something new about America during the World War II era, and it was all because of a comic book. You thought I was kidding all those times I’ve said that we can learn a lot about history from comic books, didn’t you?

It’s a long backstory, but a recent Facebook conversation with my friend Andrew Wood about all of the character names which Marvel Comics stole from 1940’s comics (and subsequently trademarked as their own) led me to National Comics #24, uploaded just yesterday to The Digital Comic Museum; the issue featured a character named Quicksilver. As Stan Lee would say, ’nuff said.

But as I perused the rest of the book (which, coincidentally in light of yesterday’s post, has a fairly unpleasant racial stereotype right on the cover), I stumbled upon a one page feature called “Miss Winky”, which we’ll get to a bit farther down the page. In the story Miss Winky was selling “punchboard chances” for a good cause.

OK, stop right there. You may be asking, “What’s a ‘punchboard’?” While I knew what a punchboard was, I’d never put a second’s thought into the subject, and I wondered why one of her friends would be giving her some static about not selling out the punches on her board.

So I did a little bit of research on a few websites and learned something new (to me, anyway) about WWII-era popular entertainment in the US.

A punchboard was a gambling device, which had a cardboard frame with a bunch of holes punched in it. Wedged between the plies of cardboard was a sheet of paper (usually covered with foil, front and back, to prevent “peeking”) printed with numbers, the location of which corresponded with the holes. You would pay a nickel or dime to “take a punch”, that is, use a metal stylus to punch the paper out of one of the holes. You’d look at the number on the paper, match it up to the key printed on the cardboard frame, and see if you’d punched a lucky number and won a prize. It was the precursor of the modern “tip jar” and a distant relative of that old mob standby, the “numbers game”.

Punchboards were very popular from the 1800’s into the mid-twentieth century. Several famous gangsters of the 1920’s either got their start or made their fortune through punchboards. But punchboards weren’t strictly gambling devices; many were used as “parlor games”. The game-style punches, instead of containing numbers, might say that you had to do a trick or kiss the person to your right. According to punchboard.com, fifty million punchboards of all kinds were sold in 1939 alone.

Returning to the “Miss Winky” one-pager, I wondered why her friend would give her a hard time about not selling all of her punches. Then I came across this photo on an auction site:

WWII era punchboard

WWII era punchboard

…which explained everything. The picture is of a classic WWII punchboard. The player paid a nickel for a chance to win a small denomination U.S. Defense Stamp (with the various combinations depicted just above the punches on the card) or, if they punched one of the “lucky stars”, a $5 Defense Stamp or a $25 U.S. Defense Bond. These punchboards were used as a means to raise money for the U.S. war effort; some people would definitely gamble on winning a Defense Stamp or Bond when they might not invest in one on their own. The patriotic angle was a nice hook, as well: “Do your duty and gamble on a punch!” Civic groups would buy a bunch of punchboards and distribute them to their members, who would go out and raise money with the boards.

All of which brings us back to Miss Winky. I usually skip the comedy “filler” features in Golden Age comics, but Arthur Beeman (the writer/artist of this feature) played me like a fiddle by including that bit of gratuitous cheesecake in the first panel. Expecting something along the lines of “Torchy”, I went on to read the whole page:

Miss Winky from National Comics #24

Miss Winky from National Comics #24

This comic teaches us two things about the WWII “punchboard phenomenon”. The first I’ve already mentioned: civic groups often used punchboards to raise money for the U.S. war effort (that’s why Miss Winky’s friend is giving her some static about not selling out her board).

The second is a bit less obvious (until we think about the comic’s punchline), and tells us why punchboards disappeared almost entirely after the war’s end: for an unscrupulous (or, in the case of Miss Winky, naive) operator, it was just too easy to cheat the customer. Several models of “punchboard stuffer” (devices which enabled the refilling of a used punchboard) were patented and sold, and it wasn’t terribly difficult for someone to create a fake punchboard (with few or no prizes awarded) from a used-up legit board like the Defense Bond punchboard shown above and rake in a pile of cash by selling these “chances” (which were really no chance at all) to strangers. As a result, punchboards became illegal in many states after the war’s end, and have largely been replaced as charity fundraisers by tip jars and old-fashioned raffles. I’ve seen modern-day punchboards very occasionally; I just never paid any attention to them until I read this one-page “filler” comic yesterday.

The fading of the “punchboard craze” makes the boards highly collectible; you’ll occasionally spot a period punchboard in an antique store or flea market selling for a nice chunk of change (especially if it’s completely unpunched). If you’d like to learn more about punchboards, check out punchboard.com, this page from the American History Archives, or this page which extends the narrative to the present day.

As I mentioned at the top, I’m not kidding when I say that reading Golden Age comics can be an educational experience. I’ve been reading about the Great Depression and World War II for years now and had no idea that punchboards were such a popular form of cheap entertainment throughout that period – until I ran into Miss Winky trying to sell out her punchboard yesterday.

Have fun! — Steve

Copyright 2012, Steven A. Lopez. All rights reserved.

Advertisements