Most people do not know that punchboards enjoyed popularity in some Western states as late as the 1970s. Most people have never seen a punchboard.
Constructed of compressed cardboard, they were generally about half an inch thick, square or rectangular in shape. The most popular punchboards had 1,000 or 2,500 holes drilled through them, each hole having a diameter of about one-quarter inch. Every hole contained a machine-crimped piece of paper printed with a number. The punchboard player, using a metal punch, pushed the crimped paper slips from the holes to determine if he had one of the winning numbers pre-printed in bright colors on the face of the punchboard. For each punch, the player paid the price stipulated on the printed punchboard heading.
Players punching out winning tickets were awarded merchandise prizes or cash. Punchboards, like slot machines, were not designed to lose money for the house. They were never legal in most of the United States.
Through the ’40s and ’50s, the boards were legal in Idaho and Wyoming. In Utah, peculiarly, despite the heavy preponderance of anti-gambling Mormons, some punchboards were legitimate.
The Utah Supreme Court had ruled that under strictly defined circumstances punchboards were not gambling devices but games of skill. For a punchboard to be legal, according to the court, the player had to pay a fee for an opportunity to solve a checkerboard problem. Punching out a winning ticket provided the player with the chance to demonstrate his checkers-playing skill.
On the back of every legal punchboard there was pasted a checkerboard problem, the correct solution to which could be provided by anyone with a first grade reading ability and an I.Q. of 67. The average punchboard player never saw the back of a punchboard and was never asked to solve a checkers problem. He took his punches, unravelled his tickets and claimed his prizes, if any. In the wake of the Supreme Court’s ruling, the Utah Department of Public Safety ruled that only punchboards awarding candies and cigarettes would be tolerated.
By the early ’50s I was general manager of a distributing company whose most important products were cigarettes and candies. Although I was not enthusiastic about it, I was in the punchboard business. Our wholesale sales organization sold boards to the retail trade and our 13-store retail chain offered punchboard gambling to its customers. The Salt Lake City police department permitted the display of one candy board and one cigarette board in any store and limited the playing price to no more than 10 cents a punch.
During the third or fourth term of Salt Lake City Mayor Earl J. Glade, when an old football coach named Ben Lingenfelter was the public safety commissioner, came The Crackdown.
One fine Monday morning the town’s retailers all started making the same report. Policemen had told them no more cigarette punchboards would be allowed. Candy boards would still be legal.
I phoned Commissioner Lingenfelter, who offered that some of the “brethren on South Temple” had indicated to him and the mayor that they thought it looked pretty bad to visitors to the city to see gambling devices on almost every retail counter in town. Especially when there were 10 or 12 stores in the shadow of the temple with punchboards on their counters.
“Hell, Cracroft,” pointed out the indignant politician, “there are two punchboards right on the counter of the Hotel Utah newsstand, right next to the church offices! Jees, Cracroft, the church owns that hotel. I ask you, how the hell does that look to some bishop coming in here from Parowan?”
It seemed hardly the conversation in which to reveal to the commissioner that my company operated the offending newsstand. It did seem to be the conversation in which to ask whether the crackdown was directed against gambling or cigarettes. Lingenfelter said, “If it were up to me, I’d clamp down on both of them — candy as well as cigarettes. Gambling is gambling. The guy for you to talk to is the mayor. He’s the one who says the candy boards are okay.”
Mayor Glade returned my telephone call about 1:30. We were friends. I knew he liked me. By the time our conversation terminated, I also knew that he disliked cigarette punchboards and was determined to get rid of them.
I telephoned a couple of my cigarette distributing competitors. They felt, as did I, that if cigarette boards were to be banished, so should candy boards.
I also reached the publisher of The Salt Lake Tribune. I explained my conversations with Lingenfelter and Glade. Then I outlined what I wanted to do. He sounded pretty cold, but he agreed to see me in his office the following day. I began composing an advertisement I hoped to run in The Tribune and which covered these points:
- That the Utah Supreme Court had ruled that cigarette and candy punchboards were legal and that they had, accordingly, been commonly displayed around town for many years, providing entertainment for thousands of retail customers and trade stimulation for hundreds of businesses.
- That on Monday morning the police department had notified all punchboard handling retailers that cigarette boards would be illegal beginning on Wednesday morning, but that candy boards would be legal.
- That Mayor Glade and Commissioner Lingenfelter said that the crackdown had been urged upon them by unnamed officials of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. And that the unnamed church officers and the city officials were agreed that cigarette punchboards would be outlawed but candy punchboards would be permitted.
- That everyone knew that the LDS Church had historically opposed gambling, but that it now appeared that gambling for candy was acceptable to its officials.
- That these facts might be relevant:
- The Mormon Church was the principal owner of the Utah-Idaho Sugar Company. The six candy making companies who provided most of the candy punchboards were big customers of the Utah-Idaho Sugar Company.
- The Mormon Church was the owner of The Deseret News and the candy manufacturers were Deseret News advertisers.
- Some candy manufacturers claimed that punchboard offerings accounted for more than 25 percent of their business.
- The mayor’s brother was president and general manager of one of the candy manufacturing firms dependent on the punchboard trade.
- Although we realized that such action might be inconvenient for the parties named in items 1 through 4, we felt it timely to call upon the mayor and public safety commissioner to crush gambling in our city once and for all. We urged all concerned Salt Lake City citizens to join with us in demanding that Mayor Glade and Commissioner Lingenfelter immediately prohibit the sale of punchboards of every kind and description in Salt Lake City.
(For the convenience of Tribune readers, I intended to include at the bottom of the ad the office and home telephone numbers of Earl Glade and Ben Lingenfelter.)
On the day before the punchboard ban was to kick in, I arrived for my appointment with Tribune Publisher John F. Fitzpatrick. In my briefcase were draft copies of my advertisement and two typewritten resumes of the events of the preceding day, the latter reconstructing conversations with city officials with as much exactness as I could summon.
Fitzpatrick was acknowledged to be the most influential gentile in the city. His appearance belied his power. In his 60s, his straight hair much thinned, he wore metal-rimmed eyeglasses and could easily have passed for a bookkeeper from the accounting department. He had acquired some familiarity with the nature of my business and asked two questions about my Marine Corps career.
The niceties over, we got down to business. I narrated my punchboard story, and when I finished, I presented my advertisement draft and told Fitzpatrick that I wanted to run the ad in the next day’s Tribune.
The publisher read the copy carefully, several times stopping to ask me if I were sure of my facts. He wasn’t keen on printing the home phone numbers of the two city officials. I struck them from the copy. We discussed the ad for perhaps 10 minutes and then Fitzpatrick told me that he definitely did not want to run the advertisement, that it would offend LDS Church officials who really were fine men. He said that if I didn’t mind, he would like to try another approach: Would I mind if he telephoned the mayor?
I sat across the desk and heard him cheerfully greet our mayor on the telephone. I heard him say that I earlier had come by his office and had talked with him about the city’s new punchboard edict.
He read to the mayor most of the advertisement copy I had given him. He gave a kind of half-snort when he finished the paragraph about the mayor’s brother, paused dramatically and read the balance of the ad quite quickly.
That done, Fitzpatrick told the mayor that what he had just read for him was an editorial prepared for publication in The Tribune. After several seconds, the publisher removed the telephone from his ear and extended it toward me. I could hear plaintive, agitated noises emitting from Earl Glade.
Fitzpatrick sat silently listening to what the mayor had to say. Then he said: “Well, there’s nothing to it. All you have to do is rescind your order about the cigarette punchboards. But you ought to do it right now, before the day is out.”
After that he listened some more and he said: “Well, that’s the thing to do, all right, but I probably won’t be in my office. So instead of telling me, why don’t you and Lingenfelter drop by Cracroft’s office later on? Then you can tell him. Don’t worry,” he continued, “as long as you take care of things, the editorial is dead.”
When Fitzpatrick put on his smile of success he no longer looked coldly Prussian. He looked warmly Irish.
And thus came I to receive a visit from the city mayor and the public safety commissioner at around 4:55 p.m. that very day. They brought me the news that the city’s retailers had all been notified that the ban on cigarette boards had been lifted. They told me they had talked over my arguments and had concluded that I was absolutely right. The mayor said I was a real salesman.
It was obvious that the two men felt John F. Fitzpatrick, without him uttering the words, had sworn them to secrecy regarding his role in l’affaire punchboards. I, too, had been sworn to secrecy.
And I have never told anyone. Until now.