Glitz, Glamour, and Grit: The Miss America Beauty Pageants from the Early 1900s

The Miss America beauty pageant, an event deeply woven into the cultural tapestry of the United States, has been a source of fascination, pride, and controversy since its inception. From its early days in the 1900s to the transformative era of the 1940s, the pageant was not just a competition but a reflection of societal norms, expectations, and the evolving roles of women in American society.

The Humble Beginnings

Contrary to what many might assume, the Miss America pageant did not start as the glamorous event we know today. In 1921, to extend the summer tourist season beyond Labor Day, the Businessmen’s League of Atlantic City decided to host a “Fall Frolic.” Central to this event was the “Inter-City Beauty” contest, where young women competed not just for the crown, but for the honor of representing their locales.

The first winner, 16-year-old Margaret Gorman, was crowned the “Golden Mermaid.” Little did Gorman know, her “mermaid” title would soon transform into “Miss America,” and a national tradition was born.

A Nation’s Values Reflected

The pageant quickly evolved, adding more components to what was initially just a bathing beauty contest. The talent segment was introduced, and contestants were expected to display intelligence, poise, and adherence to the moral standards of the day.

However, the Miss America pageant also mirrored the prejudices and norms of its times. It was predominantly white, and rules in the early years were explicit about the contestants’ racial background. As a sign of those times, the rulebook stated, “contestants must be of good health and of the white race.” This exclusion was a glaring reflection of the racial segregation and biases of the period.

The Pageant Through War and Hardships

The pageant took a serious turn during the Great Depression and World War II. It faced financial hardships during the 1930s, even halting from 1935 to 1937, but returned with vigor in 1938. As the United States entered WWII, the pageant transformed into a platform for promoting war bonds and patriotism.

The contestants’ roles also evolved during these challenging times. They were now symbols of not just beauty and grace but also of strength, resilience, and patriotism, embodying the American spirit during the war. The pageant itself contributed to the war effort, with participants actively involved in selling war bonds, and the competition often featured military-inspired elements.

#1 First Miss America, Margaret Gorman in Americana Outfit, 1922

#2 Barbara Jo Walker and France Burke, Miss America Winners of 1947 and 1940, Showing off Capes and Wands, 1940

#3 Contestants Lined Up at First Miss America Pageant, Atlantic City, 1921

#4 Mary Katherine Campbell, Miss America 1923, at Rolling Chair Parade, Atlantic City, 1923

#5 Mary Katherine Campbell, Second-Time Miss America, Joined by First Winner and Others, 1923

#6 Ruth Malcolmson Crowned by King Neptune, Miss America 1924

#7 15-Year-Old Marian Bergeron Crowned Miss America, 1933

#8 Bikini-Clad Contestants Vying for Miss America Crown, 1938

#9 Marilyn Buferd, Miss America 1946, Among Other Contestants, 1946

#10 Bess Myerson Crowning Marilyn Buferd, Miss America 1946

#11 Sharon Ritchie, Miss America 1956, Greeted with Roses After European Tour, 1956

#12 Margaret Gorman, Winner of First Miss America Pageant, Atlantic City, 1921

#13 Mary Katherine Campbell, Only Two-Time Miss America Winner, 1922

#14 Norma Smallwood, Miss America 1926, Posing with Trophies, 1926

#15 Lois Delander, Miss America 1927, Seated on Throne with Scepter, 1927

#16 Henriette Leaver, Miss Pittsburgh and Miss America 1935, with Crown and Trophy, 1935

#17 Rose Veronica Coyle, Miss America 1936, at Seaside Location, 1936

#18 Bette Cooper, Miss America 1937, in Regal Robe with Trophy, 1937

#19 Marilyn Meseke, Miss America 1938, Flanked by Runners-Up, 1938

#20 Frances Marie Burke Crowned by Patricia Donnelly, Miss America 1940, 1940

#21 Jean Bartel, Miss America 1943, Posing with Trophy, 1943

#22 Venus Ramey, Miss America 1944, Reading Congratulatory Telegrams, 1944

#23 Contestants for Miss America 1945 Posing on Boardwalk, 1945

#24 Yolande Betbeze, Miss America 1951, on Runway, 1950

#25 Colleen Kay Hutchins, Miss America 1952, in Regal Robe with Trophy, 1951

#26 Contestants at Miss America Pageant, Atlantic City, 1953

#27 Georgia Theodora Hale, First Winner of Miss Chicago, 1922

#28 Margaret Leigh, Fourth Place at Miss America Contest, 1924

#29 Margarita Gonzales, Miss Chicago 1925, Eliminated in First Round, 1925

#31 Margaret Knight and Others in Miss Chicago Contest, 1926

#32 Lucille Burgess with Betty Blythe at Miss Chicago Contest, 1926

#33 Mae Greene, Miss Chicago 1926, Chosen Among 4,000 Rivals, 1926

#34 Estelle Kosloff, Disqualified Miss Chicago Winner for Being Married, 1927

#36 Myrtle Christine Valsted, Replacement Miss Chicago 1927

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Written by Kimberly Adams

Kimberly Adams is passionate about classic movies, actors, and actresses. She offers a fresh perspective on timeless films and the stars who made them unforgettable. Her work is an ode to the glamour and artistry of a bygone era, and a tribute to the enduring appeal of classic cinema.

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