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Miss America | Article

Beauty Pageant Origins and Culture

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Miss America Pageant, September 7th to 12th, 1953, Convention Hall, Atlantic City, N.J. Library of Congress

Origins of the Beauty Pageant
Contests to determine "who is the fairest of them all" have been around at least since ancient Greece and the Judgment of Paris. According to legend, a poor mortal goatherd, Alexandros (Paris), was called upon to settle a dispute among the goddesses. Who was the most beautiful: Hera (Juno), Aprhodite (Venus), or Athena (Minerva)? All three goddesses offered bribes: according to the writer Apollodorus, "Hera said that if she were preferred to all women, she would give him the kingdom over all men; and Athena promised victory in war, and Aphrodite the hand of Helen." When Paris selected Aphrodite in exchange for getting Helen of Troy, the most beautiful mortal of the time, he inadvertently started the Trojan War.

While ancient Greeks memorialized in myth the complicated relationship between beauty and competition, there is no historical evidence that they actually held contests for women. A "contest of physique" called the euandria was held yearly at an Athenian festival — but the contest was for men. European festivals dating to the medieval era provide the most direct lineage for beauty pageants. For example, English May Day celebrations always involved the selection of queens.

In the United States, the May Day tradition of selecting women to serve as symbols of bounty and community ideals continued, as young beautiful women participated in public celebrations. When George Washington rode from Mount Vernon to New York City in 1789 to assume the presidency, groups of young women dressed in white lined his route, placing palm branches before his carriage. General Lafayette's triumphant tour of the United States in 1826 also was greeted by similar delegations of young women.

The first truly modern beauty contest, involving the display of women's faces and figures before judges, can be traced to one of America's greatest showmen, Phineas T. Barnum (of circus fame). In the 1850s, the ever-resourceful Barnum owned a "dime museum" in New York City that catered to the growing audience for commercial entertainment. Some of Barnum's most popular attractions were "national contests" where dogs, chickens, flowers, and even children were displayed and judged for paying audiences. While 61,000 people swarmed to his baby show in 1855, a similar event the year before to select and exhibit "the handsomest ladies" in America proved a disappointment. The prize — a dowry (if the winner was single) or a diamond tiara (if the winner was married) — was not enough to lure respectable girls and women of the Victorian era to publicly display themselves.

Barnum developed a brilliant alternate plan for a beauty contest that would accept entries in the form of photographic likenesses. These photographs would be displayed in his museum and the public would vote for them. The final ten entrants would receive specially commissioned oil portraits of themselves. These portraits would be reproduced in a "fine arts" book to be published in France, entitled the World's Book of Female Beauty. Barnum sold off his museum before the photographs arrived, but in employing modern technology and in combining lowbrow entertainment with the appeal of highbrow culture, Barnum pioneered a new model of commercial entertainment.

In the decades to come, the picture photo contest was widely imitated and became a respectable way for girls and women to have their beauty judged. Civic leaders across the country, seeking to boost citizen morale, incorporate newcomers, and attract new settlers and businesses to their communities, held newspaper contests to choose women that represented the "spirit" of their locales. One of the most popular of these contests occurred in 1905, when promoters of the St. Louis Exposition contacted city newspapers across the country to select a representative young woman from their city to compete for a beauty title at the Exposition. There was intense competition and, according to one report, forty thousand photo entries.

By the early decades of the twentieth century, attitudes had begun to change about beauty pageants. Prohibitions against the display of women in public began to fade, though not to disappear altogether. One of the earliest known resort beauty pageants had been held in 1880, at Rehoboth Beach, Delaware. However, it was not until the twentieth century that beach resorts began to hold regular beauty pageants as entertainments for the growing middle class. In 1921, in an effort to lure tourists to stay past Labor Day, Atlantic City organizers staged the first Miss America Pageant in September. Stressing that the contestants were both youthful and wholesome, the Miss America Pageant brought together issues of democracy and class, art and commerce, gender and sex — and started a tradition that would grow throughout the century to come.

Atlantic City
Absecon Island, where Atlantic City was built, was known to the Lenni Lenape Indians as Absegami, or "Little Sea Water." In 1852 a group of New Jersey businessmen, anxious to develop the shoreline, received a railroad charter from Camden to Atlantic City. Engineer Richard Osborne named and designed Atlantic City. Since it was the shortest distance between Philadelphia and the sea, Atlantic City grew quickly as a resort town.

By the 1870s, a boardwalk had been added, providing more people with access to the sea. The city boasted a prototype rollercoaster by the late 1880s. In the decades around the turn of the twentieth century, middle and working class Philadephians, and soon others from up and down the East Coast, would come to play by the seaside. Vendors hawked their wares. James' Saltwater Taffy became "Famous the World Over." Mechanical marvels took tourists on daring rides that made their stomachs turn. Children rode carousels, and families dined in seaside cafes. Concerts were held on the sand every evening and the many hotels up and down the shore held gala dances.

Atlantic City seemed to have developed two personalities. On the one hand, the resort was promoted as a restful and wholesome vacation spot, offering sun and surf. On the other hand, tourists reveled in the boisterous atmosphere spawned by a festival of midways, numerous amusement piers (such as the one H.J. Heinz purchased to popularize his 57 varieties of pickles), and a selection of rollicking rides. Atlantic City and its older sibling to the north, Coney Island, became extravagant playgrounds. In New Cosmopolis (1915), James Huneker wrote, "Atlantic City is not a treat for the introspective. It is all surface; it is hard, glittering, unspeakably cacophonous, and it never sleeps at all. Three days and you crave the comparative solitude of Broadway and 34th Street; a week and you may die of insomnia."

By the 1920s, Atlantic City also had become a pre-Broadway show tryout town, a practice that continued until 1935. With the entrance of show business, the resort increasingly attracted celebrities who added a special element of glamour. Even as the city declined as a Broadway showcase, the celebrities continued to grace the city in the decades to come. Over the years people like Sophie Tucker, Jimmy Durante, Fanny Brice, Harry Houdini, Milton Berle, Martha Raye, Guy Lombardo, Irving Berlin, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis, Marilyn Monroe, and many more would be spotted around town.

Its tourism and light-hearted revelry made Atlantic City the perfect spot to hold the first Miss America Pageant on September 8th, 1921. King Neptune himself greeted the beauties competing along the shore. At the time, Atlantic City was known as one of the premier spots to market to a national audience. For years, the Underwood Company attracted large crowds to its "World's Largest Typewriter" at the Garden Pier. In 1932 Goodyear had a truck haul a 12-foot tall rubber tire around the city as "the World's Largest Tire." At night, along the boardwalk and around the city, thousands of light bulbs lit up signs advertising everything from cigarettes to razor blades. What better place to present and package the nation's reigning ideal of femininity — Miss America?

Though the economy hit hard times in the 1930s, people continued to flock to Atlantic City. It became even more well known when it became the city featured in the Depression-era hit game, Monopoly, where players handled large sums of money and strategized to buy the best property along the boardwalk. Today, Monopoly is still the most popular board game in the world.

With the advent of air travel to vacation spots like Florida and the Caribbean, the city hit a decline in the 1950s. The city was beset with economic problems for the next two decades. In 1976, the city legalized gambling and supported the construction of casinos. At the time gambling was brought in, proponents heralded it as a "unique tool of urban development." Casinos have brought tourism back to the city and created new jobs. At the same time, over the last three decades, the city has been faced with a decaying inner city and a high poverty rate, challenging citizens and casino owners to manage the city's day-to-day needs as well as it serves its tourist visitors.

Since 1921, the Miss America Pageant has chosen to stay in Atlantic City. Every September the pageant brings in celebrity hosts like Donny and Marie Osmond and Tony Danza. Next door to the Convention Center, one of the biggest trade shows for the beauty pageant industry sets up shop in a casino. Pageant hopefuls are seen everywhere on the boardwalk and in the hotels, adding to the excitement of being in Atlantic City.

The First Miss America Beauty Pageant, 1921
Business interests and leisure activities came together on a New Jersey beach, and the Miss America pageant was born. Atlantic City emerged as a beach resort for Philadelphians by 1860. In the 1870s, a boardwalk was added. Over the next fifty years, hotels, saltwater taffy, hot dog stands and arcades all added to the holiday atmosphere for summer vacationers. In 1920 the Businessmen's League of Atlantic City came up with a plan to keep fun and profits continuing past Labor Day. For September 25th, they organized a Fall Frolic. Three hundred and fifty gaily decorated rolling wicker chairs were pushed along the parade route. Three hundred and fifty men pushed the chairs. However, the main attractions were the young "maidens" who sat in the rolling chairs, headed by a Miss Ernestine Cremona, who was dressed in a flowing white robe and represented "Peace."

The glittering spectacle was proclaimed a success. The Businessmen's League went to work soon afterwards to plan for the next year's event. They appointed a committee to organize a "bather's revue." Taking a cue from the popularity of newspaper-sponsored beauty pageants based on photo submissions, newspapers as far west as Pittsburgh and as far south as Washington, D.C., were asked to sponsor local beauty contests. The winners would participate in the Atlantic City contest. If the local newspaper would pay for the winner's wardrobe, the Atlantic City Businessmen's League would pay for the contestant's travel to compete in the Inter City Beauty Contest.

As plans proceeded and contestants were selected, a local Atlantic City newspaperman, Herb Test, enthusiastically proclaimed, "And we'll call her Miss America."

For the 1921 Fall Frolic five days of festivities were planned, including tennis tournaments, parades, concerts, a fancy dress ball as well as seven different bathing divisions featuring children, men, and comic costumes. It seemed that everyone in town was dressing in bathing suits, including firemen and the police. There was even a category for "professional women," actresses of stage and screen.

For weeks before the contest, advertisements up and down the East Coast promised a beachfront bathing suit parade of "thousands of the most beautiful girls in the land." In the end, there were only a handful of beauty queens. They were from Washington, D.C., Pittsburgh, Harrisburg, Ocean City, Camden, Newark, New York, and Philadelphia. A cheering crowd of 100,000 gathered on the boardwalk on the morning of September 8th, 1921, hoping to catch a glimpse of the bathing beauties.

The first Miss America competition was kicked off by the arrival of King Neptune on a barge that landed at the Atlantic City Yacht Club. Neptune was surrounded by a costume ball entourage called the "Frolic of Neptune" which included twenty beauties and twenty male black "slaves." The winner of the Golden Mermaid trophy and $100 was chosen by an equal combination of the crowd's applause and the points given to her by a panel of artists who served as judges. The winner was sixteen-year-old Margaret Gorman of Washington, D.C.

Gorman's bust, waist and hip measurements were 30-25-32. She was five feet one inch tall, and weighed 108 pounds. She bore a striking resemblance to the popular screen actress of the era, Mary Pickford. Gorman's openhearted smile and youthful exuberance had won over the crowd and judges. They crowned her and wrapped her in an American flag as they paraded her around as Miss America. Samuel Gompers, the president of the American Federation of Labor, would be quoted in the New York Times remarking, "She represents the type of womanhood America needs — strong, red blooded, able to shoulder the responsibilities of homemaking and motherhood. It is in her type that the hope of the country rests."

Over the next six years, the parade and festivities were expanded. The beauty contest was increasingly popular and the number of contestants rose to 83, from 36 states. To avoid the charges of immorality from conservative protesters appalled by the idea of young women parading themselves in public, organizers presented the contestants as natural and unsophisticated, stressing their youth and wholesomeness. Publicity stressed that they did not wear make-up nor bob their hair — both symbols of 1920s worldliness and modernity. From the very beginning, the pageant was confronted with a conflict between the effort to present an image of innocence and virtue while, at the same time, promoting a spectacle where women paraded in public in bathing suits.

America's Beauty Culture
The use of cosmetics in the nineteenth century posed a moral dilemma. Beauty was supposed to be a manifestation of goodness, not artifice. Still, women were familiar with a wide variety of home recipes for paints and cosmetics.

Early cosmetics were usually made from home-concocted recipes. Some used lead, mercury and arsenic, which could cause illness -- or sometimes death. Americans distinguished between "paint" and "cosmetics," though products classified with these two terms frequently accomplished the same goal: to enhance a woman's appearance. Cosmetics implied "skin-improving" substances, while paint denoted "skin-masking." As the middle class grew over the nineteenth century, and as urban life expanded, paints, especially patent compounds, were associated with social climbers and women who would trick men into marriage. The American middle and upper classes also associated the use of paint with the working classes. Using paint was understood as part of a disreputable effort to use artifice to hide one's social status.

During the early twentieth century, paints remained attached to stories of prostitutes or shop-girls trying to pass themselves off as "ladies." But slowly, women from all classes were experimenting with cosmetics and paints. Race also played a role in reactions to cosmetics. Pale skin remained the ideal throughout the nineteenth century, as part of an ethos of white supremacy and the predominant racism of the era. Still, more natural-looking skin tints started making their appearance in the early part of the twentieth century. In black communities, make-up became a political issue. Some women chose to use skin whiteners, causing debates over whether the products indicated black self-loathing or individual expression. Darker colors of face powder were introduced to the market when the black pride movements of the 1920s, such as the one led by Marcus Garvey, began making a positive impact on African Americans' self images.

In its early years, the cosmetics industry was built largely by women. Despite the fact that women had little business education or the access to credit that men had, the turn of the century saw the rise of several highly successful women entrepreneurs in the beauty business. Four of the five most successful women beauty entrepreneurs, the Canadian Florence Graham (later Elizabeth Arden), the eastern European Jew Helena Rubinstein, and two African-American women, Annie Turnbo and Sarah Breedlove (later Madame Walker), came from impoverished backgrounds. Much of their success resulted from new selling techniques adopted when mainstream avenues were closed to them. They created a more personalized sales approach, like community door-to-door selling and home-based mail order operations. These women, who made it in the male-dominated business world, succeeded in an area some thought was particularly "suited" to women — businesses that catered to female body image. Like the Miss America Pageant, the cosmetics industry provided a place for women to succeed — but only within the narrow parameters deemed appropriate for women.

Between 1890 and 1924 women registered 450 trademarks for cosmetics. By the 1920s, the more localized and service-oriented cosmetic industry, which was dominated by women, began to transform into a national system that put production, advertising, and distribution into the mass market. The new national cosmetic industry was run primarily by men after 1920, but it required women, who entered the world of cosmetics business as advertisers, and perhaps more importantly, beauty experts and the trusted tastemakers for ladies magazines such as Ladies' Home JournalMcCalls and Good Housekeeping. At the end of the 1920s a fundamental change had taken place. Makeup was now perceived to be part of a woman's expression of individuality. Far from being deceitful, the use of makeup now expressed femininity. In 1936 the first makeover appeared in Mademoiselle. The subject was a nurse, Barbara Phillips.

The national cosmetics industry and beauty pageants emerged around the same time, as part of a growing beauty culture. By the 1920s and 1930s, taking a cue from the Miss America Contest, beauty contests were everywhere. Beauty contests were even held in high schools, as one Fresno superintendent explained, to make students more interested in personal care; physical education teachers rated girls' skin, hair, muscle tone, and general appearance, among other criteria. At an Iowa state fair, judges measured young women against a yardstick of health and rural virtue. The winner in 1926, reported the Des Moines Register, used no powder or rouge, cared nothing for boys and dates, did not dance, and rarely went to the movies. Very different standards applied elsewhere. In a massive study on movies and conduct led by sociologist Herbert Blumer in the late 1920s and early 1930s, three-fourths of the 'delinquent girls' said they heightened their sex appeal by imitating movie stars' clothes, hair, and cosmetics.

During the 1940s makeup became part of a nationalist discourse as cosmetic advertisers made the well made-up woman the very thing men were fighting for. Women were told it was their "right" to be feminine — even, or especially, as they engaged in their wartime jobs. The real explosion in the variety of color, goods and styles came after the war and had a profound effect. Now there was "mood" makeup, makeup marketed for teenagers, and even renewed interest in attracting men to cosmetics. Even more than ever, makeup became embedded in psychological issues of self: beauty care was a sign of mental health and accepting one's femininity. In an era when opportunities for women declined, being beautiful was a job in itself. The increasing sophistication of advertising at mid-century played to people's personal vulnerabilities and sold them on self-improvement. Advertising focused on how products would make buyers "better" people. For women, the focus was on how a product would make them more "feminine."

Perhaps one of the more freeing changes in the 1950s was the acceptance of female sexuality as something for a woman herself to enjoy. Lipsticks called "hussy" and "fire and ice" were sold to the "high class tramp." While there was little controversy over cosmetics in the 1950s and early 1960s, criticism exploded in the late 1960s. African American women inaugurated the "natural" style. The fashion and cosmetics industries, however, showed remarkable malleability, easily incorporating the new attitude, selling it as a look that could only be attained by purchasing more make-up. Cosmetics that didn't look artificial were marketed as higher quality products. "Maybe she's born with it, maybe it's Maybelline," trumpeted one ad. When more women went back to cosmetics in the 1980s it was with the distinct idea that they would wear make-up according to their own needs and desires. The cosmetics industry itself became more "multicultural" than ever before.

Women have many reasons for using cosmetics to alter their appearance, in search of allure, youth, maturity, variety — and the cosmetics industry has responded by diversifying its offerings. In 1999, the industry's annual profits grew to $25 billion. While some critics argue the new diversity only profits white-owned businesses wanting to cash in on "a liberal image," there seems to be a contemporary emphasis on choice. In the end, as historian Kathy Peiss has pointed out, cosmetics mean different things to different people. "The culture of beauty has never been only a regimen of self-appraisal and surveillance," she writes. "Women have used makeup to declare themselves — to announce their adult status, sexual allure, youthful spirit, political beliefs — and even to proclaim their right to self-definition."

Beauty Queens on a World Stage
Beauty pageants are not just an American phenomenon. Pageants around the world draw on local and international audiences and span every conceivable group and interest. The origins of beauty contests extend back for centuries; the modern pageant can be traced to the United States and the 1921 Miss America Pageant. Hollywood films and newsreels helped spread the idea to different countries in the 1930s and 1940s. By the 1950s, many beauty contests were held around the world as part of decolonization and rising nationalism.

In 1951 the Miss America Corporation, a non-profit foundation unrelated to the Miss America Pageant, unified regional contests and separate national contests and invented the Miss World Pageant. Later, when Miss America Yolande Betbeze refused to wear a bathing suit in public, Catalina Swimwear pulled out as a sponsor of the Miss America Pageant, and founded the rival Miss USA and Miss Universe pageants.

While beauty pageants around the world are primarily about putting idealized versions of femininity on a competitive stage and awarding a "royal" title and crown to the winner, they are also about using femininity to represent other issues. As diverse as beauty contests are around the world, write historians Colleen Ballerino Cohen and Richard Wilk, they are remarkably similar. "Whether the title is for Miss Universe or the Crooked Tree Cashew Queen, these contests showcase values, concepts, and behavior that exist at the center of a group's sense of itself and exhibit values of morality, gender, and place."

Several recent pageants underscore the importance of beauty queens as symbols. The 1996 Miss Italy Pageant generated a national dialogue on race. Denny Mendez, a black Carribean immigrant, was crowned Miss Italy. Mendez's victory ignited a controversy and Italians debated the issue of national identity and what it means to be Italian. Commentors all over the country used the Mendez victory to discuss the issue of racial tolerance in Italy.

That same year, the Miss World Contest, held in Bangalore, India, made international news when feminist and nationalist protesters picketed the pageant and threatened mass suicide. Their message was not only that women were degraded, but also that the Miss World Pageant threatened Indian culture with its importation of western values. Objections to international pageants center on the use of these events as global showcases for Western products and Western standards of beauty. This critique, which equates the selling of women to the selling of Western products and values, has some basis. Miss Universe, for example, is broadcast to more than eighty countries and has an audience of six hundred million people.

International pageants also play a role in national aspirations. As cultural scholar Sarah Banet-Weiser has suggested, many countries that send contestants to these pageants are making a claim. In the context of the world's cultural economy, having a contestant at an international pageant can be about claiming inclusion in the "family of nations" that comprises the international community. In 1994 women from India won both the Miss World and the Miss Universe pageants. Many people in India and in other countries celebrated the event. Because of its newly acquired monopoly on beauty titles, India could claim its women were among the world's most beautiful. In successfully meeting the pageants' standards of beauty, the new Miss World and Miss Universe staked a claim for India in the international commercial culture these pageants represent.

On the international stage of a pageant like Miss Universe, and on Miss America's national stage, participants, organizers, and audience look for shared values and ways to feel national pride. Though beauty pageants sometimes have been critiqued as trivial or irrelevant, what makes them important to many people worldwide is the somewhat mysterious process by which an individual woman can become a symbol of national identity, group values and pride.

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