The History of Pageants: 1921-1929
Roaring 20’s Bathing Queens • From Margaret Gorman, the First Miss America to the Great Depression
A unique American tradition begins as a promotional gimmick when Atlantic City hotelmen decide to stage a flashy fall festival, or “pageant” to entice summer tourists to stay in town past Labor Day. The fall festival includes a “National Beauty Tournament” on the beach to select “the most beautiful bathing beauty in America”.
Local newsman, Herb Test, adds the crowning touch when he exclaims, “Let’s call her ‘Miss America!'” Eastern newspaper editors are invited to run photo contests to pick winners to represent their communities at the new pageant. Eight contestants compete for the first Miss America title.
It is the roaring twenties … an era of new possibilities birthed by the development of the airplane and women having just won the right to vote… And an era of colliding social values as bootleggers battle over Prohibition, and women beachgoers are arrested by “beach censors” for daring to roll down their knee socks to expose their knees on public beaches.
The era’s fall “pageant”, or “National Beauty Tournament” as it named initially, will quickly become a national favorite: the famed Miss AmericaPageant.
sixteen-year-old school girl, is chosen from 1500 photos entered into a mail-in beauty contest held by the Washington Herald. The daughter of the executive to the Secretary of Agriculture, Gorman has recently starred in a motion picture produced by the Agricultural Department. Interestingly, Miss Washington is a dead-ringer for the reigning “America’s Sweetheart”, silent film superstar Mary Pickford. In Atlantic City, the “demure” matinee idol lookalike quickly emerges as the crowd favorite…and rumors begin to fly that she has signed a movie contract.
In the beachside beauty parade, beach attire rules that banned women from exposing their knees in public are temporarily put aside, and some of the brassier beauties push the limits of propriety so much that lifeguards, who pinch hit as “beach censors”, openly gasp in shock. Gorman, “a demure blonde”, opts for a wholesome black taffeta swim dress detailed with a white girdle.
At the announcement that the pretty young Gorman is the first Miss America, “the crowd went wild.”* Samuel Gompers, the seventy-two-year-old retired president of the America Federation of Labor, is thrilled with the judges’ choice: “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.”**
Margaret is stunned by her victory. “I am afraid I am going to wake up and find this has all been a dream.”*
As news of the success of the 1921 pageant spreads nationwide, interest in the competition soars and an “avalanche of beauties” descend on Atlantic City in 1922 to compete for the second Miss America title, where smitten hotel bellhops “fall all over themselves” in admiration.
Beauties arrived using every imaginable strategy to stand out: Miss Reading arrived wearing a mask over her face and letting her chaperone speak for her, in hopes, she declares, of evoking the mystique for which ladies of the French courts were renowned. She promises to keep the public guessing by wearing masks to coordinate with her morning, afternoon and evening ensembles.
Miss Birmingham had local Chamber of Commerce men swooning when she declares in a charming Southern drawl, “I’m from the South, and the best thing we do is lose with a smile” referring no doubt to the still-fresh Southern loss in the Civil War.
Four contestants made the trip by hydroplane and landed in the surf in front of the Ritz-Carlton, where they created quite a stir when “five aerial bombs were fired from the airplanes when they arrived” and the girls were rowed to shore attired in swimsuits, large leather coats, helmets and goggles. And Miss Alaska creates a huge stir when she arrives in town declaring that she has traveled 5000 miles by dog-sled, boat, train, motor car and finally an aeroplane to attend the event.
The National Beauty Tournament has achieved such popularity with the public that over 70 contestants arrive in Atlantic City to compete for the crown.
The National Beauty Tournament quickly grows into a popular event attracting audiences estimated at 100,000 tourists and over seventy contestants from as far away as Canada. Despite it huge success, the beauty tournament was also marred by a number of scandals.
After pageant officials forget to include a “no marriage” rule, they discover that the first runner-up to Mary Campbell, Ethelda Kenvin, is the wife of Everette Barnes, a Pittsburg Pirates baseball player. Another contestant, “Miss” Boston, Mildred Prendergast, arrives at the pageant with her attorney husband and baby, and officials learn that Miss Alaska, Helmar Leiderman – who supposedly has traveled 5000 miles by dog-sled, boat, train, motor car and finally an aeroplane to attend the event – is actually from New York City, and is married! After being barred from competing, she sued pageant officials for “humiliating discrimination”.
Atlantic City’s Miss America contest is discontinued from 1929 to 1932, due to early effects of the Great Depression and bad press from the scandals.