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It's Not a Beauty Pageant. It's a Scholarship Program!

Raise your tiaras, everyone—August is National Beauty Pageant Month. Aphrodite could really be considered the world’s first beauty queen, although the contest was a little biased. Talk about bribing the judge—Paris was promised Helen of Troy, the most beautiful woman on Earth, if he chose the goddess of love.

Yolanda Betbeze, Miss America of 1951 The six winners in the beauty contests of the Sunday Times. Washington Times. May 5, 1907

Choosing symbolic kings and queens for May Day and other festivities is an ancient custom in Europe, in which beautiful young women symbolize their nation's virtues and other abstract ideas. P. T. Barnum staged the first modern American pageant in 1854, but his beauty contest was closed down by public protest. He kept the contest going by substituting daguerreotypes for women, a practice quickly adopted by newspapers. Newspapers held photo beauty contests for many decades: in 1880, the first “Bathing Beauty Pageant” took place as part of a summer festival to promote business in Rehoboth Beach, Del.

The modern beauty pageant's origin is traceable to the “Atlantic City’s Inter-City Beauty Contest” in 1921, which was held to entice summer tourists to stay in town past Labor Day. Local newsman Herb Test created history by offering to title the girl who won “Miss America.” Out of the eight competitors for the title, Margaret Gorman, who represented the nation's capital as Miss Washington D.C., was declared the beauty queen, winning the first-ever Miss America title.

For several years afterward, the contest was dogged by controversies. First, the contest came under new management as The Variety Showman’s Jubilee. Then, 15-year-old Marian Bergeron won the crown. Later, when her age was discovered, she was disqualified, but the crown had already been stolen from her hotel.

In 1935 the pageant was revived by producer Lenora Slaughter. By this time, the nation was in the grip of Hollywood fever. Pageant-winners were often offered Hollywood screen tests, and film producers from Hollywood started scouring these contests for potential stars of the silver screen. Some ladies actually did make it to the screen that way, including Dorothy Lamour (1935), who went on to co-star in several “Road to …” pictures with Bob Hope and Bing Crosby. It was only in 1938 that a talent competition became mandatory for the pageant. Slaughter also decided to offer a college scholarship to the winner, a whopping sum of $5,000. In 1945, Miss New York, Bess Myerson, won the first of these scholarships. She also made history of another sort—as the first Jewish woman to be named Miss America.

In 1948, history was made again when Slaughter announced that henceforth the winners would be crowned in evening gowns only.

Other major contests include the yearly Miss World competition (founded in 1951), Miss Universe (founded in 1952), Miss International (founded in 1960) and Miss Earth (founded in 2001 with environmental awareness as its concern).

Miles Weaver was a photographer well known for his photographs of bathing beauty pageants. He sent several panoramas of these pageants to the Library for copyright protection. You can also search the Library’s Panoramic Photographs Collection or Prints and Photographs Online Catalog for “bathing beauties,” “beauty pageant” or “Miss America” to pull up a variety of historical photos—even ones of the very first Miss America, Margaret Gorman.

Searching the Chronicling America site for “beauty contest” will pull up pages and pages of historical newspaper clippings featuring photo beauty contests, including the contestants and winners. Regular sponsors were the Washington Times and the San Francisco Call.

A. Yolanda Betbeze, Miss America of 1951. Prints and Photographs Division. Reproduction Information: Reproduction No.: LC-USZ62-125994 (b&w film copy neg.); Call No: NYWTS - BIOG--Betbeze, Yolande--Beauty Contest [item] [P&P]

B. The six winners in the beauty contests of the Sunday Times. Washington Times. May 5, 1907. National Digital Newspaper Program, Library of Congress. Reproduction Information: Reproduction information not available.