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).