Eighty-six women have held the title of Miss America since the competition’s early days.
Developed by a desire to increase newspaper circulation and extend the tourism season past Labor Day, the competition could have been a one-time event, but today, as it returns to its Atlantic City roots after a stint in Las Vegas, it remains a tradition and the title holder an American icon.
Historical and newspaper accounts trace the start to the Fall Frolic, a festival complete with a rolling chair parade to bring tourists to Absecon Island in September 1920.
The following year, East Coast newspapers, led by newspaperman Herb Test were looking to increase circulation. They held a photo contest for different cities and the winners received an all-expense paid trip to the seaside resort.
Margaret Gorman, 16, was named “The Most Beautiful Bathing Girl in America” in 1921. By 1922 she had become known simply as Miss America.
Protests and financial troubles kept the event’s fate in doubt until the 1930s.
In fact, protests about the image the contest portrayed led to its end — at least temporarily in 1927. A winner was crowned in 1933, but that year it was a financial failure, and it was not until 1935 that the event began a run that would take it into the 21st century, from Atlantic City to Las Vegas and back.
The competition has seen many milestones and changes. The second Miss America, Mary Campbell, held the title twice, in 1922 and 1923, before a rule change limited contestants to one turn at the top.
Evening gowns weren’t standard at first, and it wasn’t until Marian Bergeron was crowned in 1933 that the winner was clad in eveningwear, something that is now routine.
Talent was a new addition in the 1930s, and that part of the compeititon had to be refined. For instance, Miss Montana rode a horse on stage in 1949. The horse lost its footing and landed in the orchestra pit. The rules were changed to prohibit large animals. In 1968, Miss Idaho’s doves flew into the crowd. After that, small animals were out, too.
It wasn’t until 1945 that the first Miss America scholarship was awarded to Bess Myerson, followed 44 years later with the addition of national platforms.
The competition leaped to television in 1954, the year Lee Meriwether won, and the following year “There she is, Miss America” was sung for the first time.
Now largely referred to by the Miss America Organiza-tion as a competion instead of pageant, the event has changed over the years as style and tastes have changed.
Samuel Gompers, head of the American Federation of Labor, was quoted in The New York Times as saying that Gorman represented the “womanhood America needs; strong, red-blooded, able to shoulder the responsibilities of home-making and motherhood. It is in her type that the hope of the country resides.”
Today, the former titleholders are a diverse group of women. The competition’s 1995 75th anniversary program guide featured a story on “The Changing Role of Women in Society” and focused on women in the workplace, in the arts and education.
The piece featured former contestants who went on to become therapists, businesswomen, accountants, artists and sheriffs.
Contestants are now college students working toward degrees including masters programs and law school.
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