The pageant got its start on the Atlantic City Boardwalk in September 1921. Back then the "Atlantic City Bathing Beauty Pageant" was part of a Fall Frolic conceived by local businessmen to keep tourists coming to the shore after Labor Day.

The pageant was actually just one part of a series of frolic festivities, which included a large rolling chair parade that generated almost as much attention as the clash of bathing beauties. The contestants represented various cities and were selected by their local newspapers, which ran beauty queen searches as a promotional gimmick.

Although posters for the 1921 event promised "thousands" of beautiful women would vie for the top prize, 16-year-old Margaret Gorman won the title by defeating only seven other contestants in an event that took place on the Atlantic City beach between the Garden and Steel piers.

The name "Miss America" was coined by Herb Test, a reporter for the Atlantic City Press hired to do publicity for the original contest. The choice was inspired, but pageant officials - showing their usual receptiveness to the media - did not officially adopt the Miss America name until 1940.