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People & Events: The First Miss America Beauty Pageant, 1921

First Miss America PageantBusiness interests and leisure activities came together on a New Jersey beach, and the Miss America pageant was born. Atlantic City emerged as a beach resort for Philadelphians by 1860. In the 1870s, a boardwalk was added. Over the next fifty years, hotels, saltwater taffy, hot dog stands and arcades all added to the holiday atmosphere for summer vacationers. In 1920 the Businessmen's League of Atlantic City came up with a plan to keep fun and profits continuing past Labor Day. For September 25th, they organized a Fall Frolic. Three hundred and fifty gaily decorated rolling wicker chairs were pushed along the parade route. Three hundred and fifty men pushed the chairs. However, the main attractions were the young "maidens" who sat in the rolling chairs, headed by a Miss Ernestine Cremona, who was dressed in a flowing white robe and represented "Peace."

The glittering spectacle was proclaimed a success. The Businessmen's League went to work soon afterwards to plan for the next year's event. They appointed a committee to organize a "bather's revue." Taking a cue from the popularity of newspaper-sponsored beauty pageants based on photo submissions, newspapers as far west as Pittsburgh and as far south as Washington, D.C., were asked to sponsor local beauty contests. The winners would participate in the Atlantic City contest. If the local newspaper would pay for the winner's wardrobe, the Atlantic City Businessmen's League would pay for the contestant's travel to compete in the Inter City Beauty Contest.

As plans proceeded and contestants were selected, a local Atlantic City newspaperman, Herb Test, enthusiastically proclaimed, "And we'll call her Miss America."

For the 1921 Fall Frolic five days of festivities were planned, including tennis tournaments, parades, concerts, a fancy dress ball as well as seven different bathing divisions featuring children, men, and comic costumes. It seemed that everyone in town was dressing in bathing suits, including firemen and the police. There was even a category for "professional women," actresses of stage and screen.

For weeks before the contest, advertisements up and down the East Coast promised a beachfront bathing suit parade of "thousands of the most beautiful girls in the land." In the end, there were only a handful of beauty queens. They were from Washington, D.C., Pittsburgh, Harrisburg, Ocean City, Camden, Newark, New York, and Philadelphia. A cheering crowd of 100,000 gathered on the boardwalk on the morning of September 8th, 1921, hoping to catch a glimpse of the bathing beauties.

The first Miss America competition was kicked off by the arrival of King Neptune on a barge that landed at the Atlantic City Yacht Club. Neptune was surrounded by a costume ball entourage called the "Frolic of Neptune" which included twenty beauties and twenty male black "slaves." The winner of the Golden Mermaid trophy and $100 was chosen by an equal combination of the crowd's applause and the points given to her by a panel of artists who served as judges. The winner was sixteen-year-old Margaret Gorman of Washington, D.C.

Gorman's bust, waist and hip measurements were 30-25-32. She was five feet one inch tall, and weighed 108 pounds. She bore a striking resemblance to the popular screen actress of the era, Mary Pickford. Gorman's openhearted smile and youthful exuberance had won over the crowd and judges. They crowned her and wrapped her in an American flag as they paraded her around as Miss America. Samuel Gompers, the president of the American Federation of Labor, would be quoted in the New York Times remarking, "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."

Over the next six years, the parade and festivities were expanded. The beauty contest was increasingly popular and the number of contestants rose to 83, from 36 states. To avoid the charges of immorality from conservative protesters appalled by the idea of young women parading themselves in public, organizers presented the contestants as natural and unsophisticated, stressing their youth and wholesomeness. Publicity stressed that they did not wear make-up nor bob their hair -- both symbols of 1920s worldliness and modernity. From the very beginning, the pageant was confronted with a conflict between the effort to present an image of innocence and virtue while, at the same time, promoting a spectacle where women paraded in public in bathing suits.

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