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People & Events: Origins of the Beauty Pageant

parade along beachContests to determine "who is the fairest of them all" have been around at least since ancient Greece and the Judgment of Paris. According to legend, a poor mortal goatherd, Alexandros (Paris), was called upon to settle a dispute among the goddesses. Who was the most beautiful: Hera (Juno), Aprhodite (Venus), or Athena (Minerva)? All three goddesses offered bribes: according to the writer Apollodorus, "Hera said that if she were preferred to all women, she would give him the kingdom over all men; and Athena promised victory in war, and Aphrodite the hand of Helen." When Paris selected Aphrodite in exchange for getting Helen of Troy, the most beautiful mortal of the time, he inadvertently started the Trojan War.

While ancient Greeks memorialized in myth the complicated relationship between beauty and competition, there is no historical evidence that they actually held contests for women. A "contest of physique" called the euandria was held yearly at an Athenian festival -- but the contest was for men. European festivals dating to the medieval era provide the most direct lineage for beauty pageants. For example, English May Day celebrations always involved the selection of queens.

In the United States, the May Day tradition of selecting women to serve as symbols of bounty and community ideals continued, as young beautiful women participated in public celebrations. When George Washington rode from Mount Vernon to New York City in 1789 to assume the presidency, groups of young women dressed in white lined his route, placing palm branches before his carriage. General Lafayette's triumphant tour of the United States in 1826 also was greeted by similar delegations of young women.

The first truly modern beauty contest, involving the display of women's faces and figures before judges, can be traced to one of America's greatest showmen, Phineas T. Barnum (of circus fame). In the 1850s, the ever-resourceful Barnum owned a "dime museum" in New York City that catered to the growing audience for commercial entertainment. Some of Barnum's most popular attractions were "national contests" where dogs, chickens, flowers, and even children were displayed and judged for paying audiences. While 61,000 people swarmed to his baby show in 1855, a similar event the year before to select and exhibit "the handsomest ladies" in America proved a disappointment. The prize -- a dowry (if the winner was single) or a diamond tiara (if the winner was married) -- was not enough to lure respectable girls and women of the Victorian era to publicly display themselves.

Barnum developed a brilliant alternate plan for a beauty contest that would accept entries in the form of photographic likenesses. These photographs would be displayed in his museum and the public would vote for them. The final ten entrants would receive specially commissioned oil portraits of themselves. These portraits would be reproduced in a "fine arts" book to be published in France, entitled the World's Book of Female Beauty. Barnum sold off his museum before the photographs arrived, but in employing modern technology and in combining lowbrow entertainment with the appeal of highbrow culture, Barnum pioneered a new model of commercial entertainment.

In the decades to come, the picture photo contest was widely imitated and became a respectable way for girls and women to have their beauty judged. Civic leaders across the country, seeking to boost citizen morale, incorporate newcomers, and attract new settlers and businesses to their communities, held newspaper contests to choose women that represented the "spirit" of their locales. One of the most popular of these contests occurred in 1905, when promoters of the St. Louis Exposition contacted city newspapers across the country to select a representative young woman from their city to compete for a beauty title at the Exposition. There was intense competition and, according to one report, forty thousand photo entries.

By the early decades of the twentieth century, attitudes had begun to change about beauty pageants. Prohibitions against the display of women in public began to fade, though not to disappear altogether. One of the earliest known resort beauty pageants had been held in 1880, at Rehoboth Beach, Delaware. However, it was not until the twentieth century that beach resorts began to hold regular beauty pageants as entertainments for the growing middle class. In 1921, in an effort to lure tourists to stay past Labor Day, Atlantic City organizers staged the first Miss America Pageant in September. Stressing that the contestants were both youthful and wholesome, the Miss America Pageant brought together issues of democracy and class, art and commerce, gender and sex -- and started a tradition that would grow throughout the century to come.

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