The First Miss America Pageant

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The 1920’s are remembered as the years of flappers, gangsters and prohibition. Another great triumph accredited to this decade is the creation of the beauty pageant. The first Miss America pageant was held in 1921 in Atlantic City. However, it was not called the Miss America Pageant at the time, and the structure varied greatly from the modern day organization of the pageant.

The idea for a “Fall Frolic” was first presented by Conrad Eckholm, the administrator of the Monticello Hotel in Atlantic City. He suggested that the frolic be held over Labor Day with the purpose of benefiting smaller hotels in the Atlantic City area. It was to be a grand festival with tents for music, dancing and various other festivities. A newspaper writer suggested a “popularity contest” aka “beauty contest” should be held in different cities to spread excitement about the frolic via the newspapers. The winners of the inter city popularity contests would win a free trip to Atlantic City and a chance to compete against the other city winners at the Fall Frolic. 

The featured guests of the frolic were Father Neptune and the Mermaids. Father Neptune was actually 80 year old Hudson Maxim, inventor of smokeless gun powder. The Mermaids were the Inter-City Beauty Contestants. As the Frolic began, Father Neptune and the Mermaids entered on a float resembling a sea shell in front of more than 60,000 onlookers. They arrived at Keith’s Theatre on Garden Pier where the judging was to be held. The 8 Inter-City Beauty Contestants were scrutinized for more than an hour by 5 male judges. The results were to be announced the following night at the Governor’s Ball. 

The next day there was a “Bathers Review” held on the beach. The participants of the review had to march from Garden Pier to Steel Pier (approximately 1,300 feet) wearing “bathing costume” aka swimsuits. This was the birth of the swimsuit competition in the Miss America Pageant. There were 5 categories in which people could enter the competition: Division 1, Organizations; Division 2, Children; Division 3, Men; Division 4, Comic; and Division 5; Beauty. About 100,000 people were in attendance at the Bathers review that day.

Three winners were selected from the Beauty category: Margaret Gorman (Inter-City); Mazie Saunders (armature); and Polly Salisbury, (professional). The three competed head to head for the title of “the most beautiful bathing girl in America” of the very first Miss America. The competition was scored 50% by audience applause and 50% by judge’s choice. The winner was Margaret Gorman, Miss Washington.