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1920's - Decade in Review

Margaret Gorman, the first Miss America, 1921
Margaret Gorman, the first
Miss America, 1921
In September 1920, Atlantic City Businessmen staged a "Fall Frolic" to secure summer tourism past Labor Day. This city-wide festival was highlighted by a spectacular rolling chair parade down the famed Atlantic City Boardwalk.

By 1921, East Coast newspapers were looking for ways to increase their circulation. Newspaper organizations decided to sponsor photographic popularity contests from among their readership and awarded their respective winners with an all expense paid trip to the Second Annual Fall Frolic. Once there, frolic organizers placed the young women in an "Inter-City Beauty" contest in which the judging was largely based on their general appeal in appearance, personality, conversations with the judges, and interactions with the crowds. In order to build hype, the women were later put in the running for the Golden Mermaid trophy given to "The Most Beautiful Bathing Girl in America." Margaret Gorman swept both events. By September 1922 she became known as "Miss America." In the ensuing years it would grow and reflect some of the most powerfully held attitudes towards what it meant to be an ideal American woman.

The pageant was a product of its times. In the decades just prior to its creation, there was a marked transformation around women's roles in society. The years from 1900 to 1920 were rich with expanding social, political and cultural activity for women. As America moved headlong from the Victorian to the modern age, a new image for women developed, symbolizing the changing times. According to leading magazines and periodicals of the time, the modern woman was vigorous. She exercised and was encouraged to eat right. This was an unprecedented break from the rigorously controlled physicality prescribed for the ideal 19th century woman, with its emphasis on delicacy and fragility.

The first pageant winner reflected these changes in attitude towards beauty. Margaret Gorman was girlish and wholesome-looking. She also bore a striking resemblance to silent screen star Mary Pickford, who was just achieving fame as 'America's Sweetheart'. Samuel Gompers, head of the American Federation of Labor, noted in the New York Times, "She (Margaret Gorman) represents the type of 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."

Despite the best efforts of the pageant officials, the pageant gained a reputation for being a little risqué. Annual protests from women's and religious groups questioned the morality of a beauty contest that featured bobbed hair and bare limbs. In 1928, the protestors won, and the pageant was discontinued as commercial supporters withdrew in response to accusations that the pageant lacked decorum.

1920's Timeline

September 25th: Atlantic City businessmen stage a "Fall Frolic" in order to attract tourists to the seasonal resort beyond the traditional end of summer, Labor Day. It was a modest success. Decisions were made to increase the number of scheduled public attractions and make it a two-day event the following year.
Margaret Gorman, Miss America 1921 Margaret Gorman
Miss America 1921
At a newspaper circulation manager's meeting in Philadelphia, nine East Coast newspapers decided to hold photographic "popularity contests" from among their readerships to increase their circulations. Subsequent city finalists would be judged on personality and social graces during citywide summer events. They would become known as the Inter-City Beauties. Each individual winner's prize would be an all expense paid trip to Atlantic City's Second Annual Fall Frolic as an honored guest. Jumping on the extra media attention the newspaper contests elicited, frolic organizers decided to include yet another event just for them: the "Inter-City Beauty" contest to be held September 7th. It was judged on 50 percent audience applause and 50 percent judges' decision after a day of mingling with the contestants, and a final appearance on stage. Sixteen year-old Margaret Gorman, "Miss Washington, D.C." (and a Mary Pickford look-a-like) would eventually win the Watkins Trophy in this event. She would also win a trophy for her appeance in the Boardwalk Parade noting her popularity with the crowds of parade-goers. The next day, based on the popularity of the visiting Inter-City Beauties, they were also entered into the Bather's Revue. They competed against the winners of "professional" and "amateur" ranks, representing over two hundred women, for the elusive Golden Mermaid. Riding on a wave of popularity from the previous day, Margaret Gorman won this event, too. Lesser awards to finalists include swimwear and trophies by designer Annette Kellerman, a woman widely known for her scandalous 1907 arrest for indecent exposure. While trying to popularize wearing a one-piece swimsuit with tights instead of the standard bloomers, Annette's involvemet raised many eyebrows.
Mary Campbell, Miss America 1922 and 1923
Mary Campbell
Miss America
1922 and 1923
Over fifty newspapers from across the country sent representatives to compete in the "Inter-City Beauty" contest. The event was extended to three days. With a new "Miss Washington D.C." for 1922 already selected, Margaret Gorman received a new title, "Miss America". She was expected to defend her numerous 1921 laurels as the returning champ. In the end, it was Mary Katherine Campbell, "Miss Columbus" (OH) who was selected to succeed Margaret.
Mary Campbell, Miss America 1922 and 1923
Mary Campbell
Miss America
1922 and 1923
Over seventy entrants competed. It was estimated that three hundred thousand people attended. The event had become so big, results of the prize-winners were later aired nationwide via radio. Although never before seen as a problem, concern arose over the fact that a leading contender for the "Miss" America title was a married woman. With no rule barring her participation, she finished as a runner up. But her inclusion fueled the fire started by women's and religious groups against the competition as lacking in decorum. Mary Katherine Campbell successfully defended her title.
Ruth Malcomson, Miss America 1924
Ruth Malcomson
Miss America 1924
The Newspaper Publishers Association issued a bulletin advising its members to disassociate themselves with the pageant as it has supplied Atlantic City with "the most flagrant use of free publicity." Not one paper backed out. In fact, even more newspapers sent representatives and the new Pageant Director General Armand T. Nichols and his Board of Directors, extended the event to five days. Informal judge's interviews continued as a part of judging in those early years to assess personality and intelligence. Judge's Chairman and famed artist Howard Chandler Christy returned for his fourth straight year to serve in this capacity. Other notable 1924 judges included Norman Rockwell and Earl Carroll. Miss Boston was revealed to be married and placed in the professional division. She sued, but the pageant finally remembered to include a rule barring married women from competing for the Miss America crown. Ruth Malcomson, Miss Philadelphia (PA), would win the honor in a close race with Mary Katherine Campbell, while Miss San Diego, Fay Lanphier, finished third.
Fay Lanphier, Miss America 1925
Fay Lanphier
Miss America 1925
Early in the year, Ruth Malcomson, the 1924 winner, published a stinging article in Liberty Magazine blasting women's groups ("members of coffee klatches and mah jong clubs") for berating her involvement in the competition. She hinted that the women's groups were exploiting her, not the pageant. Pageant organizers accepted a deal with Paramount Pictures to film "The American Venus" with the pageant as a backdrop and its winner assured a starring role. Ruth Malcomson refused to defend her title, claiming that "professionals" were now entering the "Inter-City" competitions. Rules were changed so that no former Miss America winner would be permitted back into the competition. For the first time Miss America received "live" radio coverage. Returning to competition as "Miss California," Fay Lanphier became Miss America 1925. Later that year, former judge, Howard Chandler Christy unveiled a statue called "Miss America 1925." It depicted "a Miss America" in the nude which bore a strong resemblance to Fay. Although he later confessed that Miss Lanphier never posed for him, public outrage became evident. In November, despite unsupportable evidence, The New York Graphic sold syndication rights of an article to eighty-six other newspapers that the 1925 pageant was fixed. The pageant sued for three million dollars, but the damage was done.
Norma Smallwood, Miss America 1926
Norma Smallwood
Miss America 1926
In January, "The American Venus" was unveiled to the American movie-going public. Filled with adult situations and nudity (although not involving Fay Lanphier or other contestants), the pageant's image suffered. At the same time, Miss Lanphier embarked on a successful appearance tour, which would net her $50,000. Surprisingly, attendance at the 1926 pageant was better than ever. In September, the first woman of Native American heritage, Tulsa's Norma Smallwood, would win the crown. She was highly criticized in the press for her business acumen as she proceeded to make approximately $100,000 (an income higher than either Babe Ruth or the President of the United States) through personal appearance fees and product endorsements. Her romance with the son of a prominent Pittsburgh businessman was also highlighted unfavorably in the press.
Lois Delander, Miss America 1927
Lois Delander
Miss America 1927
In September a situation with Norma Smallwood, the 1926 winner, would deal the pageant a public relations nightmare. She requested $600 from the pageant for her appearance in crowning the new winner. When pageant officials could not come up with the money forthright, she left the event to accept a paying job in North Carolina before crowing Illinois' Lois Delander as Miss America 1927. Norma graciously tried to explain her actions, but the press and pageant's stalwart critics had a field day. Miss Delander, a high school student honoring in Latin and a previous award winner for reciting Biblical verses in her hometown of Joliet, was overwhelmed at being chosen the winner. However thankful, she spoke mostly of her worry in missing school, which had already begun back home. After turning down lucrative offers in show business after her reign, she returned quietly home with her parents to continue her studies.

March 3: Unfortunate happenings with the press and ever increasing pressure from women's groups and church officials make pageant organizers fearful that the pageant was beginning to give the city a bad name. Despite a $7,000 profit on the 1927 event alone, they vote 27-3 to discontinue the famed Atlantic City Pageant. The blow was softened with an agreement to look into its return when the vast Boardwalk Convention Hall was opened in 1929 or 1930.

September 22: The New York Graphic printed its retraction that their sources for their November 1925 article on the pageant "proved unreliable."


Boardwalk Convention Hall opened but no pageant was held. Instead another organization in Maryland formed a 'National Beauty Contest" to crown a Miss America. Amid controversy, Lilyan Andrus of Ohio would claim the title.

1922 Contestants, Margaret Gorman on the far right
1922 Contestants, Margaret Gorman on the far right

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