First Miss America Is Crowned Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

In the resort community of Atlantic City, New Jersey, the first and most prestigious continuing beauty contest selected a young woman embodying the ideal of an American woman. Her title was Miss America.

Summary of Event

The idea of the first Miss America pageant began in 1920 in Atlantic City, New Jersey, when H. Conrad Eckholm, Eckholm, H. Conrad owner of the Monticello Hotel, convinced the Business Men’s League to sponsor a weeklong Fall Frolic in an effort to keep tourists at the beach after Labor Day. Some thought the idea was too frivolous, but the first Fall Frolic, which featured the International Rolling Chair Pageant, was held on September 25, 1920. The parade of wheeled wicker chairs lasted one hour and was led by a beautiful woman, Ernestine Cremora. Beauty pageants Miss America pageant Atlantic City Pageant [kw]First Miss America Is Crowned (Sept. 8, 1921) [kw]Miss America Is Crowned, First (Sept. 8, 1921) [kw]America Is Crowned, First Miss (Sept. 8, 1921) Beauty pageants Miss America pageant Atlantic City Pageant [g]United States;Sept. 8, 1921: First Miss America Is Crowned[05450] [c]Entertainment;Sept. 8, 1921: First Miss America Is Crowned[05450] [c]Women’s issues;Sept. 8, 1921: First Miss America Is Crowned[05450] Gorman, Margaret Christy, Howard Chandler Maxim, Hudson Drew, John

Although the Fall Frolic was not a resounding financial success, Sam P. Leeds, president of the Atlantic City Chamber of Commerce, appointed a committee to develop another post-Labor Day celebration for the following September. Thomas P. Endicott, Endicott, Thomas P. who ran a dry-cleaning business, was named director general of the committee; Harry Latz, Latz, Harry whose family ran the Almac Hotel, was appointed vice director general and chairman of the Bathers Review. Harry Godshall, Godshall, Harry one of eight others named to the committee, was made chairman of a beauty contest. The idea of having a beauty contest as part of the second Fall Frolic is credited to Harry Finley, Finley, Harry an Atlantic City newspaperman. Finley proposed that a “photographic popularity contest” be run by newspapers in various cities in the Atlantic City area to increase newspaper circulation. The newspaper would pick a winner from the pictures submitted and buy the winner a wardrobe, and Atlantic City would pay for her transportation and a week at the seashore. Godshell later recalled that Herb Test, Test, Herb a reporter for the Atlantic City Press who had been hired to handle publicity, said that the winner should be called “Miss America.”

King Neptune (Hudson Maxim) and Margaret Gorman, the first Miss America.

(Library of Congress)

The Second Annual Atlantic City Pageant, which featured a “national beauty tournament,” took place on September 7 and 8, 1921, and included a variety of activities and events directed toward attracting large audiences. The title of Miss America would be bestowed on one of the contestants from two other pageants: the Inter-City Contest and the Bathers Review. The Inter-City winners were selected by the individual newspapers: Miss Washington, D.C., Margaret Gorman; Miss Philadelphia, Nellie Orr; Miss Camden, Kathryn M. Gearon; Miss Ocean City, Hazel Harris; Miss Pittsburgh, Thelma Matthews; Miss Harrisburg, Emma Pharo; Miss Newark, Margaret Bates; and Miss New York, Virginia Lee. Ethel Charles, winner of the Atlantic City contest, withdrew from the competition. Winners of the newspaper contests, called the “beauty maids,” arrived in Atlantic City the day after Labor Day, September 6, 1921. The pageant began at 11:00 a.m. on September 7, when Father Neptune arrived at Atlantic City’s Million Dollar Pier.

Father Neptune wore a long white beard and purple robe and carried a trident, and he floated in on his seashell barge accompanied by his “mermaids”: the winners of the Inter-City Beauty Contests. Father Neptune was Hudson Maxim, the eighty-year-old inventor of smokeless gunpowder; he was the star of the pageant. After being presented with the key to the city by Mayor Edward L. Bader, Maxim and the contestants proceeded to Keith’s Theater on the Garden Pier, where the eight contestants were judged by a panel of judges and a capacity crowd. Judges were Howard Chandler Christy, famed artist and chairman of the judges; John Drew, an actor; Gustav Tott, manager of the Ritz-Carlton; W. Gordon Fox, a Philadelphia artist; New Jersey governor Edward I. Edwards; and James Fox, an artist with the Atlantic City Press Union.

Contestants were evaluated only on the beauty of their faces and bodies. Although the judges were allowed to talk with the contestants, personalities were not supposed to affect the balloting. Instead, the judges evaluated the construction of each contestant’s head (fifteen points); eyes, facial expression, torso, legs, arms, hands, and gracefulness (ten points each); and hair, nose, and mouth (five points each). Although the judging was completed in an hour, the name of the winner was not announced until the following evening. The New York Times reported that the choice was between Virginia Lee of New York and Margaret Gorman of Washington, D.C. Audience applause counted just as much as the judges’ scores, and Gorman was clearly the audience’s favorite.





Following the judging, several activities entertained the crowd, which numbered between ninety thousand and one hundred thousand people. The Night Carnival included a two-hour vaudeville show in which King Neptune and the contestants were elevated on a huge platform in full view of the audience. At the end of the show, the young women were introduced to the crowd, and Gorman received a resounding ovation. Following a fireworks display, Neptune and his mermaids traveled on the seashell float to the Steeplechase Pier Ballroom for Neptune’s Frolic, a costume ball.

The Bathers Review took place on September 8, and all public decency laws, including those banning bare knees and skin-tight bathing suits, were suspended for the day. The Bathers Review was divided into several sections: organizations, children, men, and comic. Milton Berle, a contestant in the children’s division, later became a famous comedian. Division number five, the “bathing beauties,” was divided into categories: “professional beauties” (models and actresses), “civic beauties” (amateurs), and the “Inter-City beauties” (those from the newspaper contests). The New York Times reported that one thousand “bathing girls” strolled in the hour-long parade, many with bare legs and wearing “scandalous” one-piece bathing suits. Neptune wore a swimsuit, as did the members of the city council; firemen wore red suits; and policemen sported blue suits. The afternoon featured an eight-mile rolling chair parade along the boardwalk, in which the beauty contestants and others rode in more than five hundred chairs and floats decorated with flowers.

That evening prizes were presented during the Governor’s Ball on the Steel Pier. Margaret Gorman, who had dressed modestly in dark, knee-high stockings, a chiffon bathing costume with tiered skirts that came almost to her knees, and a hat, won her division of the Bathers Review. She also was awarded the title of the “Most Beautiful Bathing Girl in America,” based on the previous night’s judgment. Runners-up were Kathryn Gearon and Virginia Lee. Gorman was crowned with a replica of Lady Liberty’s pronged tiara and enveloped with a coronation robe made from a huge American flag. Her prize was the Golden Mermaid trophy, valued at five thousand dollars; her title was later simplified to Miss America.


Gorman, who had turned sixteen the week before she went to Atlantic City, had been selected from fifteen hundred entrants to represent the Washington Herald. She was just over five feet tall and weighed 108 pounds, making her the smallest of the contestants. Although tiny and girlish in figure (her measurements were 30-25-32), the crowd-pleasing Gorman inspired many Americans, who saw her as an embodiment of the virtues of American womanhood. President of the American Federation of Labor Samuel Gompers told The New York Times that Gorman represented the type of woman that America needs: “strong, red-blooded, able to shoulder the responsibilities of homemaking and motherhood.” Others, looking at her petite figure, sweet smile, blue eyes, and long blond ringlets, saw her as a Mary Pickford lookalike. Pickford, a silent-film star known as “America’s Sweetheart,” was then reaching the height of her popularity.

What started out as a scheme to make money for the business people of Atlantic City developed into an annual, national tradition. People were drawn to Atlantic City by the variety of events, but the gimmick with the most appeal was the beauty contest. Selecting Miss America became a ritual to determine what made a woman beautiful and promoted the unspoken message that achieving a crown for her beauty should be every woman’s primary goal. Beauty pageants Miss America pageant Atlantic City Pageant

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bivans, Ann-Marie. Miss America: In Pursuit of the Crown. New York: Master-Media, 1991. A detailed history of the Miss America pageant from its beginnings.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Deford, Frank. There She Is: The Life and Times of Miss America. New York: Viking, 1971. A history of the pageant by a renowned sports columnist.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Latham, Angela J. “Packaging Women: The Concurrent Rise of Beauty Pageants, Public Bathing, and Other Performances of Female ’Nudity.’” Journal of Popular Culture 29, no. 3 (Winter, 1995): 149-167. A social and cultural slant on beauty pageants.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">“One Thousand Bathing Girls on View in Pageant.” The New York Times, September 9, 1921. A detailed account of the second day of the pageant.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Riverol, A. R. Live from Atlantic City: The History of the Miss America Pageant Before, After, and in Spite of Television. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1992. A history of the 1921 pageant, with events broken down by day.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Watson, Elwood, and Martin Darcy. “The Miss America Pageant: Pluralism, Femininity, and Cinderella All in One.” Journal of Popular Culture 34, no. 1 (June, 2000). A feminist focus on the pageant and female beauty.

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Categories: History