Just three days after being declared the “most beautiful bathing girl in America,” Margaret Gorman was holding hands with the President of the United States.  

With one more year of high school still ahead of her, Gorman, 16, had won multiple awards in the Inter-City Beauty Contest, a pageant held on September 7 and 8, 1921, on a pier in Atlantic City. Hundreds of women had submitted their photos to regional newspapers for a chance to be vetted by a panel of judges and a crowd. For the papers, it was a way to increase circulation; for the Boardwalk, a way to keep tourists occupied.

As President Warren G. Harding congratulated her—or, as The Washington Post later reported, “ogled” her—Mrs. Harding looked on, telling the press that the pictures in the papers didn’t do the “little beauty” justice. It helped that the little beauty was a Washington, D.C. native, and had essentially brought the title home.

Unfortunately, reverence for the position of what would become known as Miss America would not last. In the 1920s, the sight of parading, questionably-dressed women in a competition of vanity angered women’s and religious groups; that some contestants turned out to be married was unthinkable.

Gorman smiled and waved. For now, she was proud to be Miss America. By 1928, the title would cease to exist.

Fighting for the Crown (and the Golden Mermaid)

A year prior to Gorman's victory, Atlantic City officials staged a Fall Frolic, a public event meant to keep the local economy pumping after Labor Day. For the 1921 event, newspapers on the East Coast decided to advertise for a paid trip to the Frolic, soliciting photo submissions of striking faces that might keep crowds buzzing on the Boardwalk.

The regional winners were shuttled to the Inter-City contest in September 1921, an elaborate affair that was presided over by famous inventor Hudson Maxim, who wore a King Neptune costume. In the main event, girls from Washington D.C., Pittsburgh, Harrisburg, Ocean City, Camden, and Newark, New Jersey, New York, and Philadelphia were judged on appearance, personality, and their rapport with the judges and the public. Later, a “Bather’s Revue” had the women dress for the beach. Gorman charmed just about everyone there and won several titles, though “Miss America” wasn’t one of them. The unofficial title came a year later, when a new Miss Washington D.C. was crowned and organizers needed another name for their returning champion, who was defending her crown.

In addition to instant celebrity, Gorman took home a Golden Mermaid trophy said to be worth $5000. (It was on loan; she had to give it back the following year.)

The whole affair was tame, even by 1920s standards: To calm pre-show chatter, organizers stressed the women would be wearing minimal make-up and rejecting salaciously-bobbed hair. But controversy was still stirring. Bathing suit designer Annette Kellerman had been arrested in 1907 for indecent exposure. (Her crime: wearing a form-fitting one-piece suit on a public beach.)

Initially, the hand-wringing did little to impact the spreading popularity of the contest. In 1922, Norman Rockwell sat on the judging panel, which was frequently made up of artists; in 1923, winners were announced on national radio; by 1925, a Miss America could earn between $50,000 and $100,000 in appearance fees, more than Babe Ruth's annual income.

Rather than interpreting the event itself as frivolous, however, some observers felt that a woman who would put herself on display must be someone of malleable morality.

Polly Walker, a former pageant contestant, later came out in defense of the criticism. Pageants, she said, made women “selfish. She must think of herself alone. It is ‘I-I-I’ and a frantic desire and greed to win.” Walker explained the hunger for victory was such that one is “willing to wound another girl.”

Adversaries of the pageant had other ammunition, too. In 1923, Miss Alaska was revealed to be married, a blow to the perception that contestants were at least single while flaunting their wares. In 1925, artist Howard Chandler Christy revealed a nude statue he named “Miss America 1925.” It strongly resembled that year’s winner, Fay Lanphier. The idea that Lanphier could sit and pose while undressed (even though she didn’t) raised hackles. So did American Venus, a film released the next year, featuring a plot centered around the pageant and considered tasteless by the standards of the day.

To make matters worse, tabloid editors Bernarr Macfadden and Emile Gauvreau managed to sell 86 different newspapers on an expose that the contest was rigged. Organizers demanded a retraction, as Gauvreau had no proof, but his story had already made the rounds. On the heels of claims from jilted contestants that professional models were making for an uneven playing field—many entrants were literally girls from small towns—the event was reeling. The sensibilities of American culture could no longer tolerate what had become a wildly popular exercise in questionable taste.  

And for the talent portion … 

Lois Delander, the 1927 winner, wound up being the last Miss America for the next six years. Financially, the event was doing very well. But in terms of publicity, it was threatening to blanket Atlantic City with a reputation of being amoral. Of the 30 votes given by organizers of the pageant, 27 decided to close up shop.

Anti-pageant activists were elated. An unsigned editorial in the LaFayette Journal Courier praised the city for ending the “stupid farce”:

The notion that Miss America was to be discovered among the stripped, strutting, smirking array of self-seekers and gold-digging notoriety grabbers…has finally been analyzed…Miss America must be a mincing hussy, personable perhaps, but not quite all there in the intelligence section.

Moral outrage, however, met its match with the 1929 stock market crash. Dizzy from a diseased economy, Atlantic City decided to resurrect the supposed flesh peddling in 1933. There was outcry over another contestant being married; someone else developed appendicitis. The entire affair was hobbled, and the city skipped 1934 before the pageant made a permanent return in 1935. To offset concerns over a shallow pool of contestants, “talent” became a mandatory requirement.

That year’s winner, Henrietta Leaver, performed a tap-dancing routine. A month later, sculptor Frank Vittor debuted a statue in Pittsburgh that Leaver had posed for. Once more, it was nude. Embarrassed, Leaver insisted she sat for Vittor in a swimsuit, grandmother present, and begged a “jury” of Pittsburgh art experts to cover up the statue and preserve her modesty.

They refused. Leaver, they said, was being old-fashioned.

Additional Sources: “Harding Greets Gorman Before Crowd of 10,000,” The Washington Herald, September 12, 1921; “Are Beauty Pageants Harmful?,” The Modesto News Herald, May 27, 1928; “Beauty Pageant Ends Without Any Regrets,” The Call-Leader, March 26, 1928; “When the Sculptor Left Off the Bathing Suit, Prim Miss America Said, ‘Oh!,’” The Salt Lake Tribune, December 1, 1935.