Bare Skin! 'Hussies'! Miss America's Scandalous Beginnings

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.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Live Smarter
Working Nights Could Keep Your Body from Healing
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The world we know today relies on millions of people getting up at sundown to go put in a shift on the highway, at the factory, or in the hospital. But the human body was not designed for nocturnal living. Scientists writing in the journal Occupational & Environmental Medicine say working nights could even prevent our bodies from healing damaged DNA.

It’s not as though anybody’s arguing that working in the dark and sleeping during the day is good for us. Previous studies have linked night work and rotating shifts to increased risks for heart disease, diabetes, weight gain, and car accidents. In 2007, the World Health Organization declared night work “probably or possibly carcinogenic.”

So while we know that flipping our natural sleep/wake schedule on its head can be harmful, we don’t completely know why. Some scientists, including the authors of the current paper, think hormones have something to do with it. They’ve been exploring the physiological effects of shift work on the body for years.

For one previous study, they measured workers’ levels of 8-OH-dG, which is a chemical byproduct of the DNA repair process. (All day long, we bruise and ding our DNA. At night, it should fix itself.) They found that people who slept at night had higher levels of 8-OH-dG in their urine than day sleepers, which suggests that their bodies were healing more damage.

The researchers wondered if the differing 8-OH-dG levels could be somehow related to the hormone melatonin, which helps regulate our body clocks. They went back to the archived urine from the first study and identified 50 workers whose melatonin levels differed drastically between night-sleeping and day-sleeping days. They then tested those workers’ samples for 8-OH-dG.

The difference between the two sleeping periods was dramatic. During sleep on the day before working a night shift, workers produced only 20 percent as much 8-OH-dG as they did when sleeping at night.

"This likely reflects a reduced capacity to repair oxidative DNA damage due to insufficient levels of melatonin,” the authors write, “and may result in cells harbouring higher levels of DNA damage."

DNA damage is considered one of the most fundamental causes of cancer.

Lead author Parveen Bhatti says it’s possible that taking melatonin supplements could help, but it’s still too soon to tell. This was a very small study, the participants were all white, and the researchers didn't control for lifestyle-related variables like what the workers ate.

“In the meantime,” Bhatti told Mental Floss, “shift workers should remain vigilant about following current health guidelines, such as not smoking, eating a balanced diet and getting plenty of sleep and exercise.”