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Looking Back Sept. 4

Photo by Vicki Harris

Photo by Vicki Harris

It was 90 Septembers ago when the tradition of selecting a Miss America began. In hopes of prolonging the tourist season past Labor Day, Atlantic City planned a beauty pageant. Here is a look back at this oh-so-American tradition.

1921 - Margaret Gorman - District of Columbia

• In the summer of 1921, Margaret Gorman’s picture was one of approximately one thousand photos entered into a popularity contest held by the Washington Herald. Six remaining finalists were escorted around the city throughout the summer and Margaret Gorman was chosen as the first “Miss Washington, D. C.” The prize for the winner was a trip to the Second Annual Atlantic City Pageant as an honored guest.

• Margaret, along with other “Inter-City Beauties,” arrived in Atlantic City and entered a new event: The “Inter-City Beauty” Contest. It was judged in stylish afternoon attire by the judges, and the public alike, who shared in 50 percent of the final score.

• An immediate hit with the crowds, the “Inter-City Beauties” were later judged head-to-head against two other “Beauty” winners in selected classes of the now famous Bather’s Revue. In this extravagant and much-hyped final event, Margaret Gorman won the Grand Prize: the Golden Mermaid Trophy.

• Upon her return to Atlantic City the following year, Margaret was expected to defend her positions. However, with the Washington Herald having selected a new “Miss Washington, D.C.1922,” Atlantic City Pageant officials didn’t know what new title to award Margaret. Since both titles she won in 1921 were a little awkward (“Inter-City Beauty, Amateur” and “The Most Beautiful Bathing Girl in America”), it was decided to call her “Miss America”. She is the only Miss America to receive a crown at the conclusion of her year.

1922 - Mary Katherine Campbell - Columbus, Ohio

• At 17, Mary Katherine Campbell was crowned “Miss Columbus” before arriving in Atlantic City where the Inter-City competition had grown to include a staggering number of 57 women from around the country. The selection of Miss America had truly become a national event.

• Mary Katherine was the first high school graduate to win the title.

• In 1923, Mary Katherine Campbell returned to defend her title against a field of “Inter-City Beauties” that had grown in number from 57 in 1922, to 74 women from 36 states. Mary Katherine is the only Miss America to win the title twice.

1926 - Norma Smallwood - Tulsa, Okla.

• Norma Descygne Smallwood was the first Native American (Cherokee) to capture the Miss America title.

• Norma became the poster girl for Meadows Washing Machines and Westinghouse Electric, in addition to many others. It was said she made approximately $100,000 during her year.

1927 - Lois Delander - Joliet, Ill.

• Lois Delander was born on Valentine’s Day, and won the Miss America title at age 16 on her parents’ 20th wedding anniversary. As a surprise, her father drove all the way to join his family only to arrive fifteen minutes before she was crowned.

• Lois won a scepter, four trophies, a Bulova watch, an Oldsmobile, and a screen test, which she never took.

1933 - Marian Bergeron -West Haven, Conn.

Marian was crowned Miss America at age 15 1/2. There was so much confusion during and after the vote tabulations that nobody informed Marian she had won. She was unaware of her victory until the dressing assistants placed the banner on her.

1936 - Rose Coyle - Philadelphia, Pa.

• Rose Veronica Coyle already had some professional theatrical experience when, at age 22, she entered and won Miss Philadelphia, which brought her to Atlantic City and her chance at the Miss America title.

• Wearing a short ballet shirt with a white jacket enlivened by huge red polka dots, she sang “I Can’t Escape from You,” and in size 4B shoes, entered into an eight-minute-long rousing tap dance to “Truckin’” which elicited such wild acclaim from the audience that the judges finally agreed to allow Rose an encore - the competition’s first.

1937 - Bette Cooper - Bertrand Island, N.J.

• Bette started pageant competition on the dare of some friends. The first title she won, Miss Bertrand Island, was held at an amusement park.

• After the announcement of her title of Miss America, Bette, having second thoughts about her commitment, took off with her pageant chaperone in a motor boat. The two floated around Atlantic City until the boardwalk crowds dispersed. No other contestant was officially crowned in her absence. She never discussed the topic with anyone thereafter.

1941 - Rosemary LaPlanche - Los Angeles, Calif.

• Rosemary won Miss California 1940 at the age of sixteen (two years too young to actually be eligible under rules implemented in 1938) and proceeded on to the Miss America finals in September. Rosemary was named First Runner-Up to Miss America 1940. The following year, she swept to an easy victory in Atlantic City, still one month shy of even being eligible to compete.

• It was at this point that the pageant instituted a new rule, which remains to this day: No contestant can compete in Atlantic City for the title of Miss America more than once.

1947- Barbara Walker - Memphis, Tenn.

• Barbara Jo, was the last Miss America to be crowned in a swimsuit. She was also the last pageant contestant to represent just a city rather than an entire state (Miss Memphis). .

1949 - Jacque Mercer - Litchfield, Ariz.

• Jacque was the last Miss America to be born somewhere other than a hospital.

• While still holding the title, Jacque married but the union ended very quickly. Pageant officials changed the rules soon after that Miss America was no longer permitted to marry while holding the title.

This ‘n’ That

• In 1938, talent became a mandatory category to win the Miss America title.

• The award for Miss Congeniality began in 1939.

• “War-Time” Miss America Jean Bartel of Los Angeles, California sold more war bonds than any other individual in 1943, two and one half million dollars worth.

• Bert Parks was hired in 1955, beginning his 25-year reign as master of ceremonies. He introduced the theme song, “There She Is” by Bernie Wayne, as 1956 Miss America Sharon Ritchie was crowned.

• From 1957 through 2008, the hair color of Miss America winners included: blonde (27), brunette (12), black (9) and red (3).