The ‘Civic Beauties’ of Atlantic City and the Birthplace of the Miss America Pageant
By Ken Zurski
“It’s corny and it’s basic and it’s American” – Bert Parks, television emcee of the Miss America pageant 1955-1979.
In the early part of the 20th century, John L. Young was an Atlantic City entrepreneur who made lots of money, doled out lots of money, and lived quite comfortably off those who spent their hard earned dollars on his wheeling and dealing. That’s no indictment of the man. Young was a dreamer and had the fortitude to dream big and be rewarded. Call it gumption, not greed. It also helped build a truly unique American city.
Born in Absecon, New Jersey in 1853, Young came to Atlantic City as a youthful apprentice looking for work. Adept at carpentry, he helped build things at first including the infamous Lucy the Elephant statue that still greets visitors today.
The labor jobs were steady and the money reasonable, but Young was looking for something more challenging and prosperous. Soon enough, he befriended a retired baker in town who offered Young a chance to make some real dough. The two men pooled their resources and began operating amusements and carnival games along the boardwalk. Eventually they were using profits, not savings, to expand their business.
The Applegate Pier was a good start. They purchased the 600-plus long, two-tiered wooden structure, rehabbed it, and gave it a new name, Ocean Pier, for its proximity to the shoreline. Young built a nine-room Elizabethan- style mansion on the property and fished from the home’s massive open-aired windows. His daily casts became a de facto hit on the Pier. Young would wave to the curious in delight as the huge net was pulled from the depths of the Atlantic and tales of “strange sea creatures below” were told. The crowds dutifully lined up every day to see it. They even gave it a name, “Young’s Big New Haul.”
Young had bigger aspirations. He promised to build another pier that would cost “a million dollars,” similar in price back then to a Trump casino today. In 1907, the appropriately titled “Million Dollar Pier,” along with a cavernous building, like a large convention hall, opened its opulent doors. It was everything Young had said it would be and more. Elegantly designed like a castle and reeking of cash, Young spared no expense right down to the elaborately designed oriental rugs and velvety ceiling to floor drapery. It was the perfect place to host parties, special events and distinguished guests, including President William Howard Taft who typical of his reputation – and girth – spent most of the time in the Million’s extended dining hall.
Hotel owners along the boardwalk were pleased. Pricey rooms were always filled to capacity and revenues went up each year. Young had built a showcase of a pier and thousands came every summer to enjoy it. But every year near the end of August there was a foreboding sense that old man winter would soon shut down the piers – and profits.
There was nothing business leaders could do about the seasonal weather. In fact, the beginning of fall is typically a lovely time of year on the Jersey Shore. But Labor Day is traditionally the end of vacation season. In the early 1920’s, by mid-September, the boardwalk and its establishments would become in essence, a ghost town. Something was needed to keep tourists beyond the busy summer season.
A man named Conrad Eckholm, the owner of the local Monticello Hotel, came up with plan. He convinced other business owners to invest in a Fall Frolic, a pageant of sorts filled with silly audience participation events like a wheeled wicker chair parade down the street, called the Rolling Chair. It was so popular, someone suggested they go a step further and put a bevy of beautiful young girls in the chairs. Then an even more ingenious proposal came up. Why not make it a beauty or bathing contest?
Immediately the call went out. Girls were wanted, mostly teenagers and unmarried. They were to submit pictures and if chosen receive an all-expense paid trip to Atlantic City for a week of lighthearted comporting. The winner would get a “brand new wardrobe,” among other things. The entries poured in and by September of 1921, the inaugural pageant was set. Typical of his showmanship and style, John Young offered to host the event at the only place which could do the young ladies justice – The Million Dollar Pier.
The term Miss America came shortly thereafter. The hotel owners suggested the local newspaper sponsor the event as a way of increasing circulation and a reporter for the Atlantic City Press when asked, piped up: “And we will call her Miss America.” Whether he knew the term “Miss United States” had already been used at a beauty pageant in Colorado is not known. Perhaps “Miss America” was his first choice all along. Regardless, the name was perfect. But it didn’t catch on at first. Due to the uncertainty of national acceptance, the pageant was first billed as the “Inter-City Beauty Contest” and for many years the girls were referred to only as “civic beauties.”
The inaugural pageant in 1921 was less than stellar, run on the cheap, and rather bland. The girls frolicked and blended in with large crowds, but got little attention. Even the excitement of the first bathing suit competition was diminished by the fact that everyone was out enjoying the summer-like weather and wearing wet suits like the contestants. The “civic beauties” suits by comparison – covering up skin just above the kneecap – were no more revealing than other more refined patrons on the boardwalk.
The first winner was Margaret Gorman, Miss Washington (D.C.), who was just a week over 15-years-old and still today is the shortest Miss America at 5 foot 1 inch.
Sweet little Margaret apparently dominated the others with her downhome goodness and delightful personality. The judges, under no pretense, had picked sugar over salt, was the consensus.
That’s because the expected front runner, an older, more mature and “flashier” woman named Virginia Lee – who was voted “most charming professional” in a subordinate contest – had all the attributes considered to be a shoo-in at today’s competition.
In 1921, she was hardly in the mix.
Gorman’s surprise victory set the standard for the next several pageants to come. Young girls, exuding charm, cutesy smiles, and solid moral upbringings passed the judges litmus test and scored big. It was the early 1920’s after all. Women’s liberation and feminism was beginning to beckon, but still not widely accepted. Innocence, not independence, won beauty pageants.
The show’s production values, however, went through a major overhaul. It was decided a mascot, symbol, or face of the competition was needed. So King Neptune, God of the Sea, became a pseudo master of ceremonies and followed the ladies to each competition. The man who played the King was reportedly hired because he had the white hair and beard, but was said to be so short-tempered, lookouts were hired to calm any stormy rages.
More contests were added including the “questions round,” an “evening costume party,” and that interminable Rolling Chair parade which lasted two hours and was the highlight of the week. The bathing suit completion, however, continued to be like a day at the beach, with everyone on hand, even the police officers, dressed for a dip in the choppy water.
In 1927, the sixth year, the pageant took an unexpected turn. The girl who won it was an unsuspecting charmer from Illinois, Lois Delander of Joliet, the 17-year-old daughter of a city clerk.
Delander had her high school ballet teacher to thank for encouraging her to compete for a spot locally. The Illinois judges were easily impressed. Lois had intellect and beauty. She was an honor student who studied Latin and was said to be a whiz at music memory games. She was also straight as a ruler. “My lips have never touched coffee or tea,” she told them. Five feet four-and-a-half inches tall and slender for the time, she had sparkling blue eyes and blond “un-bobbed” hair.
“She never smoked,” the papers read.
Delander was soft spoken and quietly motivated. Unlike other contestants, expectations in her own mind were low for the national competition. She didn’t think she had a chance to win and vowed to make it a learning experience instead. “It’s all like a wonderful dream,” she politely told reporters shortly after arriving. “This is the first time I have seen an honest-to-goodness ocean.”
But the excitement didn’t last. She sorely missed home. She missed her family, her school and her classmates. Refusing to quit, however, Delander endured the week with grace, but never considered herself a front runner. On the night of the big announcement she packed her suitcase early and prepared to leave soon after another girl was crowned.
This is not to say that the Delander had a bad week. She was a delight to the judges and as one onlooker described, quite amorously, “looked great in a red and blue swimsuit.” During the question and answer session Delander was asked what she wants to do with her life. “I wish to be an artist,” she proclaimed. The humble response came after nearly half of the other girls said they wanted to be an aviator and “hero,” like Charles Lindbergh, who had just made an unprecedented solo jaunt over the Atlantic in May of that same year. (Apparently Amelia Earhart – who would be lost forever in a solo flight ten years later – wasn’t the only woman who had such lofty aspirations).
Yes, in fact, Lois Delander, Miss Illinois, had a very good week indeed. And although she may not have known it, or cared, she was very much in the running to be the next Miss America. Despite this fact, she packed her bags for an early exit.
As dozens of hopefuls stood on stage, two cards were drawn out of the weirdly symbolic “Golden Apple” shaped container. Five finalists had already been chosen and Delander was one. The five girls stood shoulder-to-shoulder in anticipation as the top two names were read aloud. The first name called was Miss Dallas, she was the runner up. The next name was the winner: Lois Delander.
Surprised, Delander smiled and accepted the award. She clearly didn’t mind the accolades, despite the reservations. “I am so excited that I cannot say much,” she told the press. “I want to thank the pageant committee for the kindness they have shown me. I shall try all through the year to do honor to the title which I bear.” She meant it. That was expected of her. But her next comments came straight from the heart. “Now I must rush home and take up my studies,” she said. “You see I’m a junior in high school and certainly want to finish my course.”
And she wasn’t kidding.
The next day, possibly that very evening, Delander and her chaperone mother were steaming by rail back to Joliet. Goodbye Atlantic City.
And, at least initially, goodbye to the Miss America pageant.
After Delander’s victory, the hotel owners association met again and decided by an overwhelming majority to shut the beauty contest down. While their initial reasons for starting such an event was to encourage more traffic through their doors, the clientele was not to their liking. They preferred patrons that spent more money. But that was just their pocketbooks talking. The most glaring concern was in the pageant itself, specifically the girls and their attitudes. Delander, of course, was the exception, but many of the participating “beauties” were stretching their womanly limits, or at least what was expected of them, by pushing away proprietary attitudes and liberating themselves from male seniority. Basically, they were demanding more rights and engaging in mostly male activities – like smoking. As one historian put it, the 1920’s woman was “frank, socially liberated, hedonistic, and reckless.” The friendlier side of Atlantic City, with the beaches, amusements and carnival atmosphere, looked bad because of it, the hotel owners surmised.
The hammer continued to fall in 1927 when the previous year’s winner refused to show up and give away her title because pageant officials wouldn’t pay her an appearance fee. Norma Smallwood from Tulsa was everything pageant officials feared in a beauty queen: a firecracker who could exploit it. After winning the crown, Smallwood reportedly used her status to milk big cash rewards, possibly out earning Babe Ruth by some estimates. She flat out refused to show up in Atlantic City the following year unless she was paid. In quick order, the hotel owners denied the request. Then they set out to stifle any future covetous acts. They started this madness, they clamored, so they could stop it.
So they did.
But America didn’t want it to go away. Delander was a popular winner and beauty pageants across the country were gaining notoriety and more interest. The one in Atlantic City was easily the most recognizable until it abruptly went away.
Lois Delander went back to Joliet after her 1927 victory and was treated like a movie star in her hometown. Naturally, she did her diligent best to live up to the crown’s duties although back then the Miss America title didn’t come with the same prestige and year-round personal obligations as it does today. Still, thanks to the pageant shutdown, she holds the dubious distinction of having the longest reign, five years.
In 1933, the five year hiatus ended. The Miss America pageant was revived by the mayor and City Council of Atlantic City. The hotel owners still refused to support it and watched in delight as a hastily planned and shoddy production almost brought the whole enterprise down for good. The girls were engaging, but beat down physically. Many were handpicked at amusement parks across the country and sent on a whirlwind seven-week promo tour before arriving in New Jersey. By the time the pageant started, they were visibly exhausted. At the Ritz-Carlton where the contestants stayed, sleep deprivation turned into giddy playfulness and some of the more plucky girls were asked to tone it down a bit. The winner, 15-year-old Marian Bergeron of Connecticut, perhaps the most demure of the bunch, later admitted, “If I would have been a little bit older, I think I would have had a ball.”
The pageant went on hiatus for a second time and was revived again in 1935 after just a year off. And again it was a rough go. That year’s winner was a high school dropout named Henrietta Leaver who worked at a dime store and had modest desires. She hoped to find “a full-time job” for her efforts.
The next year, pageant officials made the girls ride bicycles down the pier. Apparently they forget to ask if any of the girls had actually been on a bicycle before. Many didn’t, and fell off. Some cried and vowed to quit but a former contestant got in their faces. Buck it up, was her implication. “I know it’s hard, but you got to learn to take it. It’s part of the contest.”
But it was obvious something needed to change. The next year, in 1937, after a complete revision, the pageant gained its footing and never looked back. For more than six decades it was held in September in Atlantic City as the term “September Girls” took root.
Then in 2006, due to a change in television rights, it was moved to a January date and broadcast from Las Vegas. In 2013, it was moved back to Atlantic City and returned to its usual spot in September (Update: In 2019, the pageant was renamed Miss America 2.o and the 2020 competition will air from the Mohegan Sun Casino in Uncasville, Connecticut on Thursday, December 19th on NBC).
In Atlantic City , the original host venue, the Million Dollar Pier, is gone by name. A half-mile long pier still stands but with a new title, it’s third, The Pier Shops at Caesars Atlantic City, an 80-store shopping mall.
John L. Young’s original structures were damaged by fire and demolished in the early 80’s. In its heyday, however, the palatial showcase was so popular many people gave the man who built it the honor of having his name forever stamped to its lore. Still today, it’s referred to as Young’s Million Dollar Pier or Captain Young’s Million Dollar Pier.
(Sources: There She Is, Miss America: The Politics of Beauty, and Race and in America’s Most Famous Pageant ; There She Is: The Life and Times of Miss America by Frank Deford; Chicago Daily Tribune, September 10,11,12, 1927; Peoria Evening Star Sept 10, 1927.)
2 thoughts on “The ‘Civic Beauties’ of Atlantic City and the Birthplace of the Miss America Pageant”
February 10, 2016 at 5:02 pm
Love this “Unremembered History! It is always fascinating and so well written! Interesting and enjoyable. Looking forward to more!
February 10, 2016 at 10:26 pm
Thank You! I enjoy doing them.