New Jersey 1951: Participants in the "Beautiful Leg Contest" wear pillow cases over their heads so that judges can only see their legs
Beauty pageants have long been a contested part of our culture: some see them as a hangover from a far more patriarchal era, while others defend them for helping women of all ages to feel more confident and to know their self-worth. The main criticism of beauty contests is that they promote an ideal of female beauty to which only a minority of women can realistically aspire, but which adds to the pressure on all women to conform to it. Beauty contests are said to have a western bias to the ideals of beauty. This can be harmful to women by encouraging dieting, eating disorders and cosmetic surgery, or simply by making them feel inadequate and ugly.
Margate, England 1946: This contestant wear a hood for the "Neatest Figure" competition so that the judges do not get influenced by her face.
It is also argued that beauty contests send a wrong message; as they make young people become extremely conscious about outer beauty, when in fact there should be platforms that celebrate inner beauty and a healthy lifestyle. There is no doubt that judging women or anyone for that matter, purely on their physical attributes is demeaning and unacceptable in this day and age.
Los Angeles circa 1930: Ruth Hurschler, a contestant in a "Perfect Back" contest is examined by a chiropractor
In the US, the first truly modern beauty contest, involving the display of women's faces and figures before judges, can be traced to one of America's greatest showmen, Phineas T. Barnum (of circus fame). In the 1850s, the ever-resourceful Barnum owned a "dime museum" in New York City that catered to the growing audience for commercial entertainment. Some of Barnum's most popular attractions were "national contests" where dogs, chickens, flowers, and even children were displayed and judged for paying audiences. While 61,000 people swarmed to his baby show in 1855, a similar event the year before to select and exhibit "the handsomest ladies" in America proved a disappointment. The prize — a dowry (if the winner was single) or a diamond tiara (if the winner was married) — was not enough to lure respectable girls and women of the Victorian era to publicly display themselves.
London, England 1930: A policeman judges an ankle competition
Barnum developed a brilliant alternate plan for a beauty contest that would accept entries in the form of photographic likenesses. These photographs would be displayed in his museum and the public would vote for them. The final ten entrants would receive specially commissioned oil portraits of themselves. These portraits would be reproduced in a "fine arts" book to be published in France, entitled the World's Book of Female Beauty. Barnum sold off his museum before the photographs arrived, but in employing modern technology and in combining lowbrow entertainment with the appeal of highbrow culture, Barnum pioneered a new model of commercial entertainment.
Hollywood California 1955: Green Courtney models a crown, skirt, scarf and bracelets made from hotdogs for the Zion Meat Company.
In the decades to come, the picture photo contest was widely imitated and became a respectable way for girls and women to have their beauty judged. Civic leaders across the country, seeking to boost citizen morale, incorporate newcomers, and attract new settlers and businesses to their communities, held newspaper contests to choose women that represented the "spirit" of their locales. One of the most popular of these contests occurred in 1905, when promoters of the St. Louis Exposition contacted city newspapers across the country to select a representative young woman from their city to compete for a beauty title at the Exposition. There was intense competition and, according to one report, forty thousand photo entries.
Miss Idaho Potato 1935
By the early decades of the twentieth century, attitudes had begun to change about beauty pageants. Prohibitions against the display of women in public began to fade, though not to disappear altogether. One of the earliest known resort beauty pageants had been held in 1880, at Rehoboth Beach, Delaware. However, it was not until the twentieth century that beach resorts began to hold regular beauty pageants as entertainments for the growing middle class. In 1921, in an effort to lure tourists to stay past Labor Day, Atlantic City organizers staged the first Miss America Pageant in September. Stressing that the contestants were both youthful and wholesome, the Miss America Pageant brought together issues of democracy and class, art and commerce, gender and sex — and started a tradition that would grow throughout the century to come. Beauty contests became popular in both North America and Europe and later spread to other parts of the world.
The Blueberry Queen 1955
A peek into some of the beauty contests of the past seem downright bizarre now. The food industry was especially notorious for associating their products to beauty queens - a successful, but nonetheless a demeaning piece of marketing. Perhaps this said something about the attitudes of the broader society back then, not just the promoters. Thank goodness we have moved on and do not treat people, especially women as mere objects of adornment.
The Donut Queen 1958