Answer: The Miss America Pageant
The first Miss America pageant—originally called the Inter-City Beauty contest—was held in 1921 in Atlantic City as something of an experiment to attract tourists to the seaside destination after Labor Day. The city had hosted parades of “bathing beauties” throughout the early 1900s, but the pageant was one of the first attempts to organize and market such events. Young women from seven Northeastern cities and Washington, D. C., participated in the first pageant. Contestants were judged solely on looks and the winner, Margaret Gorman of Washington, D.C., received the Golden Mermaid trophy. In 1924, Ruth Malcomson was the first Pennsylvania native to be crowned.
The contest quickly grew in popularity, as well as in controversy. It was discovered that a contestant was married (when the women were supposed to be single) and had misrepresented her home state. In the late 1920s, women’s and religious groups protested the contest, claiming it had loose morals. Because of these protests and financial woes brought on by the Great Depression, the contest went on hiatus and did not crown a winner from 1928-1931.
The pageant underwent several changes in the years following its 1932 resurrection. The age limit of contestants was restricted to women aged 18 to 26. A talent section was added, meaning that the women were no longer to be judged only on their looks. Contestants had to represent states; no longer could they represent cities or businesses, as had been once allowed. In 1945, the Miss America Organization offered its first scholarship, and now is the world’s largest provider of scholarship assistance for young women. As of 2006, the event has been held in Las Vegas, Nevada.
These images and more from the Miss America Pageant in Atlantic City from the early 20th century can be found in HSP's Philadelphia Record photograph morgue (#V07).
Image: Contestants in the 1939 Miss America pageant posing on the Atlantic City beach with "King Neptune," photograph (1939)