Identity It's not all crowns and gowns

Pageant history: From May Day to Miss USA

From centuries-old May Day festivals in Europe to modern-day pageants around the world, contemporary controversies take center stage along with the ceremonial pomp and splendor.

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The first Miss America beauty pageant was held on Sep. 8, 1921, in Atlantic City, N.J. Source: “American Experience”/PBS

Selecting a local queen (and sometimes king) who represent the ideals of the community has been a custom of May Day festivals in Europe for centuries, but American showman P.T. Barnum, founder of Barnum & Bailey Circus, is credited with launching the modern-day pageant. Barnum’s plan to stage a beauty contest in 1854 met with protest, so he pivoted by using photographs of women, according to The Library of Congress, a practice picked up by newspapers that ran such beauty contests for decades. The modern-day beauty pageant was birthed in 1921 with “Atlantic City’s Inter-City Beauty Contest,” when newspaperman Herb Test dubbed the inaugural contest winner — 16-year-old Margaret Gorman — “Miss America.”  

The Atlantic City pageant grew out of a business idea to keep tourists in town past Labor Day. A PBS “American Experience” report further links the growth in beauty pageants to the growth of the cosmetics industry. Almost a century since the first Miss America was crowned, pageants span the globe and every conceivable interest — and so do the controversies. 

Sources: Cambridge University Press, The Library of Congress, The Culture Vulture magazine, Whitelands College, Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea Library,,, The Oregonian,, The New York Times, Star Gazette, USA Today, PBS, Boston Globe, ABC News, Deutsche Welle

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Joe Mahoney

Joe Mahoney is a National Assigning Editor for Visuals at iPondr. He previously worked as a staff photographer and multimedia editor for the Rocky Mountain News. In 2000 and 2003, he was part of the photo teams at the News that won Pulitzer Prizes for Breaking News Photography. He was the director of multimedia for the PBS affiliate in Denver and started his career with the Associated Press.

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Episode It's not all crowns and gowns