The First Miss America

I apologize for the complete silence here over the last couple weeks.  Just over two weeks ago I got sick and had been sleeping pretty much non-stop, causing me to miss the post on the 23rd.  Last week, I was still sick and was also recovering from Thanksgiving, so last week I missed as well.  I should’ve said something, but… Too late now.  Sorry.

I’ve been thinking of doing this person for a while now.  She came up when I was looking at Pinterest for neat old photos of people that might work.  I’d started research before I got sick, but hadn’t finished.  I’ve been finishing this week and came across a quote of hers that she “never cared to be Miss America.  It wasn’t my idea.  I am so bored by it all.  I really want to forget the whole thing” (1).  At that point I was running out of time for a post for today.  I stuck with her, but I admit it feels a little weird since I picked Margaret Gorman precisely because she was the first Miss America, and here I’m finding out she later didn’t like it…  So there’s information here about her, but also about the first year or so that “Miss America” existed.  Hopefully Margaret wouldn’t hate that so much.

Margaret_Gorman_cropped.pngMargaret Gorman was born August 18, 1905.  She was the second child in her family; she had an older brother, and a younger brother and sister.  Her father, Michael J. Gorman, was the executive clerk to the Secretary of Agriculture (I’m not sure which one though).  Margaret’s family lived in Georgetown, in Washington, D.C., near Montrose Park.  She would continue to live in D.C. for her whole life.

When Margaret was between her sophomore and junior years in high school at Western High School (now the Duke Ellington School of Arts), her photo was entered into a popularity contest run by the Washington Herald.  Margaret had blue eyes and blonde ringlets; her looks were compared to those of the actress Mary Pickford.  Margaret was chosen as one of the finalists for the Washington Herald’s contest, and, with the other finalists, was toured around the city before a winner was chosen.

Margaret was chosen as Miss Washington, D.C., for 1921, “due to her athletic ability, past accomplishments, and outgoing personality” (2).  When she was notified that she’d won, and would be competing in a contest in Atlantic City, she was at a park playing marbles in the dirt.

In 1920 Atlantic City had been trying to figure out how to keep tourists in the city after Labor Day, which was the traditional end to the summer holidays.  What the city came up with was the Atlantic City Pageant.  Miss Atlantic City, Ethel Charles, acted as the hostess for the pageant, a tradition that would continue for years.  Margaret was invited to the Second Annual Atlantic City Pageant as Miss Washington, D.C., to compete over the September 7th and 8th weekend.

The Pageant was kicked off by a parade and the actual competition part of the weekend started “by the arrival of King Neptune on a barge that landed at the Atlantic City Yacht Club” (3).

Margaret was going to be competing in the “Inner-City Beauty” contest, competing against seven other finalists from cities in the northeastern United States.  The contestants for Miss Inner-City Beauty were “judged in stylish afternoon attire by the judges”, as well as by the public “who shared in fifty percent of the final score” (4).  The public crowded the contestants, asked them questions and tried to get to know them.  While this was definitely a beauty contest, personality did play a part when talking with the public.

Margaret_Gorman_first_prize_beauty_Altantic_CityOne of the other titles up for grabs was “The Most Beautiful Bathing Girl in America”, so of course the contestants were in bathing attire.  Some of the contestants “violated a local modesty ordinance by appearing barelegged on the beach” (5).  Margaret, though, “wore dark, knee-high stockings and a chiffon bathing costume with a tiered skirt that came almost to her knees” (6).

For the announcement of a winner, the contestants were “escorted and presented on the stage of the Keith Theatre on the Garden Pier” (7).  There were multiple prizes being awarded in the Inner-City Beauty contest.  Miss Washington, D.C., Margaret, won the amateur prize, the Watkins Trophy; Miss South Jersey, Kathryn M. Gearon, came in second, winning one hundred dollars in gold.  There was also a professional prize awarded to the silent film actress, Virginia Lee, who was Miss New York.

Miss Washington, D.C., also won The Most Beautiful Bathing Girl in America.  With two titles under her belt, Margaret went on to win the grand prize for the Atlantic City Pageant, The Golden Mermaid Trophy.  She also was given a key to the city that she shared with King Neptune.

Upon winning, one of Margaret’s friends from school back in D.C. sent her a telegram, telling her “Congratulations.  Don’t get stuck up” (8).  Samuel Gompers, the president of the American Federation of Labor, also commented on her win, telling The New York Times “She represents the type of womanhood America needs – strong, red-blooded, able to shoulder the responsibilities of homemaking and motherhood.  It is in her type that the hope of the country rests” (9).

america-1922-margaret-gormanSince she had won the grand prize, Margaret was expected to defend her title the next year.  However, the Washington Herald had already named its new Miss Washington, D.C., for 1922, so Margaret could no longer use that title.  The titles she had won in Atlantic City (Miss Inner-City Beauty, Amateur and Most Beautiful Bathing Girl in America) were long, clunky titles.  The Atlantic City committee wanted something easier to call Margaret, and decided on Miss America.

This first Miss America title is funny.  Because of all the confusion over who had what title, and what those titles all were, causing confusion about what to call Margaret, Margaret was crowned 1921’s Miss America at the end of her year, in 1922.  This made her not only the first Miss America, but the only Miss America to receive her crown at the end of her reign.

Margaret did compete in 1922, defending this new, but yearlong, title.  She was still popular with the crowds, who still compromised half the vote.  However, Margaret didn’t successfully defend her title, losing her crown to Miss Ohio, Mary Campbell.  Mary Campbell went on to successfully defend her title in 1923, making her the only two time winner of Miss America.

As well as being the first, Margaret set other Miss America records.  She was just 5’1” and 108lbs, making her the smallest Miss America winner.  (In 1949, Jacque Mercer, Miss Arizona, became the lightest Miss America at just 106lbs, but was two and a half inches taller than Margaret.)  Margaret is also the slimmest Miss America with measurements of just 30-25-32 (of course this is helped by the fact that Margaret was just sixteen when she won).

Over most of its run, the Miss America contest has been heavily criticized as a beauty pageant and for having women on parade.  This is something that started almost right at its creation.  Throughout the 1920s the contest was protested and so the early organizers “presented the contestants as natural and unsophisticated, stressing their youth and wholesomeness.  Publicity stressed that they did not wear make-up nor bob their hair” (10).

Margaret competed for a few more years in the 1920s in Atlantic City, but never won anything again.  In 1925 she married Victor Cahill, who worked in real estate.  They lived in D.C. together until Victor’s death in 1957.  Margaret became something of a socialite over the years, and enjoyed travelling throughout her life.

As the years went on, Margaret tried to distance herself from Miss America and from having been a beauty queen.  As the quote at the beginning says, Margaret “never cared to be Miss America.  It wasn’t my idea.  I am so bored by it all.  I really want to forget the whole thing” (11).  She also said “My husband hated it … I did too” (12).  In 1960, Margaret was persuaded to attend that year’s competition, but “later called the organizers cheap for not reimbursing her for $1,500 in expenses” (13).

Despite all that, Margaret did keep her outfit from her winning year: a sea green chiffon and sequined costume.

Margaret Gorman Cahill died on October 1, 1995 at age 90.

I admit, I don’t know how to feel about Miss America.  Part of me loves it because it’s a competition and you can see all the gorgeous clothes they get to wear and some of the talents the women have are neat.  But part of me hates it because it is just a beauty contest, ultimately, and it presents such a narrow idea of what beauty is.  I think the inception of the contest is interesting though, that it was a popularity and beauty contest, first won by a high schooler.  That it was seen as this all-American, “red-blooded” thing, like Samuel Gompers said.

I also find it really interesting because of when it was created.  The 20s are one of my favorite periods to read about and study.  The rise of the beauty industry, the new ideals of femininity, the higher waistlines, the rush forward into modernity after the Great War.  It seems appropriate that Miss America was born out of this decade.

1, 2, 11 – Margaret Gorman

3, 9, 10 – People & Events: The First Miss America Beauty Pageant, 1921

4, 7 – 1921: Margaret Gorman

5, 6, 12, 13 – Robert McG. Thomas Jr., “Margaret G. Cahill, 90, Is Dead; Was First Miss America, in 1921,” The New York Times, October 5, 1995.

8 – Margaret Gorman: First Miss America and Washingtonian


2 thoughts on “The First Miss America

    • I’m so sorry for the delayed response! The blog’s been on a bit of a hiatus while I’ve been dealing with some family matters. Your aunt seems like a very interesting person from the little I know, and I would definitely be interested in hearing more about her! If you have an email address I can contact you at (I see the one you used for your comment), I can contact you to hear more. Thank you so much for reaching out about your aunt! ~Bronwyn


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