On September 8, 1921, an American teenager received her crown for the first time at the Miss America pageant in Atlantic City, New Jersey, marking the beginning of a cultural phenomenon that would become a cornerstone of American beauty and talent competitions. The pageant was initially conceived as a marketing strategy by local businessmen to extend the summer tourist season. Little did they know that it would evolve into a nationally recognized event.
The first crown went to Margaret Gorman, a 16-year-old from Washington, D.C. She was a strikingly beautiful young woman with a vivacious personality, embodying the ideals of the “New Woman” of the Roaring Twenties. Her victory made her an instant celebrity, and she was widely celebrated in newspapers and magazines.
The Washington Post writes that she was a legend from the get-go.
“As the story goes, a Washington Herald reporter went to the Gorman family’s Georgetown home in August 1921 to announce that Margaret had been selected as D.C.’s emissary to the first-ever “Inter-City Beauty Contest.” But he couldn’t find her at home: Margaret — this “practically perfect” 16-year-old with a “wreath of natural golden hair” and eyes “of a rare deep blue” — was out in the yard, shooting marbles in the dirt with the neighborhood kids.
“Above all,” the Herald rhapsodized, “she is modest and unassuming.”
“Modest” was a funny way to describe a teenager confident enough of her charms to enter several beauty contests that summer. (Weeks earlier, she had been judged the most beautiful girl in town by the rival Washington Post in a separate citywide photo contest.) But it captured something about Margaret’s appeal — and in turn, so much about the impossible ideals upheld by this fledgling pageant not yet known as Miss America, where for the next century young women would try to prove themselves the loveliest, the sweetest, the most talented … yet also the most natural, the most down-to-earth, the most themselves. Where it would become imperative not to seem to try so hard — even though, obviously, they were.”
Gorman’s success as the first Miss America set the stage for the pageant’s continued growth and influence. Over the years, it evolved from a modest seaside attraction into a full-fledged scholarship program and a platform for young women to showcase their talents and promote social causes. The pageant’s mission also shifted to emphasize intelligence, talent, and community involvement alongside beauty.
While the Miss America pageant has seen its fair share of controversies and changes in its nearly century-long history, Margaret Gorman remains a significant figure in the competition’s legacy. Her win in 1921 marked the beginning of a tradition that would continue to evolve and reflect the changing values and aspirations of American society. Today, Miss America continues to celebrate the achievements, intelligence, and charisma of young women across the United States.