As Miss America Turns 100, New Jersey Sorts Through Her Archives

The pageant's archives are housed in a secret storage facility in Atlantic County, the region of its birthplace.

The first Miss America from New Jersey, Bette Cooper, won the crown in 1937. Courtesy of Lake Hopatcong Historical Museum

A group of Atlantic City businessmen launched what became the Miss America pageant on September 8, 1921, in hopes of extending the summer season. It worked—and Miss America has hung around for 100 years, although she left Atlantic City from 2006 to 2013, and again in 2020.

She may have abandoned her home state, but Miss America left behind a trove of pageant-related treasures. Her archives are housed in a secret storage facility in Atlantic County. In partnership with the Miss America Organization, Rowan University will digitally preserve and catalog all the material for research use by students and scholars, assuring Miss America’s immortality (and reminding us that she was a hoarder).

The storage units are crammed with crowns, sashes and program yearbooks with contestant statistics (height, weight, bust, waist and hip measurements). A recent tour revealed a Waterford-crystal scepter, and a judge’s book with contestant headshots and résumés. There were reels of film and videotape, as well as slides stored in carousels and ammunition boxes. There was even children’s merchandise, such as a pink-trimmed lunchbox.

Miss America has changed a lot since the inaugural bathing-beauty competition on the Boardwalk (originally called the Inter-City Beauty Contest). Margaret Gorman, a 16-year-old from Washington, D.C., was selected as the first pageant queen. The official title of Miss America was used the following year.

The annual contests initially focused on “form and face.” The early judges—including such famous illustrators as Howard Chandler Christy, James Montgomery Flagg and Norman Rockwell—were told, “Just judge it.” Rockwell, in his autobiography, recalled: “We gave up trying to figure out a system and resolved to trust our eyes.”

In its heyday, the pageant was an opportunity for young women to establish a public presence and launch a career. Talent competitions were added to veer from the emphasis on physical appearance. To attract “the finest type of American girls,” Miss America also began awarding educational scholarships in 1945.

During pageant week in 1968, demonstrators gathered on the Boardwalk to protest the pageant’s focus on physical beauty. Yet the swimsuit competition was not eliminated until 2018. BeBe Shopp, Miss America 1948, acknowledged: “We have changed and kept up with the young women of this country.”

New Jersey had its first home-grown winner in 1937 when Bette Cooper was chosen Miss America. Post-crowning, she went MIA, returning overnight to Hackettstown. Two days later, her father explained to the New York Times: “She isn’t robust enough for the professional grind.” Though Cooper kept the title, trophy and fur coat, she made no personal appearances.

Forty-seven years passed before another Miss America hailed from New Jersey. In 1984, Suzette Charles of Mays Landing assumed the throne to complete the reign of Vanessa Williams, who resigned over controversial nude photographs. Williams had already made history as the first Black woman to win.

This year’s centennial will be celebrated 254 miles north of Atlantic City at the Mohegan Sun resort in Connecticut. Nonetheless, Atlantic City Mayor Marty Small Sr. tells New Jersey Monthly: “Miss America will always be synonymous with Atlantic City.”

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