The Miss America pageant this year abandoned Atlantic City for Las Vegas, forsaking splash for flash. Profit trumps tradition and eight decades of history are gone with barely a whimper.
For most of the twentieth century, beauty pageants were a fixed element of American and European beach life. Atlantic City set the standard. Did you know that the Miss America pageant was initiated in 1921 by business and civic leaders as a promotional gimmick to entice tourists to stay after Labor Day? Did you know that there are some who claim the modern beauty pageant actually began in Rehoboth Beach in 1880?
Supposedly, Rehoboth’s pageant was called the “Miss United States” contest and Thomas Alva Edison was one of three judges. PBS in its history of the American beauty pageant and the Delaware Historical Society both report this contest. PBS even goes so far as to proclaim the Rehoboth pageant to be the forerunner of the Miss America pageant.
I’m skeptical. Rehoboth, after all, wasn’t even established until 1872. And, it wasn’t really a tourist destination – it was a Methodist camp meeting. These folks came to pray and invigorate their spirits by the sea, not to ogle women in bathing suits. And, really, why would Thomas Edison be in Rehoboth?
I called the Delaware Historical Society. The claim is based on what the Historical Society refers to as a “good source” that has been proven out over time. But they’re beginning to question the validity of the claim because recent scholars have been unable to find solid evidence of such a pageant.
I snooped a little more. Seems a man named Frank Deford wrote a history of the Miss America pageant back in the 70’s. Deford claims that a Miss Myrtle Meriwether of Shinglehouse, Pennsylvania, was named Miss United States in the first beauty pageant ever held in the U.S., which took place in Rehoboth Beach in 1880.
Deford attributed his story to a Colonel Henry W. Shoemaker, of Altoona, Pennsylvania, a self-described former president of the American Folklore Society, whose headquarters are at the University of Pennsylvania. The Folklore Society, however, reports that Shoemaker was never a president of the Society, just an antiquarian who was sometimes sloppy in his research.
So, nobody is sure this pageant happened. Yet, the myth continues.
Since 1966, Rehoboth has been home to the Miss Delaware pageant, which is part of the Miss America family. If you’re interested, portraits of all of Delaware’s winners can be seen in City Hall. The hairstyles are incredible. But you’d better hurry, because I’ve heard that, like Miss America, the state pageant is moving to that gambling mecca Dover Downs.
In some ways I’m not surprised by Miss America’s move to Vegas or Miss Delaware’s move to Dover. These pageants, as well as the Miss USA pageant and the Miss Universe pageant, may have started as a celebration of the “All American Girl” – beauty, grace, artistic, and refined. But today the contestants look like show girls and all anyone cares about are big boobs.
In Rehoboth today it seems that all anyone cares about is big bedrooms. 5 bedrooms to be precise. Who needs porches or a nice dining room? In Rehoboth, it’s all about the beds, baby. Pack ‘em in and rent ‘em out.
One by one it seems like the town’s classic old beach houses are being torn down and replaced with over-built show houses with big boobs (I mean, bedrooms) and mouths full of white plastic. There’s a behometh on Sussex Street that covers every inch of the lot! And, you can’t miss the big Mediterranean on Silver Lake Drive flashing her ample fanny to every passerby. A couple of plastic gals on Oak Avenue would look much better in Gaithersburg, Maryland. And the yellow number on upper Columbia Avenue with the brassy balustrades all across the front. Why she’s enough to make Ethel Merman blush.
I know there are some very nice houses being built in Rehoboth, new homes that fit in with the character of the town. But when I see some of the “show girls” around town, I can’t help but wonder what kind of pageant we’re putting on in Rehoboth? What are our standards of beauty? And like the mystery of the Miss United States pageant, will we be wondering one day why some of this stuff was ever built