by Paul R. Spitzzeri
One of the core elements that makes the 1920s such an appropriate decade with which to end the Homestead’s interpretive era of 1830 to 1930 are the many aspects of life that came into being or developed significantly during that era and which paved the way for future developments, many of which still have a major impact on how we live today.
Consider, for example, the areas of the changing role of women, motion pictures, large migrations of blacks to northern American cities, radio, aviation, the growth of Mexican migrants in this region, electric household appliances, and the increasingly common ownership of the automobile as just some instances.
Sometimes, though, there were new “innovations” that, while showing durability over the decades, have increasingly come into question as attitudes shift and one of these, referencing the role of women in American society then and now, is the concept of the beauty pageant.
A fascinating PBS article from its remarkable “American Experience” series discusses the history of the American beauty pageant, noting that Phineas T. Barnum, of 19th century circus (there’s another long-standing entertainment that has recently been retired because of animal rights concerns and changing tastes) fame tried to institute a “handsomest ladies” contest, but the concept failed to take root. In 1880, a beauty contest was held in a beach resort community in Delaware, but that too was a one-off as Victorian mores remained firm against public display of women’s bodies.
By the early 1920s, however, matters had changed considerably and beauty pageants became more common, especially at resorts where bathing beauty contests were more frequently held. Atlantic City, New Jersey officials, hoping to keep tourists in town beyond Labor Day, the traditional end of summer, began the Miss America pageant in 1921. As the article notes,
Stressing that the contestants were both useful and wholesome, the Miss America Pageant brought together issues democracy and class, art and commerce, gender and sex—and started a tradition that would grow throughout the century to come.
Next year, in fact, marks the centennial of the pageant, which is still held in Atlantic City, while, in the early 1950s, the current Miss USA and Miss Universe contests were launched by a California swim-wear manufacturer. All three were, for almost twenty years owned by the current occupant of the White House.
Over recent decades, particularly with the rise of the feminist movement, increasing scrutiny and criticism of beauty pageants has called into question whether the objectification of women, even with attempts to include more elements regarding the intelligence and accomplishments of contestants, is to be supported by these endeavors.
Today’s featured object (speaking of objectification) from the museum’s holdings is a 28 July 1924 press photograph, issued by Wide World Photos, of the Miss Los Angeles, Lillian Knight. Knight’s selection was tied to another key element of the region during the decade, the burgeoning film industry and its creative processes for marketing and promotion.
In fact, not long after she was crowned, Knight was given a brief uncredited part in a Cecil B. DeMille production for Paramount Pictures, the largest and most prolific of the major studios of the era, Feet of Clay. One source states that she then worked for Mack Sennett Studios during 1924-1925 and made an appearance in a Fox feature in 1927, Stage Madness, though there was an older veteran actress of that name, so there was confusion there.
She also made public appearances at Sid Grauman’s Metropolitan Theater, which opened in Hollywood in January 1923, with the Los Angeles Express of 23 July observing that, as part of some twenty women in a “bathing beauty pageant”:
The most beautiful girl in northern California and the most beautiful girl in Southern California are both in Los Angeles and will display their rare loveliness and charm as the featured beauties in a spectacular review . . . at the Metropolitan next Saturday [the 27th].
The girls are Miss Faye Lamphier, recently chosen at the state beauty contest at Santa Cruz, as “Miss California,” [the Miss California contest began there at the time, as well], and Lillian Knight, chosen Saturday night at Ocean Park [south of Santa Monica] as the winner of the local contest. She was crowned “Miss Los Angeles.” The two girls will be sent to Atlantic City to participate in the National Beauty Contest [the Miss America pageant.]
The photo shown here was utilized in articles in the press through late July and early August in the run-up to the Miss America pageant, which was held on 6 September. A field of contestants was winnowed down to a half dozen, with Knight adjudged the winner of the “western division.”
In the eyes of the judges, however, she was tied for fourth place with Miss Chicago, with the winner being Miss Philadelphia, Ruth Malcomson. Apparently, there was a single judge who voted for Knight to take the crown. She returned to Los Angeles by the end of the month and continue to make public appearances for the remainder of her one-year tenure.
In one notable event, just prior to Thanksgiving, Knight was part of a welcoming crowd when child film star Jackie Coogan, who burst into prominence in Charlie Chaplin’s 1921 hit The Kid, arrived back in Los Angeles after four months abroad “taking food and clothing to the starving children of the devastated regions [perhaps from World War I] abroad.
Coogan, best known to later generations as Uncle Fester in the campy television show, The Addams Family, in the mid-Sixties and who had just turned ten years old, returned with his parents and, after the train pulled into the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe station, the Los Angeles Times reported that the young celebrity disembarked and
totally ignoring the smiles of pretty Lillian Knight who was “Miss Los Angeles” was there to greet him, Jackie made a flying leap into the arms of Marcus Loew [head of what became Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer or MGM Studios], and perched there so full of excitement he couldn’t say anything but “Oh, gee, it’s hot.”
At the end of the year and just prior to Christmas, Knight was present at a notable event in the transportation history of 1920s Los Angeles: the opening of Mulholland Highway. The coverage from the Times included a truly cringe-worthy pun for an introduction: “Appius Claudius in his ‘appiest days—such, for instance, as the historic day on which they named the Appian Way [from Rome to Brindisi in southeastern Italy] in his honor—never saw such doin’s as will celebrate the dedication, opening and acceptance of the Mulholland High Way . . .”
The honoree, Los Angeles Bureau of Water Works and Supply chief engineer William Mulholland the hero of the Los Angeles Aqueduct, but four years later to be largely vilified for the collapse of the St. Francis Dam, which he designed, was joined by Mayor George Cryer and a host of other regional worthies.
The Times added that “at a given signal, Miss Los Angeles and an escort not yet named will burst through the tissue, bearing a banner on which will be inscribed ‘From Los Angeles to her 1,250,000 citizens.” It went on to note that “troops of Mexican and Indian riders, typifying the early history of the country through which the highway passes, will follow, opening wide the portal.” Who these natives and Latinos were was, of course, not explained.
This photo is a reflection of the growing popularity of women’s beauty pageants (limited, of course, strictly to white women) in 1920s America and is a reference point for the evolving industry of these events, including contemporary critiques about why they are still being held.