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Margaret Gorman: Washington Teen Is The First Miss America

Explore the captivating journey of Margaret Gorman, the first Miss America from Washington, D.C. in 1921. Discover her life, achievements, and legacy.
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In 1921, a 16-year-old girl from Washington, D.C. made history when she won the first Miss America pageant in Atlantic City. Though the beauty pageant seems irrelevant today, it was a big deal back then. This is the story of how a local teenager became the nation’s premier beauty queen.

Early Life in Washington, D.C.

The future Miss America was born in 1905 in Washington, D.C. to parents Michael and Mary Gorman. Her father was an Irish immigrant who worked as a clerk for the Secretary of Agriculture. Her mother Mary also hailed from Ireland. The Gormans made their home in the historic Georgetown neighborhood, renting a house on Cambridge Place.

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The young girl was the second oldest of five lively children. She attended the local Western High School, where she stood out as one of the more popular and fashionable students. Western High School later became what is now known as the prestigious Duke Ellington School of the Arts. But back then, it was the neighborhood school educating the youth of Georgetown.

Gorman family in the 1920 U.S. Census
Gorman family in the 1920 U.S. Census

Winning Miss Washington, D.C.

In 1921, she decided to enter a citywide popularity contest run by The Washington Herald newspaper. The winner would get a free trip to Atlantic City to compete in the 2nd Annual Atlantic City Pageant. The teenager’s photo was chosen as one of six finalists. Judges from local society organizations interviewed the girls at the Arts Club of Washington. They deemed her the most charming, and she won the title of Miss Washington, D.C.

Margaret Gorman in 1921 (Library of Congress)
Margaret Gorman in 1921 (Library of Congress)

Becoming a Celebrity

Winning the Miss Washington, D.C. title catapulted her to instant celebrity status locally. In just the week leading up to her trip to Atlantic City, she received an overwhelming amount of attention and gifts from admirers.

Local businesses showered her with free fancy clothes and accessories to wear at the national pageant. Influential government officials invited her to dine with them at elite venues. She even scored an invitation to the White House to meet President Warren G. Harding and First Lady Florence Harding.

When the day came for her to depart for Atlantic City, throngs of fans flocked to Union Station to catch a glimpse of their hometown beauty queen. As she prepared to board the train, hundreds eagerly waved and cheered to wish her luck in the Miss America competition. She had become the most famous girl in Washington virtually overnight.

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Competing in Atlantic City

In Atlantic City, crowds actively clamored to catch a glimpse of her, treating her like a star. The pageant featured small contests open to all participants, and one major “inter-city” contest for newspaper contest winners. Wearing a modest two-piece bathing suit, she actively won the title of “The Most Beautiful Bathing Girl in America.” Even though she was not the odds-on favorite, the judges appealed to her wholesome look and crowned her the winner.

Portrait of Margaret Gorman, the first Miss America.
Margaret Gorman in 1921 (Library of Congress)

Winning the First Miss America Title

The main event was the “Inter-City Beauty” contest which aimed to select the most beautiful girl out of the eight contestants representing various cities. Pageant organizers determined the winner half based on judge’s scoring and half based on the volume of the audience’s applause. When the D.C. teenager took the stage, she was greeted with thunderous cheers from over 5,000 spectators packed into the music auditorium. The massive crowd wildly screamed and clapped for the charismatic Washington girl. Thanks to their enthusiastic support, the teenager actively won the highest honor of “Inter-City Beauty” and was awarded the sparkling “Golden Mermaid” trophy.

The next year in 1922, she returned to Atlantic City’s pageant not as a contestant, but as a guest of honor. Since she was no longer competing as Miss Washington, D.C, pageant officials awarded her a new title – Miss America. For the first time, she was introduced to the audience and crowned as Miss America. It was the inception of the title that would become the crowning achievement for beauty queens in future decades.

Later Life and Mixed Feelings

She used her scholarship money to attend George Washington University. But later in life, she claimed to have disliked the fame and spotlight. Still, she kept her historic green Miss America dress stored safely away.

Though reluctant, this Washington, D.C. schoolgirl made history in 1921 as the first American beauty queen. Her victory put the Miss America pageant on the map.

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