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ontests to determine “who

is the fairest of them all” have been

around at least since ancient Greece

and the Judgment of Paris. Accord-

ing to legend, a poor mortal goatherd,

Alexandros (Paris), was called upon to

settle a dispute among the goddess-

es. Who was the most beautiful: Hera

(Juno), Aphrodite (Venus), or Athena

(Minerva) all three goddesses offered

bribes: according to the writer Apol-

lodorus, “Hera said that if she were

preferred to all women, she would give

him the kingdom over all men; and

Athena promised victory in war, and

Aphrodite the hand of Helen.” When

Paris selected Aphrodite in exchange

for getting Helen of Troy, the most

beautiful mortal of the time, he inad-

vertently started the Trojan War.

While ancient Greeks memorialized

in myth the complicated relationship

between beauty and competition,

there is no historical evidence that

they actually held contests for women.

A “contest of physique” called the Eu-

andria was held yearly at an Athenian

festival - but the contest was for men

-. European festivals dating to the me-

dieval era provide the most direct line-

age for beauty pageants. For example,

English May Day celebrations always

involved the selection of queens.

In the United States, the May Day

tradition of selecting women to serve

as symbols of bounty and community

ideals continued, as young beautiful

women participated in public celebra-

tions. When George Washington rode

from Mount Vernon to New York City

in 1789 to assume the presidency,

groups of young women dressed in

white lined his route, placing palm

branches before his carriage. General

Lafayette’s triumphant tour of the Unit-

ed States in 1826 also was greeted by

similar delegations of young women.

The first truly modern beauty con-

test, involving the display of women’s

faces and figures before judges, can

be traced to one of America’s great-

est showmen, Phineas T. Barnum

(of circus fame). In the 1850s, the

ever-resourceful Barnum owned a

“dime museum” in New York City that

catered to the growing audience for

commercial entertainment. Some of

Barnum’s most popular attractions

were “national contests” where dogs,

chickens, flowers, and even children

were displayed and judged for pay-

ing audiences. While 61,000 people

swarmed to his baby show in 1855, a

similar event the year before to select

and exhibit “the handsomest ladies”

in America proved a disappointment.

The prize - a dowry (if the winner was

single) or a diamond tiara (if the win-

ner was married) - was not enough

to lure respectable girls and women

of the Victorian era to publicly display


Barnum developed a brilliant alter-

nate plan for a beauty contest that